Imagining Refugia: thinking outside the current international migration regime

Dr. Nicholas van Hear, Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS), University of Oxford

The refugee and migration summits in the US in September 2016 rounded off no less than seven major international meetings in 2016 that set out to address the refugee and migrant crisis of recent years, resulting in the prospect of ‘Global Compacts’ to promote ‘safe, orderly and regular migration’ for refugees and migrants by 2018.  While the aims and sentiments articulated were worthy and worthwhile, many lack confidence that such summitry holds promise of real progress, nor that the three traditional ‘durable solutions’ (local integration, resettlement and return) can address the challenge on the scale needed.  

This presentation takes as a starting point various recent proposals that depart from the usual three ‘durable solutions’ and the current international mobility architecture, and that think about alternatives.  There are several strands to consider, derived from different ideological stances, including charter and sanctuary cities, and ideas for safe areas, enclaves or special zones for refugees and migrants. One prominent set of proposals explores the idea of new nations, cities or polities for refugees and migrants.  These suggestions – particularly the idea of ‘refugee islands’ – have usually been ridiculed as fantasies by the refugee commentariat.  But perhaps such seemingly outlandish proposals should not be dismissed out of hand.  After reviewing these proposals that largely fall outside the current international mobility regime, I explore the possibility not of a new ‘refugee nation’, but rather a new kind of transnational polity – Refugia – that would be governed by refugees and migrants themselves, and which would link refugee and migrant communities globally. 

In an exercise that I term pragmatic utopianism, I argue that such a transnational polity is already imperfectly prefigured in many of the transnational practices that refugees and migrants deploy and the environments in which (sometimes in alliance with sympathetic ‘host’ citizens) they find themselves today.  Camps and communities in countries neighbouring conflicts, neighbourhoods in global cities, transnational political practices and money transfers, emergent communities and activities in disparate locations en route: all are fragments that taken separately do not seem to promise much. But in the aggregate and cumulatively they could add up to Refugia, imperfectly prefigured. Consolidating them somehow into a common polity might prove to be a way out of the current impasse.



About the speaker

Nicholas Van Hear is Deputy Director of the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) and a Fellow of St Cross College, University of Oxford. With a background in Anthropology and Development Studies, he works on forced migration, conflict, development, diaspora, transnationalism and related issues, and has field experience in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, North America and Europe. His books include New Diasporas: the mass exodus, dispersal and regrouping of migrant communities (1998), The Migration-Development Nexus (2003), and Catching Fire: Containing Forced Migration in a Volatile World (2006). His main theoretical and conceptual contributions have been on force and choice in migration; migration and development; diaspora formation and engagement in conflict settings, including post war recovery; and migration and class. He is currently developing research on the interplay between geopolitical shifts, mobility, immobility and political mobilisation.



Venue: UNU-MERIT, Conference room 0.16-0.17

Date: 08 June 2017

Time: 12:00 - 13:00


UNU-MERIT