Review of Betts and Collier on refugees

by Chris Bertram on August 30, 2017

I have a review of Andrew Betts and Paul Collier, Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System (Allen Lane) in The New Humanist. It is a curious book, with some interesting and serious parts, but the whole is marred by an arrogant rhetoric and it risks serving as an alibi for some very bad policies indeed.



adam 08.30.17 at 4:28 pm

Is anything that Collier writes not arrogant?


WLGR 08.30.17 at 6:12 pm

The second argument they consider is the asymmetry between the widely recognised right of exit and the right of entry. They quickly dismiss the thought that a right to emigrate might imply a right to immigrate with the observation that someone’s right to leave their own house doesn’t imply a right to enter someone else’s. Indeed not, but state territory is rather different from private property, despite the popularity of analogies between the two, and people need public land and highways to be available to make their right of exit from their houses effective.

A relevant excerpt from David Whitehouse’s excellent essay on the origins of policing:

I’ll begin with the more general topic of class struggle over the use of outdoor space. This is a very consequential issue for workers and the poor. The outdoors is important to workers

— for work
— for leisure and entertainment
— for living space, if you don’t have a home
… and for politics.

First, about work. While successful merchants could control indoor spaces, those without so many means had to set themselves up as vendors on the street. The established merchants saw them as competitors and got the police to remove them.

Street vendors are also effective purveyors of stolen goods because they’re mobile and anonymous. It wasn’t just pickpockets and burglars who made use of street vendors this way. The servants and slaves of the middle class also stole from their masters and passed the goods on to the local vendors. (By the way, New York City had slavery until 1827.) The leakage of wealth out of the city’s comfortable homes is another reason that the middle class demanded action against street vendors.

The street was also simply where workers would spend their free time—because their homes were not comfortable. The street was a place where they could get friendship and free entertainment, and, depending on the place and time, they might engage in dissident religion or politics. British Marxist historian EP Thompson summed all this up when he wrote that 19th century English police were

impartial, attempting to sweep off the streets with an equable hand street traders, beggars, prostitutes, street-entertainers, pickets, children playing football and freethinking and socialist speakers alike. The pretext very often was that a complaint of interruption of trade had been received from a shopkeeper.

On both sides of the Atlantic, most arrests were related to victimless crimes, or crimes against the public order. Another Marxist historian Sidney Harring noted: “The criminologist’s definition of ‘public order crimes’ comes perilously close to the historian’s description of ‘working-class leisure-time activity.’”

Outdoor life was—and is—especially important to working-class politics. Established politicians and corporate managers can meet indoors and make decisions that have big consequences because these people are in command of bureaucracies and workforces. But when working people meet and make decisions about how to change things, it usually doesn’t count for much unless they can gather some supporters out on the street, whether it’s for a strike or a demonstration. The street is the proving ground for much of working-class politics, and the ruling class is fully aware of that. That’s why they put the police on the street as a counter-force whenever the working class shows its strength.

One shouldn’t need any handholding to grasp the obvious analogies re: spaces outside of state control as especially important for the global working class, repression of these spaces as rooted in fears about the leakage of wealth out of the world’s comfortable nation-states, and so on.


WLGR 08.30.17 at 6:37 pm

Another crucial analogy between repression of outdoor public spaces and regulation of international borders, again vis-à-vis Whitehouse (this time specifically referring to colonial New York City):

The lower orders were also bound to the elite by constant personal supervision. This applied to slaves and house servants, of course, but apprentices and journeyman craftsmen also lived in the same house with the master. So there were not a lot of these subordinate people roaming around the streets at all hours. In fact, there was a colonial ordinance for a while that said that working people could be on the streets only when they were going to and from work [emphasis mine].

This situation left sailors and day laborers as the city’s rowdiest unsupervised elements. But sailors spent most of their time near the waterfront, and the laborers—that is, the class of regular wage workers—were not yet a large group.


engels 08.30.17 at 8:34 pm

the whole is marred by an arrogant rhetoric and it risks serving as an alibi for some very bad policies indeed

Iirc that was my impression of The Bottom Billion, although I didn’t make it through much of it.


chrisare 08.30.17 at 11:38 pm

“Arrogant” is pretty vapid criticism that suggests more a problem with tone than content.


Matt 08.31.17 at 12:59 am

It’s a nicely done review, Chris. Thanks for sharing it. While I don’t want to put words in his mouth, I assume that part of what Chris meant by saying that book was “arrogant” wasn’t that it had an unpleasant tone, but that it assumed its arguments to be more original and important than they actually are, as if no one else could have thought of them, and dismissed objections and alternatives without giving them their proper due. Sometimes doing this is claimed to be justified by trying to write a book with broad appeal, rather than a careful academic one, but it almost always makes for a worse book.


kidneystones 08.31.17 at 5:17 am

I read your review. If anything, I find you have been excessively generous in assessing the merits of their arguments. I was surprised to did not take Bettis and Collier more severely to task for their discussion of Botswana and Nigeria (granting I’m relying entirely on your summation, rather than the original.

The notion that refugees from Nigeria are going to end up in Botswana is beyond glib. Bettis and Collier aren’t comparing apples with oranges, they’re comparing elephants with avocados. First, Botswana, has a population of under 2.5 million total and 4000 kilometers overland from the Nigerian border. Particular circumstances matter and the post-colonial history of both nations, as well as ethnic and religious groupings, have radically affected the trajectory of both nations.

We disagree on the principle of borders, but in this case I think you have this exactly right. Child-trafficking and forced labor are not abstract issues in Africa. I work with some graduate students from West Africa and the tales they tell are grim. Rampant corruption (surprise!) fueled by rivers of money from China is entrenching strongmen across the continent. The notion that any of the new wealth in Africa is going to remain with the local people now or in the near future is as laughable today as it was in the 19th-century. Until folks in the first world are willing to pay more for a chocolate bar, or cup of coffee, that’s unlikely to change.

Good work.


Pierre 08.31.17 at 9:16 am

I have not read the Betts-Collier book. But just going by your review, I found them more realistic than your approach. It is one thing to contest the supremacy of modern borders in academic discussions on ethics. It is another thing to suggest workable international policy proposals that do not take the supremacy of states as a given. Apart from the providing moral satisfaction, I really don’t see what solutions the latter approach can produce today for the people who need them most.


novakant 08.31.17 at 5:24 pm

Thanks for this, CB. The following data might provide some useful context:

The six wealthiest countries in the world, which between them account for almost 60% of the global economy, host less than 9% of the world’s refugees, while poorer countries shoulder most of the burden, Oxfam has said.


Z 08.31.17 at 5:43 pm

Thanks for this insightful review. I particularly liked your critical appraisal of the argumentative technique of using a right-based mode of argumentation at the state level scale but shifting to a consequentialist one when dealing with refugees. It seems to me that many people rely on such a move, perhaps not always knowingly, and I’m grateful to you for explicitly pointing it out.

Still, there is point I would appreciate a clarification. You write that the authors “simply presuppose” that “[least well-off citizens of wealthy countries] are entitled to have their interests advanced at the expense of the global poor.”

I am uneasy with the passive form of “entitle” and “advance” here and even more by the unspecified agents. Surely, citizens of a democratic polity have the right to democratically decide how the costs and benefits of granting asylum to refugees will be distributed, and more generally have the right to democratically decide upon the actual modalities of the actions they are collectively going to take to conform to their obligations in terms of international laws as well as general decency and humanity. Indeed, I would say that the ability of citizens to participate in this democratic discussion is what makes their polity a democratic one. And because said legal obligations and appreciation of what constitutes human decency vary, I would claim that indeed citizens in democratic polities are entitled by their Constitution to argue about what it means to respect the two criteria above and to advance their interests, sometimes at the expense of other people, and sometimes – yes – at the expense of the global poor.

To be concrete, if some citizens (wealthy or not) believe that refugees should be granted asylum and provided with decent conditions of living but should not, for instance, be eligible for job training programs or for social security benefits, or if they were to be subject to some special taxation that citizens were exempt from, you and I might strongly disapprove and deem this counter-productive policies with xenophobic undertones. But surely people are entitled to advocate for such policies and even to enforce them democratic means?

So it seems to me I am in the camp of people who simply presuppose what you apparently took to be quite contentious. Did I misunderstand what you were getting at with this sentence? or would you clarify?


Chris Bertram 09.01.17 at 6:15 am

@Z the sentence that bothers you is in a section addressing a part of the book where Betts and Collier depart from the official purpose of their book (refugee protection) in order to address the arguments for “open borders” that they take to be obviously silly. At that point they advance, as a knock down point, against open borders arguments, that admission must be restricted to protect the welfare state. Maybe they are right (as, for example, David Miller thinks) but given that restrictionism makes the global poor worse off than they otherwise would be, they need a substantive argument explaining why (and the extent to which) the interests of the domestic poor should come before those of the global poor. But no such argument appears.

The rest of your comment seems focused on issues to do with citizenship and democracy. Here you are the one doing the presupposing, by assuming quite a narrow answer to the so-called “boundary problem”, namely, that input should be restricted to the legal citizens of states. This is a very problematic view in the context of migration, because of the subjection of many non-citizens to the law. This point is central to Arash Abizadeh’s argument that the democratic principle of legitimacy undermines the right of states to control their own borders. My forthcoming book Does the State have the Right to Exclude Immigrants? (Polity, 2018) also discusses this point.

[I won’t be back on this thread btw, as I’m on holiday]


Matt 09.01.17 at 8:07 am

My forthcoming book Does the State have the Right to Exclude Immigrants?

I will be looking forward to this book!


Z 09.01.17 at 10:08 am

Chris, thanks for your answer (and it’s shame you won’t be back). In the interest of accuracy, I will note that in your reformulation of my position below

Here you are […] assuming quite a narrow answer to the so-called “boundary problem”, namely, that input should be restricted to the legal citizens of states.

all the bolded parts are your addition, and that on the contrary I specifically not made them. These additions change what I wrote quite a bit.

I strongly disagree that input should be restricted to the legal citizens of states (in fact, I’m already uneasy with the passive formulation; restricted by whom?). However, I do equally strongly believe that citizen (members of a community, if you wish, but I prefer citizens and its stronger connotation of participation in the civic life to avoid obvious counterexamples like children or long time tourists) of democratic polities (of which states are a very special particular case, and I oppose your move of reformulating one in the another) should get some input, just like migrants should (in my view) get some input. In other words, I believe that citizens may advance their interests (put for some input), even in ways that you and I may consider at the expense of the global poor, just like immigrants may advance their interests (put for some input) in ways that may be at the expense of other citizens etc. That’s my understanding of what a global democracy should be.

But your formulation seems to dispute that.


F. Foundling 09.02.17 at 4:38 pm


>why (and the extent to which) the interests of the domestic poor should come before those of the global poor.

The domestic poor are the ones who have the right to decide what to do with their ‘domicile’. Otherwise, I wonder why I shouldn’t immediately appropriate Chris Bertram’s car or house or anything else that he acquires at any time and why his interests should come before mine in this respect. To be motivated to maintain and improve your home(land) – or car – you need to know that you will be the one who benefits from it and can dispose of the fruits of that labour (something the authors have been getting at). Yes, socialism goes beyond this, but the globe is not a socialist society; the only alternative on offer is convenient, covertly restricted chaos or ‘managed anarchy’ under capitalism (with cheap labour for the elite and a race to the bottom for everyone else). And of course, this principle applies to any country, even to the ‘evil white racist colonialist ones’; you can’t just temporarily and locally suspend general principles like democracy and popular sovereignty – or, for that matter, equality before the law, free speech and rational discourse, as other branches of the current ‘new left’ have been demanding more or less openly – for a few centuries (or millennia?) until all possible historical evils have been expiated. These features are not some sort of luxuries and obstacles to the elimination of historical evils, they are the only alternative and antidote to them, a means as well as an end. To the extent that they have coexisted with said evils, it has been because they haven’t been sufficiently extended, not because they are worthless.

>given that restrictionism makes the global poor worse off than they otherwise would be

Once a welfare state is destroyed, there will be no welfare for the global poor either. What makes rich states good places to live is democracy (political and social), not capitalism, contrary to the assumptions of neoliberalism. When an influx of global poor causes the gradual destruction of democracy (political and social), the result will be that everyone’s living standards, incluing those of the immigrants, will gradually sink back to the ones in their home countries.

> that input should be restricted to the legal citizens of states … is a very problematic view in the context of migration, because of the subjection of many non-citizens to the law.

Guests are subjects to the law of the hosts, and by entering they agree to obey whatever laws are in place; obeying these laws doesn’t mean they aren’t guests. If they are there for too long, resulting in permanent inequality, the solution is to make them citizens, too, not to destroy citizenship itself by excluding from it the right to control one’s own territory. You can’t even speak of a free decision-making subject if the subject isn’t allowed to control how much and in what ways its own internal state and identity is changed from the outside – that would be like having the freedom to do whatever you want, except that anyone else that comes along also has the freedom to chemically or surgically alter your brain and mind at any time, so that it is unclear in what sense you even *are* you in the next minute.

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