Year-end 2021 estimates from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) tallied some 89.3 million people worldwide who have been forcibly displaced from their homes due to persecution, violence and other events. Of those, about 27 million are refugees, generally defined as people who have crossed a border as they fled.
Three new books examine the experiences of refugees and migrants and their host countries in Africa and beyond. All three provide a much-needed corrective to our understanding of refugee experiences. Because much of the previous research and writing on migration has been from the perspective of Western nations that receive migrants, we know considerably less about what migration policy and migration experiences look like in non-Western countries.
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What shapes government policy toward migrants?
In Kelsey P. Norman’s “Reluctant Reception: Refugees, Migration, and Governance in the Middle East and North Africa,” she argues that governments in the Global South strategically deploy one of these three policy actions regarding migrant and refugee populations: a liberal policy encouraging integration; a repressive policy aiming to exclude; or strategic indifference, which she defines as a government choice “not to directly engage these populations” but to leave it to nongovernmental organizations to manage refugees on the receiving country’s behalf.
Norman conducted interviews with political elites and migrants and refugees in countries that are major destinations for migrants and refugees: Egypt, Morocco and Turkey. Norman characterizes all three as transit-turned-host countries, or countries that we “previously assumed to be only countries of transit . . . now hosting semi-permanent migrant and refugee populations.”
“Reluctant Reception” documents how governments adopt more liberal migration and refugee policies to avoid international shaming, but also when they think doing so will yield economic and diplomatic benefits. For example, Norman attributes a liberalization of Morocco’s migration policy in 2013 to pressure on King Mohammed VI’s government through international shaming led by transnational advocacy networks.
In documenting how transit-turned-host countries can also choose to use repression, Norman’s chapter on Egypt shows how the 2013 coup that ousted President Mohamed Morsi precipitated a shift to a more repressive migration policy. Norman connects this shift to the post-2013 Egyptian government’s views of migrant and refugee groups as a security threat.
While Norman’s research about migration policy makes important scholarly contributions, her book is also clearly written and accessible to a nonacademic audience. Importantly, each chapter of “Reluctant Reception” begins with a migrant’s story to help readers visualize in humanizing, concrete terms what these policies mean for the people who encounter them.
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Ethnic ties play a big role in government policies
Lamis Elmy Abdelaaty’s book, “Discrimination and Delegation: Explaining State Responses to Refugees,” argues that two factors shape a destination country’s asylum policy: (1) whether refugees and the destination country’s population have a shared ethnic identity; and (2) the relations between refugees’ home and destination countries. Her book provides a global overview with an in-depth look at the refugee situation in Egypt, Kenya and Turkey.
Governments choose to control refugees through inclusive or restrictive policies – or they delegate control to an international organization. Abdelaaty argues that when a refugee group has ethnic kinship with the destination country and their home country has hostile relations with the destination country, the destination government tends to have an inclusive asylum policy. When the two countries have friendly relations, the destination country’s government will delegate responsibility for asylum policy to UNHCR. When a refugee group doesn’t share ethnicity with the destination country, incoming migrants could face restrictive asylum policies – especially if the relations between host and destination countries are friendly.
Abdelaaty offers compelling evidence for her analysis. Consider Egypt, which helped draft the 1951 Refugee Convention. When relations between Sudan and Egypt were hostile, Egypt delegated its asylum policy toward Sudanese to UNHCR – Sudanese people seeking refuge held no ethnic ties to Egyptians. After relations between the countries improved in 1999, however, Sudanese refugees faced increasing restrictions in Egypt, characterized by extensive detention and deportation.
A significant strength throughout Abdelaaty’s book is her humility. The evidence she analyzes frequently supports her argument, but she is transparent about which data do not match her predictions.
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How do refugees describe their journeys?
Sally Hayden’s book, “My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route,” forces readers to engage with the violence and inhumanity migrants face as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Hayden’s powerful book relays the harrowing stories migrants have shared with her from their experiences in various Libyan migrant detention centers, from enduring near-starvation conditions to torture and even death.
Through Hayden’s inclusion of quotes from refugees, we hear the voices and opinions and ideas of refugees. Consider, for example, how many people in the world’s richest countries see UNHCR as an advocate for refugees vs. how refugees characterize UNHCR in their texts to Hayden: “UNHCR does not work for us – it is a criminal organization,” or “UNHCR are smugglers really, but the only difference is the source of money for them is not from us but from the E.U. They keep us here to die to get that money.”
Hayden connects the migrants’ experiences to specific European policies. “My Fourth Time” provides an accessible, critically reported account of the formation of the European Union Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), whose charge is “to deliver an integrated and coordinated response to the diverse causes of instability, irregular migration and forced displacement.” An Oxfam report highlighted officials’ desire to use the EUTF “to prevent arrivals of irregular migrants and enhance return efforts.”
Hayden also details the shift in E.U. migration management strategies after the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2012 that refugees intercepted on boats on the Mediterranean Sea could not be returned to Libya by European boats. Instead, E.U. nations began “equipping, training, and supporting the Libyan coast guard to do interceptions themselves.”
In commemorating International Migrants Day, we learn from these books how the choices officials make shape the experiences of millions of migrants and refugees. Destination countries – including those in Europe – don’t have to choose repression or return. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, for instance, European leaders granted all Ukrainians temporary protection that included the right to work, education, housing and health care. That choice could make a world of difference to others seeking refuge.
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For other analysis and commentary from The Monkey Cage, an independent blog anchored by political scientists from universities around the world, see www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/