Alexander Betts: Our refugee system is failing. Here’s how we can fix it.

This post is based on the TED Talk given by Alexander Betts, on February 2016. Alexander Betts is the Leopold Muller Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs, and the Director of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. You can read more about him in his personal page.


“There are times when I feel really quite ashamed to be a European. In the last year, more than a million people arrived in Europe in need of our help, and our response, frankly, has been pathetic.”

Alexander Betts, TED Talk February 2016.

In the first part of his presentation, Alexander Betts, reflects on several contradictions, e.g. “refugees are a shared responsibility, and yet we accept that tiny Lebanon hosts more Syrians than the whole of Europe combined” concluding with two simple questions: What are we doing? How did we reach this point?

The answer is simple. This crisis reflects a lack of vison from our politicians, a vision for how to adapt an international refugee system (with more than 50 years) to a changing and globalized world. To explain, Alexander Betts elaborates on why is the current system not working and what we can do to fix it.

Why is the current system not working?

The actual system was created after WWII to ensure that when a state fails, or worse, turns against its own people, people have somewhere to go, to live in safety and dignity until they can go home. However, today, our immigration policies block the path to safety keeping people stuck in almost indefinite limbo. He explains that, it is not because the rules of the system are wrong, but because we have not been able to adapt them to today’s reality.

From a refugee standpoint there are three main options: go to a camp (with all the restrictions that a camp implies); go to an urban area in a neighboring country (where they are likely to face urban destitution); or seek hope by risking their lives on a dangerous and perilous journey to another country (happening in Europe today). Encampment, urban destitution or a dangerous journey?

Alexander says that these are not the only three existing choices. However, they seem to be, because politicians believe that if we “benefit” refugees, we are “imposing costs” on citizens, and therefore we tend to have a collective assumption that refugees are an inevitable cost or burden to our societies. Which is not true.

What can we do to fix it?

It is possible to expand the number of choices and still benefit everyone else – the host states and communities, and the refugees’ themselves – by taking advantage of the opportunities globalization, mobility and the markets offer, and update the way we think about refugees. Alexander proposes four ways to achieve that:

Enabling environments. This means starting by recognizing that refugees are human beings like everyone else, though they are in extraordinary circumstances. Rather than seeing refugees as inevitably dependent upon humanitarian assistance, we need to provide them with opportunities for human flourishing. Meaning giving them equal opportunities (the right to work, freedom of movement, etc.).

Economic zones. An economic zone in which we could potentially integrate the employment of refugees alongside the employment of host nationals.

Preference matching between states and refugees. The economist Alvin Roth has developed the idea of matching markets, ways in which the preference ranking of the parties shapes an eventual match. The idea is the same but applied to refugees. Ask refugees to rank their preferred destinations and allow states to rank the types of refugees they want (based on skills criteria or language criteria), and allow those to match.

Humanitarian visas. If refugees could just travel directly and seek asylum in Europe, we would avoid dangerous journeys and smugglers. Through a humanitarian visa that people could collect at an embassy or a consulate in a neighboring country and then simply pay his or her own way through a ferry or a flight to Europe, these situations could be avoid.

These are just four ideas/ways in which we can have greater choices for refugees beyond those basic three: encampment, urban destitution and dangerous journeys.

“Yes, they are a humanitarian responsibility, but they are human beings with skills, talents, aspirations, with the ability to contribute, if we let them.[…] Not based on the old logics of humanitarian assistance, not based on logics of charity, but building on the opportunities offered by globalization, markets and mobility.”

Alexander Betts, TED Talk February 2016.


andreia fidalgo
Andreia Fidalgo

Member of the IFHP office in Copenhagen
Project Assistant of the Housing Refugees Project

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this site are those of the authors of the blogposts and do not reflect those of the International Federation of Housing and Planning.