Syrian refugees, who fled the violence back home, walk in the Domiz refugee camp in the northern Iraqi province of Dohuk, August 2013.
Syrian refugees, who fled the violence back home, walk in the Domiz refugee camp in the northern Iraqi province of Dohuk, August 2013.
Thaier Al-Sudani / REUTERS

Over the last three years, the global north has fluctuated between welcoming and closing itself off to new waves of migration. With roughly 65 million people currently uprooted within or outside their countries, and with many of them in limbo for years at a time, policymakers are searching for solutions to the problem of mass displacement. The UN is steering the international community toward global pacts on migration and refugees due to be agreed on by the fall of 2018, but many doubt that much will come of them based on the record of similar international agreements so far. Nor is there much confidence that the current refugee architecture is up to the task: the three conventional solutions to displacement—repatriation of refugees, their local integration, or their resettlement—seem unable to work on the scale needed. Only a small proportion of the displaced find their situation resolved through such pathways: most languish in camps or are self-settled in cities in precarious and constrained circumstances for years and even decades at a time without legitimate means of making a living or leading a decent life.     

Against this background, a number of radical proposals have emerged to attempt to resolve refugee and migration challenges, including new nations, city states, and free zones. My colleague Robin Cohen and I have reviewed these and proposed an alternative: a confederal, transnational polity emerging from the connections built up by refugees, with the help of sympathizers, that we have called “Refugia.”  Unlike many of the proposals we have reviewed, we do not envisage this as an island or other bounded territory, but a linked set of territories and spaces connecting refugees into a polity that is neither a new nation state nor simply an international organization, but has some characteristics of both. The key feature of Refugia is that its different parts are connected, with mobility between them, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In our view such a transnational polity could meet the needs of refugees without compromising too much the interests of states, with a much better outcome for both than the current incoherent and inhuman set-up.    


How would Refugia work in practice? Picture a loosely connected archipelago that brings together refugee communities in territories in conflict, those in neighboring or transit countries, and those who have been settled further afield. Refugia would be the outcome of a grand bargain between richer states to which refugees have migrated, developing countries, countries neighboring conflict zones, and refugees themselves. The constituent territories of Refugia would be either licensed or tolerated by the nation states within whose borders they lie. 

The constituent parts of the Refugia polity would be self-governing and eventually self-supporting, but they would also be subject to the sovereignty of their hosts in much the same way that autonomous regions in some countries are today. A transnational virtual assembly elected by Refugians from all the constituent components of the global polity would govern Refugia. There would also be constituent assemblies in each of its locations to contribute to this global representation, as well as to represent the interests and concerns of Refugians to the host society and vice versa. 

Refugians would have mobility among different parts of Refugia, and, where negotiated, between sovereign nations. Some might live in discrete territories or spaces; others could live side by side with citizens of host countries, especially in large, metropolitan cities. Moreover, the citizens of host societies could become Refugians, so Refugia would attract those who wish to escape illiberalism and authoritarianism in addition to those simply escaping conflict; for their part, authoritarian states might welcome an outlet for some of their political and cultural dissidents.

Refugia would generate its own economy, complemented by income generated from outside through remote work providing digital services such as data processing, coding, graphic design, etc. By mutual agreement, Refugians might work in host states. They would pay taxes to the nation-states within whose territories they live, but also to the wider Refugia polity. A portion of the latter revenue would provide support for those who choose to stay in their regions of origin. This would be similar to the way in which migrant workers today send remittances to friends and family in their home countries on a large scale through self-organized informal money transfer systems like hawala and hundi or through peer-to-peer mobile platforms such as Mpesa, which partly bypass states and banks. This would allow the wealthier parts of Refugia to help support its poorer parts.

As for education, there could be a Refugia international baccalaureate taught digitally through distance learning and recognized across Refugia, as well as by those host states that choose to do so. Education would be a key source of employment.

Refugees would no longer be primarily the responsibility of the nation-state that hosts them, but of a more diffuse entity.

The upshot is that refugees would no longer be primarily the responsibility of the nation-state that hosts them, but of a more diffuse entity. This would be a pragmatic arrangement which can be seen as a kind of secession by mutual agreement: for their part, states—particularly authoritarian and illiberal ones—would see it as in their interest to shuffle off the displacement problem to be managed by the displaced themselves, while the displaced and those seeking an alternative to authoritarianism would relish the prospect of a self-managed new society that they create themselves.


Some may be concerned that this proposal is too utopian to work. But key aspects of Refugia already exist in imperfect form.

In countries that have long hosted large numbers of refugees, such as Jordan, Kenya, and Pakistan, migrants have established tenuous communities on their own. These populations have links with more fortunate kin and friends in global cities further afield where people of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds are thrown together—from Berlin, London, and New York to Istanbul, Johannesburg, and Mumbai.

Transnationalism is already an enduring solution to displacement and dispersal. Indeed, many diasporic communities already inhabit a kind of transnational space. In some cases, the diasporic populations in metropolises outside a refugee group’s homeland are as large or larger than the population at home. Toronto’s Sri Lankan Tamil population, for example, is at least double that of Jaffna, the Tamils’ cultural capital in Sri Lanka.  

Several diaspora groups already have created transnational bodies. The Tamils, for example, have held transnational elections that sustain transnational institutions that provide a degree of representation for diaspora Tamils on the global stage—and could potentially do much more. The technical means of holding such elections are becoming more and more sophisticated. And a prototype of Refugia also exists in the realm of culture, as seen in the transnational mobility of art, music, dance, language, and sport. For the first time, a refugee team competed in the Olympics in 2016—a modest step, but a tacit recognition of a body of people unaffiliated with nation-states.

Part of Refugia also exists in current ideas about and manifestations of refugee cities. One type of idea sees the special economic zones that have been established in many emerging economies to promote trade and manufacturing as a model that can be applied to refugees. The scholars Alexander Betts and Paul Collier, for example, have argued in Foreign Affairs for giving underemployed refugees in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp the chance to work in a nearby special economic zone. They suggest that this example could be generalized to form a global solution for mass displacement. 

A second conception of refugee cities emerges from municipal- and community-led initiatives. A notable example is Barcelona, which has welcomed refugees against the wishes of the Spanish state. So-called sanctuary cities in the United States—currently under attack by President Donald Trump’s administration—are another. There are also interesting developments at the local level.

Still another prefiguration of Refugia is the transformation of camps into full-blown refugee cities. As their time in refugee camps has lengthened and more refugees have found places to live in or near cities, urban refugee settlements have developed. An example is Camp Domiz, a Syrian refugee camp in northern Iraq that has been cast as a “Refugee republic,” as its inhabitants have set up community centers, shops, and places of worship.

Then there are mobile commons activities, which bring together migrants and refugees drawn from different nationalities and ethnicities. Examples include the gatherings of refugees and migrants at choke-points to form temporary settlements with the help of supportive citizens, such as the Jungle camp near Calais, Ventimiglia on the France-Italy border, or the Idomeni camp on the border between Greece and Macedonia. Although often squalid and vulnerable to demolition, this kind of community creation and reproduction through mutual aid among migrants en route, aided by concerned host citizens, constitutes an imperfect prototype of Refugia. On a smaller scale, consider Hotel Oniro, an abandoned hotel in Athens, which is now home to 200–250 refugees who manage it themselves with the help of activist citizens. Significant too have been the social media networks providing commentary on smuggling routes, rates, nodes, and bottlenecks as online manifestations of the mobile commons and of Refugia.


Some would argue that our proposal could lead to the international ghettoization of refugees, confined to reservations on poor quality land that no-one else wants, without means of generating income to create decent communities and lead a decent life. We recognize the danger of such dystopian nightmares, and can indeed see one now unfolding on the borders between Myanmar and Bangladesh. The key difference in our vision is that Refugia would be more than the sum of its isolated parts, with the option of mobility for refugees among its constituent territories as their political and economic circumstances ebb and flow. 

Taken together, the fragments of refugee life and culture indicated above add up to Refugia imperfectly prefigured. Bringing them together into a common transnational polity might prove to be a way out of the current impasse. Such an arrangement could come about incrementally and cumulatively through the collective activity of refugees and sympathetic citizens organizing in the interstices of the nation-state system and the international governance architecture. It would be essentially self-organized and self-managed, requiring neither political nor cultural conformity, but simple agreement on principles and deeds of solidarity and mutual aid. It may be a utopian vision, but it is one which pragmatically reconciles the sometimes contradictory interests of host states and refugees.

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  • NICHOLAS VAN HEAR is the Deputy Director of University of Oxford's Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society (COMPAS). 
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