Perhaps you've heard the parable of the blind men and the elephant. A king summons blind men from his kingdom and asks each one to examine an elephant. One man feels the elephant's head and says that he's touching a pot. Another man feels the elephant's side and describes a wall. A third man touches the elephant's leg and talks about a tree trunk. One lesson of this story: Unless we have enough information, it's difficult to determine the truth.

That's also the lesson of a new book, The Refugee System, by Professors Rawan Arar and David Scott FitzGerald. The book argues that many academics and policymakers view the refugee system too narrowly. Instead of seeing the bigger picture, they focus only on the elements of the refugee system that relate to their area of interest. This type of "siloed" approach has real-world implications for those seeking protection and for the nations that host them.

According to Professors Arar and FitzGerald, the "siloed" approach to refugee studies has a number of disadvantages. Perhaps the biggest of these is that the study and analysis of refugees often lacks context and fails to account for the wide range of factors that impact migration. Why do some people move and others stay put? How do people decide where to go, and how do prior migrant flows affect current movements? How important are economic factors? When the exit or admission policies change in one country, how does that change reverberate through the system?

One point that I found particularly interesting was the authors' explanation of how refugee policies in the Global North rely on refugee policies in the Global South. Professors Arar and FitzGerald note that, "States in the Global North fund refugee hosting in the Global South, and in exchange, Southern states keep most of the refugees away from the North." Indeed, "Southern states are the foundation of the contemporary system of refugee management." "The current configuration of Northern refugee reception - even in the most generous states - is only possible because Southern states contain and control most refugee movement." "In fact, all Northern states combined accept fewer than 1 percent of the world's refugees through a process called resettlement that allows officials to select, vet, and invite refugees to settle on their territory" and obtain permanent status. In other words, the only reason a country like the U.S. can have generous refugee and asylum systems is because states in the Global South host the vast majority of the world's refugees.

Of course, this system can be subject to breakdown. As the authors explain, "Governments sometimes use refugees to try to accomplish specific foreign policy goals." One such goal may be "to weaken a target state's legitimacy by highlighting the hypocrisy between a public commitment to rights norms and a limited willingness to accept refugees in practice." "Liberal states are especially vulnerable to this kind of strategy." An example here might be the Turkish government's agreement to keep Syrian refugees out of Europe. Or the Mexican government's agreement to keep migrants away from our Southern border. In each case, the destination country enlisted a third country to do its dirty work and help prevent a "liberal" refugee regime from being overwhelmed by untenable numbers of asylum seekers.

The book also highlights the long term harm caused by warehousing refugees in the Global South, where they mostly live without any permanent status. Generations of refugees reside in countries where they do not have citizenship and have few legal rights. "Conservative estimates suggest that 1 million children were 'born into refugee life' between 2018 and 2020." Analyzing the situation through a "systems approach shows the role that Southern states play on a global scale as spaces of buffering and containment." Whether this human cost is worth the price of preserving the image of Western nations as "generous" destinations for refugee resettlement, I do not know, but it certainly begs the question of whether there is a better way.

Another point that caught my attention was the difference between countries that have signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and countries that have not signed. Professors Arar and FitzGerald found that a "survey of Southern refugee host states reveal that signatory status does not reflect a state's commitment to refugees." I had always viewed the non-signatory states negatively, particularly a number of Persian Gulf states that are well-known for refusing to offer permanent status to displaced people from the region (many of my Arab and Afghan clients had spent time in the Gulf but were forced to leave once their status expired). However, the Professors note that many non-signatory states do, in fact, host forced migrants. For example, "To claim that Saudi Arabia has not received any Syrian refugees because those individuals have not been identified as refugees through a legal assessment is false." And so while the Saudis are not offering permanent status to Syrians (or other refugees), they are probably no worse in this regard than signatory countries who specifically label people as "refugees" but do not allow them to permanently resettle.

There is one last point from the book that I want to highlight, mostly because it is one of my (many) pet peeves. Policies in the U.S. and in most host states can "strip people of refugee status if they have temporarily returned to their country of origin under the logic that a refugee who was wiling to return must be safe there and no longer requires international protection." This policy creates a strong disincentive for people to return, since they can't go for a short visit to scout out whether it is safe for them (and their families) to return permanently. If we want to encourage refugees to repatriate, we should allow them to make such trips without risking their status in the host country.

Professors Arar and FitzGerald's book was not written for a general audience, and it is not an easy read. But I certainly hope it reaches policymakers, academics, and others in the field. The "systems approach" offers a broad and deep view of the refugee phenomenon. When we have a richer and more holistic understanding of causes, effects, and solutions to forced migration, we can make better policies and improve people's lives.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: