International relations, Law, Social policy, Arts, culture & society | Australia, Asia, The World

10 September 2016

The Rio games saw a team of refugees competing as a sporting nation. This idea for virtual citizenship could be extended to help tackle the challenges of refugees around the world, Christian Barry and Philip Gerrans write.  

A striking and moving feature of the Rio Olympic Games was the presence of a team composed entirely of refugees. The team included swimmers from Syria now based in Germany, judokas from The Democratic Republic of Congo living in Brazil, and Sudanese track athletes based in Kenya.

Although the refugees could not compete for their homeland or for their country of resettlement, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) treated the refugees as though they were part of the same sporting nation. They created a form of virtual citizenship, guaranteeing rights to funding, status, and recognition based on membership in a community constituted solely by refugee status. Couldn’t this idea of temporary virtual citizenship for refugees be expanded in ways that would offer them more thorough protection than they currently enjoy?

It can, and it should. Refugees should become dual citizens of a virtual state —we’ll call it Refugistan. Citizenship in Refugistan would be determined by the inability of its members to return to their countries of origin for fear of persecution. Citizens of Refugistan would remain citizens of their homeland, allowing them to return if and when conditions allow, after which time citizenship in Refugistan would lapse. In the meantime their refugee passport would guarantee them economic support and a range of rights in their host country, including the rights to access services, to study and (potentially) work.

The cost of supporting this program would be broadly shared by all signatories to the convention, according to their ability to pay, rather than by the host countries themselves. Refugees might become an economic asset rather than a perceived burden if the investment they currently attract was provided in a way that allowed them to spend it on housing, medicine, education and other services in the host country.

More on this: It’s time we put in place a fairer, regulated system of sharing the refugee burden

This proposal does not diminish the rights of countries to determine access to permanent residency or citizenship, and it protects the vital existing rights of refugees under the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. At present the global burden created by the displacement of people is shared inefficiently and inequitably. Most refugees are in poor countries close to the conflicts from which they fled. Often the countries where refugees arrive are also riven by political conflict and cannot secure the lives of their own citizens. Ethiopia has 736,000 refugees, Kenya and Uganda over 500,000, Lebanon over 1 million, and Turkey now has 2.5 million refugees as a result of conflict in the Middle East.

Consequently, while all refugees have the same basic rights guaranteed by the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (provided they arrive in a country which is signatory to that convention) their prospects are vastly different. Many refugees are victims not only of persecution at home, but often of harsh political and economic circumstances in the countries in which they arrive. Some will be processed quickly and treated humanely. Others will raise children and grandchildren in sprawling tent cities and vast slums of scavenged brick and plastic.

Funding such a program would no doubt be costly. But current arrangements for managing the refugee crisis are also very costly. Furthermore much of the money spent on refugees is at present devoted to blocking access to citizenship by host countries. Australia spends $400,000 each year detaining a single refugee offshore. The EU has allocated 1 billion Euros to build processing centres in Turkey.

The costs to countries of hosting refugees can be substantially reduced if they are neither required to resettle them, nor required to bear the full costs of providing economic support and other basic rights. Australia is an instance of a state whose policy on refugees is largely determined fears about the political and economic costs of resettlement. Australia processes refugees offshore because onshore processing creates a pathway to residency and citizenship, which is perceived as a burden. These arrangements are economically costly, have proven poor at protecting the basic rights of refugees, and have become politically pricey as well.

A better way to tackle these issues is for asylum seekers be quickly processed and, if deemed to have refugee status, be provided a refugee passport. This passport would guarantee them economic support and a range of rights in the countries that host them. But the country that hosts them need not be the country in which they are processed. If refugees could be supported closer to their homelands, and they did not have to live in camps but instead could live as dual citizens with adequate support in nearby countries, they would have less reason make dangerous boat journeys. The criminal industry that exploits asylum seekers would be undermined and host countries would lose a rationale for diverting resources from supporting refuges to preventing their entry for political or economic reasons.

Under this plan, refugees could apply for resettlement in any country while being supported in an initial host country. For example, Sudanese refugees can be supported in Kenya while applying for resettlement anywhere in the world.

This plan for virtual citizenship is in many ways non-ideal—all people should of course be able to enjoy full citizenship in a state that protects their basic rights. But it is clearly better if refugees can live in host countries under decent conditions than in sprawling refugee camps. Virtual citizenship may only be a partial solution to a serious problem, but it would be a significant step forward in a far from ideal world.

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Barry, Christian and Philip Gerrans. 2016. Barry, Christian. 2016. "Virtual Citizenship For Refugees - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.