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The authors do not call for the abolition of the 1951 convention but they point out how circumstances have made it redundant. The vast majority of refugees are not threatened by individual persecution — though some still are, such as Afghan Nato interpreters or some African opposition leaders — but are rather the victims of conflict, usually civil wars. And most of the countries they languish in are not even signatories to the 1951 convention.

We, especially in the rich West, still have a moral duty to offer protection though it is not quite clear what that moral duty amounts to. It seems to be a variant of what David Miller has called “weak cosmopolitanism”, or the idea that we have a duty to the wellbeing of all other humans, but obligations to them that vary, depending on our moral or physical proximity. 

Where they break with so many of their fellow refugee experts and reporter-moralists is in not insisting that as many refugees as possible should come and live in rich Western countries. They implicitly acknowledge that there are strict limits on the numbers that welfare democracies will accept. But they go further than this and argue that while movement to a rich country might benefit individual refugees, it is not in the interests of the countries they come from.

The world does not just consist of individuals seeking to maximise their welfare but of societies too, societies that need to be rebuilt after conflict has ended. The interests of the majority left behind must be considered too. And, as the authors point out, in many circumstances the most mobile are the most affluent (those who can afford to pay the people traffickers) and the best educated — a dismaying half of all Syrian graduates are now in western Europe.

To be able to fulfill one’s global obligation without opening one’s doors to many refugees — to be able to help “from distance” — is morally convenient but it is also good sense, especially as it costs more than 100 times more to look after someone in Europe than it does in a neighbouring “haven” country.

Western countries like Britain are not let off the hook. They are still required to adequately fund the haven countries — Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon in the case of the Syria crisis — and select some of the most vulnerable from among the refugees in the camps.

So the issue becomes how to organise a fair division of labour between the haven countries that take most of the people in and the rich countries that have the obligation to cover the costs. In the recent past this fairness has been absent: the UNHCR is only about one third funded and only roughly 10 per cent of the four million Syrian refugees have received any support from the UN.

Only a minority of Syrian refugees are in camps. However, roughly half of the world’s 21 million refugees are in these dismal places and now tend to be there for an average of ten years, in part because most of the world’s conflicts are civil wars that take longer to fizzle out than international ones. And it is the authors’ ideas for improving life in the camps based on allowing people to work — both to stop them risking their lives trying to get to the West but also to prevent them wasting away — that is their main contribution.

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