Vietnamese refugees watch as a Thai Marine police boat casts them adrift in the Gulf of Siam, Nov. 1977. (Photo: manhhai/
8 Apr 2019

Escape from Violence: Still a perilous journey for refugees

Some 35 years ago, Astri Suhrke and her colleague Aristide Zolberg discovered a common interest in refugee matters. She was working on Afghanistan, Zolberg on the Horn of Africa and what he called ‘competitive state formation’ between Ethiopia and Eritrea. What at the outset seemed like very different cases had on crucial thing in common: Both cases produced a large number of refugees. Suhrke and Zolberg started working on a new project together, and were soon joined by Sergio Aguayo.

The cooperation resulted in the book ‘Escape from Violence’. The book soon became a classic, is still being sold and frequently cited. On April 12, it is centre stage at the conference ‘Escaping Violence’ at the New School for Social Research in New York, where Zolberg was a professor.

How can a book about the refugee crisis of the 1970s and 1980s be just as relevant today? In this interview, CMI researcher Astri Suhrke talks about the questions that inspired the book, what has changed and what has not, and what can be done.


-What inspired your work with the book? What were the most prominent characteristics of refugee flows back then, and what were the main challenges?

-The book starts with one, deceptively simple question: Why are there refugees? That leads to further questions: Why do refugees sometimes come in a flow, and sometimes in a trickle? Why, and under what conditions, do they return?

We started asking these questions in the late 1970s. This was the time of the “boat-people” from Vietnam, but also large movements of people over land, from Laos and Cambodia, in response to the end of what is usually called the Vietnam war. At the time, few people asked the “why” question, which to us was critically important. By the early 1980s, we had organized our thoughts into an analytical framework of sorts. We now looked to patterns of social conflict and change, and – importantly – their international and transnational dimensions as principal causes of various types of refugee movements. Understanding causes, we argued, was essential to identifying appropriate responses. For instance, refugees from certain kinds of conflicts such as revolutionary change and ethnic cleansing are very unlikely to return. In these cases, an international formula for shared resettlement is necessary.

By the time the book was published, in 1990, we had also incorporated a foreign policy dimension into the analysis. At the time, a foreign policy dynamic was powerfully illustrated by the differential treatment in the US of people fleeing Haiti (not recognized as refugees and turned back, when possible, by the US Coast Guard) and Cuba (heartily welcomed in the US as refugees because they were fleeing a communist state).  The case represented a more general feature of the Cold War period that placed refugee policy in service of foreign policy. By opening your borders to persons fleeing an adversarial state, you made it possible for people “to vote with their feet” by leaving, thus exposing the malevolent or corrupt nature of your adversary. This instrumentalization logic also characterized European policy towards people seeking to flee the then Soviet bloc.


-Why is ‘Escape from Violence’ still so relevant?

It is truly amazing, but quite sad, that a 30-year old book on refugees is still selling and being frequently cited. It is a depressing commentary on the state of the world in matters of forced displacement.

Not surprisingly, our book was a product of the times. We wrote in the shadow of the Cold War and under the influence of critical analysis of the international economic order. We borrowed from dependency theory and liberation theology to understand sources for, and rationales of, conflict. Those concepts are now outmoded, and ideological conflicts other than communism and what seriously was called “the free world” shape international power rivalries. The foreign policy dimension has become muted or in subtle ways transformed. In some countries, for instance, refugees from the Middle East are receiving particular scrutiny before admission lest they carry with them an element of radical Islam.

But some things have not changed, above all the stark imbalance between the need for safe settlement for persons escaping violence and the shortage of supply. The result is recurring, severe humanitarian crises involving displaced persons.


-Which elements have stayed the same? What has changed?

-As conflict studies have shown, the incidence of armed conflicts has varied over time. If we look at the past 100 years or so, we see periodic crises of displacement rather than a clear secular trend towards more (or less). A slightly shorter time frame, say 50 years, also shows that the phenomenon of so-called mixed flows are not new. Persons who mainly seek to escape miserable economic conditions often appear in the asylum queue alongside persons who are fleeing warn-torn societies; a new addition here is the emerging category of   “climate refugees”.

Mixed flows are politically difficult for recipient countries to handle and raise troublesome questions about criteria for prioritizing support. European countries are now acutely facing these questions, which are not materially different from the situation facing the United States in the 1980s. Similarly, the huge inflow of refugees in a few countries in the Middle East – turning this part of the region into what Are Knudsen at CMI calls “Supercamp” in his research project – recalls the role played by African countries in earlier times when armed violence racked their neighbours.


-How can refugee flows and the underlying causes be better dealt with?

-In any situation of scarcity, establishing criteria for prioritizing assistance is critical.  Legal scholars will look to the legal framework for guidance and reform, and much work is being done here, including by Jessica Schultz at CMI.  Not being of a legal mind, we took a different approach.

 Whatever the cause of flight, we argued, the need for help to escape violence must be a decisive criteria. The violence can be man-made or nature-made, it can be targeted (as in the concept of “persecution” in the 1951 Refugee Convention) or incidental (as experienced by people in a war zone). The nature of the immediate cause should not determine the right to assistance.

We realized, of course, that operationalizing this principle was not an easy matter - and that this was only the beginning of a longer legal and political discourse. Its continuation included, importantly, assessing the possibility for international responsibility sharing, forms of protection in situ in the country of origin, and creative forms of assistance to neighbouring countries. These issues were central in the refugee discourse when we were writing; they remain so today. That also applies to what in the 1980s was called “the root cause” question: what kind of long-term development  can encourage non-violent forms of social change?