An interview with Professor Jacqueline Bhabha
Earlier this semester Professor Jacqueline Bhabha came to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy to speak to the 2017 LL.M. class about her research on the refugee and migration crisis. The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs sat down with Professor Bhabha to learn more about her research and experience working on refugee and migration issues. Professor Bhabha also shared some insights on recent political developments in the United States and Europe, and the impact these developments may have on immigration policy at-large.
Fletcher Forum: What do you think have been the main challenges since the beginning of the high influx of migrants and asylum seekers in Europe? What are the challenges that lie ahead?
Jacqueline Bhabha: I think that one of the main past challenges has been the failure of European solidarity. That has been catastrophic, both for the European Union as an idea, and for the delivery of humanitarian protection. It has been catastrophic to see how limited the engagement with protection has been on the part of some EU Member States, leading others, such as Greece and Italy, to shoulder a disproportionate share of the protection responsibility, that they are ill-equipped to do. The failure to address safe transport and reception mechanisms has also led to disastrous humanitarian consequences as we are seeing. It has undoubtedly contributed to the increasing mortality rates in the Mediterranean. Just in the first four months of 2017 over 100 people a month have drowned. Instead of increasing access to safe routes and facilitating humanitarian protection, EU member states have worked to restrict access, to block the arrival of refugees, and to pressure Turkey into being a de facto buffer zone in return for financial and other incentives.
The EU-Turkey agreement is severely flawed. It has led to a situation in which very large numbers of refugees are trapped in Turkey where living conditions are harsh, including a lot of children not going to school. Turkey now has more refugees than any other country in the world (close to three million), and this comes at a time when the country is sliding into dictatorship at a rapid rate. A problematic and regrettable development of European policies has been to compel increasing numbers of refugees to embark on more dangerous and longer routes to Europe via Libya and Italy, rather than the quicker route through Turkey.
Looking forward, many very substantial political challenges loom large. We are seeing an ongoing failure to provide clear, convincing, and principled leadership on the dual imperatives of accepting refugees and other distress migrants, and making the social and economic accommodations necessary for smooth integration in the short term. This has given xenophobic groups a green light to exploit the refugee situation for electoral purposes, by preying on the fears of domestic populations suffering from economic hardship or insecurity. Europe has a demographic need for young labor, and the number of refugees who have arrived is less than 1% of the European population, so with reasonable social planning, integration of new arrivals is not going to generate long term problems. On the contrary it will be an asset for an ageing continent.
FF: When you look at the political developments in Europe, the rise of populism is a clear trend. How do you think events like Brexit, the French elections, and recent inclinations toward nationalism will impact refugee and migrant policies in the EU and within individual European countries? Is migration a threat to the European project?
JB: Clearly, the rise and growing confidence of the political right are very troubling. It is hard to see where alternative leadership is going to come from. There is a vibrant liberal left constituency in Europe too, but it lacks effective leadership at the moment. I do not think anyone can be confident about what is going to happen with the European Union. Clearly, Brexit does set a precedent which could have ripple effects. I think that a lot will depend on how sharp the exit really is. In that context, it is interesting to see the European member states so far sticking to their guns, saying to the UK, “You can’t have it both ways.”
On the other hand, some recent trends are encouraging. The far right has mercifully failed to secure power in either the Dutch or the French elections, a sign that the Brexit/Trump victories may not generate the domino effect that some predicted. At the grass roots level too, many progressive initiatives are being built. In a way, city, municipal, and even regional, rather than national, entities are taking the lead toward building a more inclusive society, and I think that is likely to continue. There are many cities which have stronger pro immigrant and pro inclusion policies than their national leaderships, and constituencies within these cities are invested in them. In Berlin, Amsterdam, Stockholm, politicians, thought leaders, as well as ordinary citizens are extremely involved in daily activities of solidarity, bridge building and opportunity generation that are hopeful and generative. So even though politics at the leadership level within the EU has been problematic, there are parallel municipal initiatives that are inspiring, initiatives that are going to be forces for change moving forward.
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