While it has become routine for politicians and the public to talk of refugees as a burden, there has been a standout voice challenging this preconception. “There’s nothing inevitable about refugees being a cost,” Alexander Betts said in a popular TED talk in February 2016. “They’re human beings with skills, talents, aspirations, with the ability to make contributions – if we let them.”
The head of the Refugee Studies Center at Oxford University, Betts leads an international team that researches refugee and other forced-migrant populations. The author of numerous books and a consultant to the U.N. Refugee Agency, the International Organization for Migration and the Council of Europe, he has regularly challenged popular thinking on refugees, becoming a go-to expert for policymakers and the media alike.
In the wake of Brexit and an ill-tempered referendum campaign that many observers accused of lurching into populist caricatures of immigration, Betts is among the thought leaders being considered to map a way forward.
He recently spoke with Refugees Deeply about the roots of Brexit and the opportunities that were missed for a more honest and centrist debate about migration. His is an optimistic and impassioned voice concerned with fresh ideas and an evidence-based approach to rethink the challenges and opportunities during a period of intense forced migration.
Refugees Deeply: We’ve seen during the build-up to the Brexit referendum that the issue of immigration has been divisive and generated anger against the perceived establishment. Was there an opportunity missed to shape a different public conversation around refugees, asylum seekers and migrants?
Betts: Immigration was cited as the second greatest concern – after the related issue of sovereignty – in opinion polls with Leavers. The salience of immigration in the Brexit debate reflects a widespread sense of alienation and fear, in which migration has become the go-to political scapegoat for a range of genuine social grievances: unemployment, housing shortages, industrial decline and pressure on social services.
But underlying this is a profound failure of political leadership from all sides of the political spectrum. Both the Conservatives and Labour have too often pandered to a sense of nativism rather than offering clarity. Polls like the Ipsos MORI immigration attitudes survey show widespread public ignorance on migration. For example, people believe there are far more asylum seekers than there actually are in the U.K. Even in 2015, less than 40,000 actually came to the U.K. – far fewer than at the peak in 2002.
The quality of the conversation could have been very different. Throughout the noughties [the decade from 2000], migration was passed around like a hot potato; nobody wanted to offer political leadership or come up with a serious vision for fear of being burned. Nobody has found a way to narrate the impact of mobility and globalization for the 52 percent – the people who perhaps haven’t traveled that much, been to university or who worry about immigration.
Refugees Deeply: Is another conversation about migration possible in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. A different public debate than the one we had prior to Brexit?
Betts: We need to reframe the issue, and Brexit can teach us a lot about how to do that. What we need is for politicians to show far more courage and leadership on the issue. First, they have to be honest with the public – we have to have a clear articulation of who is coming from where and why, recognizing that migration is a normal part of the contemporary world. Second, there has to be additional support for local communities receiving large numbers.
While migration unambiguously brings aggregate benefits, it also has redistributive consequences, requiring that local host communities also have the chance to share in the benefits – through investment in health, education and social services. Third, the quality of debate must be more open and honest. There are many valid positions on immigration – but they have to be informed and evidence-based. Nobody should shy away from open debate on the topic, but basic information has to be out there and that’s challenging when the media and politicians peddle so many half-truths.
Refugees Deeply: What are the implications for refugee and migration policy in the wake of Brexit?
Betts: The implications of Brexit for refugee and migration policy are not inevitable. Brexit has direct consequences only for intra-E.U. migration. The U.K. already had sovereign authority over non-E.U. migration. But even for intra-E.U. migration, the government could still choose between any number of different immigration policies. Norway and Switzerland, for example, have adopted models of residency and work rights for E.U. citizens that are virtually identical to those of E.U. member states.
The real consequences of Brexit for refugee and migration policies are more likely to be indirect. They will come through two routes. First, there is a real risk that the vote will signal a shift to the right by all parties on immigration issues based on a belief that there is an electoral demand for tighter immigration control. Second, there is a risk that Brexit’s knock-on effects across Europe and moves by other European governments to hold referenda will both further erode the Common European Asylum System and embolden new forms of populist nationalism.
Refugees Deeply: Some observers, such as Paul Collier in his book “Exodus,” have looked at host countries’ rights to manage migration for the benefit of their own populations. This approach has been criticized from the right and the left. Is it possible to have a centrist approach to migration?
Betts: There has been a polarization in politics around the world both generally and on this specific issue. The far right is relying upon absurd caricature, such as [Nigel] Farage’s Brexit campaign poster depicting people coming from Syria in a manner reminiscent of Nazi propaganda. But the impact that has is to shift the center-right further to the right on the debate. On the left of the spectrum you get pandering to the fear of loss of jobs and the fear of declining wages, and even there, there has been a notable lurch toward nativism. The center ground effectively doesn’t exist anymore – either in British politics or around the world. A politics of moderate liberalism is severely lacking.
Paul Collier has been one of very few academics to take up that center ground and to try to consider what a reasoned and sustainable approach to immigration might look like. There are certainly things in “Exodus” that Paul and I might debate, but the great strength of his work in this area lies partly in its willingness to take up the center ground and to reason through public policy positions in ways that balance competing claims.
What we urgently need is a sustainable approach that seeks to reconcile democracy with globalization. What has made the European refugee crisis distinctive is that it represents an influx into a democratic region, and democracies struggle to sustain a commitment to large numbers of non-citizens when citizens feel that their entitlements and opportunities are threatened. The only way to overcome this is to ensure that host communities understand and share in the benefits of immigration. It means that the larger challenge is to create a model of inclusive globalization, one in which rather than the elite liberal establishment receiving all the benefits of openness, whole societies share in those benefits.
Refugees Deeply: Are there positive U.K. examples that could be highlighted and provide some evidence for a more positive narrative?
Betts: I think the immigration debate takes place in very London terms and we don’t really report what happens on a countrywide basis. And if we do it tends to be that when we do report things that resonate with the national media like stories of dispersal that haven’t worked, stories of clashes between communities, stories of xenophobia or scandalous private sector practices adopted by contractors – such as the red armbands imposed on asylum seekers in Cardiff.
But there are really positive examples. I was in Sheffield two weeks ago and it struck me as a very open, inclusive, tolerant city with a lot of community projects, some very simple. A wonderful project called the Conversation Club stands out. All it does is it gets refugees who have arrived together with the wider community to engage in conversation. It helps with English-language acquisition, the development of networks, breaks down social barriers and sometimes even leads to job opportunities.
These types of examples don’t get reported because they’re in the north of England. It’s much more straightforward to report examples of xenophobia or the dispersal of asylum seekers to Oldham or Burnley or Blackburn and report the negative side. Central government doesn’t have the relationship it needs to have with local authorities on the dispersal of refugees and asylum seekers and it doesn’t provide the necessary additional funding to support local communities around the country.
Alexander Betts is Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs, and Director of the Refugee Studies Center, at the University of Oxford. In June 2016 he gave a TED talk on Brexit.