On panel discussions: The Migrant and Refugee Crisis @ Oxford Martin School

Interesting set up, really interesting result: The Oxford Martin School hosted a panel to discuss the migrant and refugee crisis + responses and solutions.

In her six minutes to address the panel, Bridget Anderson brought up issues around victimhood, agency and morals [@35:20] —

On September the 7th in response to the so-called ‘refugee crisis in Europe ‘, David Cameron announced the extension of the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Protections scheme to operate alongside the regular asylum claim system. The UK won’t accept for resettlement people who have reached Europe or its borders, but it will accept 4000 people a year from the refugee camps bordering Syria. People who are identified as being victims of sexual violence, the elderly, the disabled, orphaned children, and so on.

So this is what a genuine refugee looks like: living in a camp, helpless, a broken body, a broken mind, a broken heart, and no control over their lives. But one of the challenges of the refugee crisis – let’s call it that for now, though I appreciate what Julien [Brachet] has said – lies in the refusal to be that deserving refugee who waits to be rescued from the camp. People are making choices to move, albeit within very constrained limitations. The reassertion of vulnerability as a sign of deservingness equates refugee with a very particular kind of victimhood that making decisions delegitimizes people’s status as victims, and therefore as a refugee. Choosing to move from Turkey, Jordan, or Lebanon, especially if you can afford to pay people to help you move suggests that you’re not somehow genuinely in need. Now of course, you all know that in practice refugees are not only helpless victims, but the broader truth is that .this determined.. focus on those who are believed to be the so-called ‘most vulnerable’ reveals that .all of our. models inevitably exclude as they include. The most vulnerable would in all likelihood not include the family of Aylan Kurdi. Even if we widen criteria to include all Syrians, we exclude all people from Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Iraq. If we widen inclusion to encompass all refugees, we exclude those attempting to cross the Mediterranean in rickety boats in order to build more sustainable lives. And this is a profound challenge to European claims to respect the moral equality of persons because we are living in a world of increasingly grotesque inequality both in terms of security and economic opportunity.

We don’t have to only think about the horrors of Syria and Iraq. Research by the World Bank has demonstrated that while in the 19th century, what determined your place in the noble hierarchy of income was basically whether you were a worker or a boss, a master or a servant. And today, this is much less important than in the state in which you live. And lets not forget that this inequality is not a natural state of affairs but has historical roots, both recent – and we heard about the disasterous foreign policy, but also as Colin [Bundy] talked about, colonialism and imperialism. Indeed, perhaps, rather than a refugee crisis confronting Europe, what we are seeing is a European crisis confronting refugees. Like the apocryphal story that  the Haitian slave revolution greeted the repressive French army by singing La Marseillaise, so some of the people walking along the motorways of Hungary and Austria are carrying the European flag. ‘We share your respect for justice, freedom, and human rights, and here we are, we belong.’

This is where the potential power of where the refugees are welcome lies. Probably like many people in this room, I went to the demonstration in Oxford that was actually just outside this very building. It was an expression of humanitarian impulse, but more than that, it was an assertion that we, the residents of Oxford in this case, but also other cities, have the moral authority to include. It shifts the ‘we’. ‘You’ might not welcome refugees, but we do. In this, it is a welcome contrast of the rejection of asylum-seekers and the demonization of non-citizens that has marked both the British and the European scene for many years. But who is the refugee we are welcoming – and to pick up on something that Cathryn [Costello] has said – does this refugee have to be a person who has the victim in premature or is it someone that we, the residents, has a genuine claim? The two are not necessarily the same. If we are welcoming the person on the road in Austria or risking the Channel tunnel in Calais, the emotional impulse must engage with the bureaucratic and legal process and move from the terrain from the moral to the political. For if refugees really are welcome, then something must be done at the European level about the Dublin system. But also at the national level. In Britain, each refugee welcomed counts against the net migration target, which is the critical measure of the government’s immigration policy’s success or failure. and if refugees really are welcome, there are plenty already in the UK and Oxford who are destitute and homeless. For we live in a country that has declared a hostile environment for unwanted migrants, including people who have been refused asylum but who cannot be returned because, despite the rejection of their asylum claims, it is acknowledged that their country of citizenship is too dangerous.

Furthermore, every refugee welcomed needs a place to live. Unfortunately, in the UK, homelessness and hunger are not confined to refugees. If the environment is to be truly welcoming for refugees, it is critical that they are not positioned as competitors for scarce resources – that is, welcoming refugees cannot be treated as an isolated social issue, and this makes it intensely political. ‘Refugees are welcome’ is indeed a very bold statement.