The illusion of 'controlled migration' is that you can actually control it

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Marco Werman:  I’m Marco Werman and this is the world.  We’re a co-production of the BBC world service, PRI and WGBH here in Boston.   It takes something exceptional to get the 28 countries of the European Union to agree on something and right now that exceptional something is the migrant crisis.  Europe is scrambling to cope with a massive influx of migrants coming across the Mediterranean Sea.  More than 60,000 so far this year with nearly 2000 dead making that crossing. 

Part of the EU response is a plan to seize and destroy the boats that smugglers use to carry all those people.  Alexander Betts does not like that plan.  He directs the Center for Refugee studies at the University of Oxford in England. 

Alexander Betts:  What we’re seeing is a focus very much on smugglers and trying to dismantle smugglers that work at sea in North Africa and that really I think misjudges the nature of the problem.  If we think about smugglers, yes, the facilitate migration, but they don’t create migration.  They respond to an underlying demand for migration and all the dismantling and smuggling that works (?) does, is it changes the price of crossing.  It increases the price.  But when people are desperate, it simply means that they take high risks, spend more money that they don’t have trying to cross the Mediterranean, and rather like a war on drugs, it probably shifts the demand and supply dynamic slightly but doesn’t address the underlying root causes of migration across the Mediterranean. 

Werman:  Right so the other thing that the EU has been talking about is the migrant quota plan which also doesn’t really address the root cause of this crisis, does it?

Betts:  It’s all based on the assumption that you can control migration, that you can dictate from political perspective who comes and who doesn’t and that’s what European politicians would like to convey to their electorate.  A sense of control, a sense of management.  But the reality is it’s very difficult to turn the tap on and off .  To say we want this number on this basis.  If we look at who’s actually coming across the Mediterranean, the groups are from Syria, Eretria, Somalia, also some countries like Afghanistan.  A significant portion are refugees.   They’re fleeing conflict and persecution by their governments.   Yes some are coming from poverty, some are trying to economically better themselves but many are refugees and we have an absolute obligation to them which we cannot subject to a quota.  Under International refugee and human rights law, if a refugee reaches your territory, you have an obligation not to return them to a situation where their fundamental human rights are at risk.

Werman:  I mean the problem really is the crises that send these people abroad are out of kind of the reach of a lot of European nations.  Do you think the Europeans are just kind of hamstrung on how to deal with this situation?

Betts:  I think absolutely.  The problem needs to be resituated to in a larger global context. And it’s all too easy to see this as a case of controlling borders and controlling smugglers in the Mediterranean while neglecting the root causes lying in other parts of the world

Werman: There are as you suggested Alexander economic migrants in among the political migrants, literally on the same boat quite often.  Shouldn’t they both be dealt with in the same way?

Betts:   On some levels, they do need to be addressed in the same way in the sense that all of these people have human rights.  Human rights accrue to people as human being irrespective of their migratory status but I think it is important to remember some of them are refugees under International law and refugee status is something that is very particular, it’s different from economic migrations and the international community created that system wisely after the second world war to protect people fleeing the holocaust and the early cold war.  It’s as relevant today as it has ever been and we’ve got to recognize the distinct population of refugees who are a growing proportion of these people making the dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean and elsewhere.


Werman:  Alexander Betts there and he directs the center for refugee studies at the University of Oxford