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MMC interviews Alexander Betts:
“A time for bold vision”

The following interview was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2018 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

The line between “refugee” and “migrant” may be becoming ever more blurred in today’s world, but increasing protections for the latter need not entail eroding the safeguards enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention, argues Alexander Betts, who believes reinventing liberalism is the only way to defeat populist extremism.

Mixed migration is a lens that looks at the shared routes, experiences, protection threats, and intentions of both refugees and migrants. Is the formal division of these categories coming under question?

There is a stark institutional separation between the “refugee” and the “migrant” and this line has historically been created with the idea that the refugee has privileged status in international law. The apparatus of the state and intergovernmental systems has been created in order to triage groups. One by-product is that it legitimates one group – refugees – and sometimes de-legitimates the other group – economic migrants. In a globalised world, it is now widely recognised that it’s very difficult in practice to draw a clear distinction between those two categories.

I’ve written about the idea of what I call “survival migration” – people who flee desperate circumstances – particularly fragile states, severe socioeconomic rights deprivations, environmental change etc. who are not recognised as refugees within the dominant interpretation of the 1951 Convention. Despite that reality, there is politically very little appetite for expanding the boundaries of the refugee definition or creating new protection categories. In the current context, it therefore makes pragmatic sense to safeguard the category of “refugee”, but gradually ensure other groups of vulnerable migrants also receive access to the protection that they need under international human rights norms.

What about the global compacts? We see a separation of compacts which some have criticised. Do you see a value in this separation?

The genesis of the compacts is complex. The initial proposal during late 2015 was for a single international conference to create a comprehensive plan of action for Syrian refugees and the Mediterranean in the context of the European refugee crisis. But for a range of reasons, connected to institutional politics, the plans adapted such that by January 2016, it was agreed to work towards a New York summit in September 2016 with the aim of a Global Compact on Refugees (GCR). In order to create symmetry, other institutions pushed for a parallel Global Compact on Migration (GCM). The separation stems in part from an institutional division of labour within the UN system: UNHCR has led the Global Compact on Refugees; Switzerland and Mexico have co-chaired the parallel migration process. Of course, the sharp distinction risks gaps and overlaps. In particular, there is little place for either internal displacement or cross-border displacement that falls outside the refugee definition. But in fairness, UNHCR has made proposals for the migration compact, and the migration compact has included a focus on migrants in vulnerable situations. The compacts are playing quite different roles: the GCR attempts to fill a gap in an existing regime by ensuring more predictable responsibility-sharing; the GCM is one of the first building blocks in the creation of an embryonic global migration governance system.

Has UNHCR been put in a tight spot by recent events and the changing global debate?

UNHCR has been in a challenging position. It faces a range of constraints: humanitarian budget cuts including as a result of the Trump Administration, endemic non-compliance with the 1951 Convention, and institutional competition resulting from the entry of IOM into the UN system. It has tried to take a cautious strategy and has purposefully excluded a number of areas from the GCR debate, notably institutional or legal reform. This is understandable given the constraints. The Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) offers the basis for the GCR’s theory of change. It provides a new development-based and market-based way of working, which is very welcome.

Are you optimistic in terms of how history will judge these compacts? Will they be significant or just more non-binding statements of principle where governments will act unilaterally despite then?

It’s a tricky one to judge. When we look at the GCR it is basically a list of actors who can support responsibility-sharing and a range of ways in which they can contribute. On those terms, it’s a good document. The challenge will be to translate that into real commitments. The GCR envisages some mechanisms to achieve that: an annual Global Refugee Forum and a series of Solidarity Platforms for particular crises. The CRRF is also showing promise in some of the situations I’ve seen, like Kenya and Ethiopia. But what determines whether new commitments emerge will, as ever, be political leadership. Today, international organisations need more than ever the capacity to lead collective action and offer principled yet pragmatic bargains. One thing we learn from history is that abstract generic commitments by states in the refugee regime rarely lead to significant outcomes especially if they are non-binding. The litmus test for me will be in a three-to-five year period after the compacts, what has actually changed on the ground? For example, with the Rohingya, or the Somalis, or Venezuelans in Colombia and Brazil, or Syrians in Lebanon and Jordan? Will we see durable solutions? As for the GCM, we need a degree of perspective. It is still early days in the creation of a system of global migration governance. Although the GCM mainly lays out principles, from which states will be able to pick and choose. But it represents an important first step, and places migration squarely on the agenda of the UN system.

In your book ‘Refuge’ you discuss the failing global refugee system. You join others in critiquing UNHCR for not pushing for an enlargement of options for refugees. Why do you think it doesn’t?

The organisation has chosen a cautious strategy, deliberately choosing to keep certain issues off the table. They’ve chosen to keep the refugee definition off the table, and they’ve chosen to keep UNHCR reform off the table. Many UNHCR staff understandably feel under threat and can see the politics is not auspicious for refugee protection. Given the constraints, the GCR and the CRRF at least represent a viable pathway forwards. Since we wrote “Refuge”, I have to say I have been more impressed by the general direction of travel, especially in relation to adopting some of the themes in the book, such as development-based and market-led approaches to refugee assistance. But there will be major strategic challenges to come. I think the world has fundamentally changed, in terms of the distribution of power, the impact of structural economic change and automation, and the rise of populist nationalism. UNHCR will need to continue to adapt to the changing reality, especially through building its capacity for political leadership in a constrained global context.

In relation to mixed migration the debate is often stretched between principled and pragmatic positions. How do we avoid the divide becoming greater and the refugee regime becoming increasingly irrelevant to some governments?

In many ways, I am an idealist. I believe in the cause of refugee protection, I believe in human rights and I recognise the benefits of immigration but if those principles are to be meaningful in the contemporary world we have to be pragmatic. Political changes in Europe, North America, Australia and elsewhere means the rich world is scapegoating immigration. There is a backlash created by populist nationalism. We obviously must not pander to xenophobia. We should correct the false claims of the populists. We should push back against the anti-immigration tide. But we also need to ensure that the principles that we value are consistent with democracy, that they can be supported by electorates, and that we take people with us. Otherwise we risk making it easy for extremist politicians to criticise liberal international values, and drive a wedge between those ideals and the perspective of the median voter. So we need to find ways to reconcile liberal internationalism with contemporary democracy.

There is sometimes a public perception that the global number of refugees and migrants is too great and a fear of the impact of accepting migrants and refugees. Can you comment on these perceptions and fears?

In terms of numbers, 25 million refugees is only 0.35 percent of the world’s population and should be manageable. The challenge is more geographical concentration: 85 percent are in low and middle income countries, and 60 percent are in just 10 host countries. International migration levels, meanwhile, have remained broadly stable as a proportion of the global population since the 1970s, albeit at numbers that have gone from around 70 million to 240 million or so. The “refugee crisis” has never been a crisis of numbers, it’s a crisis of politics, a crisis of trust, as well. I think that in Europe and North America the reason why people fear social and cultural change is because of underlying structural changes. It’s because of the loss of low skilled manufacturing jobs, the politics of austerity, and the way these changes have been politically narrated by extremists. What we need to do collectively is to build a sustainable migration framework with policies that work for migrants, receiving countries and transit countries.

Politically, we see policies and the electorate in numerous countries moving towards anti-migrant populism. How do you maintain your optimism in the current environment?

In the current world, one of the big challenges is reconciling democracy with globalisation. While being increasingly connected through technology, the electorate are demanding that the sovereignty of the nation state be revalidated, reasserted. So, reconciling democracy and globalisation will require a significant degree of imagination and includes how we all see mobility and migration. I’m optimistic that we will get there but it will require visionary leadership backed up by institutions including the different United Nations organisations, but at the moment that’s not coming through.

What would we face if borders remained as they are, or if international borders became yet more restrictive and resistant to mobility?

You can throw out all kinds of scenarios, but basically 2015 offered us a window to see what the absence of collective action means for mass mixed migration. It threatens political systems in receiving countries where we see populist backlash. It threatens the lives of those who have made arduous and desperate journeys, it brings into existence the criminal networks related to human smuggling and it puts incredible pressure on receiving countries undermining their willingness to provide refugee protection.

So, just on the basis of what we saw in 2015, if we imagine that taking place in different continents on a semi-permanent basis, it should make us aware that we have to search for provision. It is neither idealistic nor an abandoning of our principles to chart a middle ground and I find it increasingly frustrating that this is a debate that’s polarising: either positions sticking uncompromisingly to liberal values that worked quite effectively in the 1990s and the early 2000s, or lurching towards extremist exclusionary policies. This is a time for provisions that reconcile competing areas of the political spectrum. Unless we are bold, unless we are visionary and unless we embrace elements of fundamental change, we’ll lose. We need to reinvent liberalism, nationally and globally.