Interviews

Professor Alexander Betts on why we need to pay more attention to the refugee crisis

As we struggle through arguably the biggest global crisis in living memory, it may seem absurd to say that we should direct our attention towards an issue whose prominence in the public eye has been on the wane ever since it captured the world’s attention four years ago. Yet that is exactly what Alexander Betts, the Leopold Muller Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs at Oxford and William Golding Senior Fellow in Politics at Brasenose College, is proposing. Betts was the youngest ever director of the Refugee Studies Centre and has been named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and in Foreign Policy magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers, in addition to being published in The Guardian and The New York Times. He recently spoke to The Oxford Blue about the global refugee crisis, which, he maintains, is more pressing than ever.

While we all know about the large numbers of refugees across the world, we do not focus on them in the way that we once did. This is something of which Alexander is all too aware, as he notes that, “the media finds it difficult to focus on more than a couple of things at any one time. In 2015 and 2016, the world focused very much on the ‘refugee crisis’, as it was labeled, when in the space of a year, over a million asylum seekers came to Europe. We had wall to wall coverage,” before warning, “that coverage has waned, but it’s not like the displacement issue is going away. In fact, around the world, there are more people displaced now – about 75 million – than at any time since the Second World War.” Not only should we not neglect the global refugee crisis because of the ongoing pandemic, Betts believes, but coronavirus gives us all the more reason to be concerned about the wellbeing of refugees – and not only for the obvious health reasons, either. “COVID-19 has affected three levels,” he explains, “there’s the health implications, lockdown implications, and the global economy. The health implications are serious because many refugees, particularly in camps, don’t have the luxury of being able to socially distance; isolation isn’t an option in refugee camps or densely-populated cities around the world. But many of the refugees that I’ve spoken to during the crisis have said, we’re less worried about the health implications and the virus than the secondary effects of lockdown and the economic consequences.” 

The aspect of this crisis about which Alexander is most concerned is not what you might first think: “the really frightening thing is that we’re facing a global recession,” he remarks, “and we know that when we’ve had recessions in the past, like the 2008-2009 financial crisis – a much lesser recession [than coronavirus] – economic downturns have had major effects on the causes of displacement, had consequences for people displaced, and shaped how governments respond to those displaced.” This last point is of particular interest, as Alex points out that “when we get downturns, that’s when public attitudes turn against migration, asylum and refugees,” which can result in many governments – especially the more populist ones – adopting policies towards refugees that are best described as hostile. “A lot of governments, particularly rich governments, are using the lockdown and restrictions on international travel to make it harder than ever for asylum seekers to cross international borders,” Alexander says, “the United States, for instance, is using health as a justification for security measures, to detain and deport Haitians back to Haiti, on the grounds that in a pandemic, that supposedly becomes necessary. Other countries are pushing people back to countries they might not get away with pushing them back to if there was greater media scrutiny.”

While it is, of course, easy for us to criticise a government as openly protectionist as the Trump administration for its approach to immigration, we need only look closer to home to see a stark wake-up call regarding the hostile environments for refugees governments are striving to achieve. “Over the last five years, British refugee policy has become about restricting the number of people that come across the English Channel,” Alexander remarks, as a precursor to the worrying observation that “the language we’ve heard over the last week is that the British government, and particularly the Home Secretary, want to end that route. They want to make it no longer viable to spontaneously cross the English Channel. The difficulty with that is that it’s the only way you can claim asylum in Britain. To claim asylum in Britain, you can’t make a claim outside of Britain, you have to get to British territory. But there aren’t legal pathways [to do that]. So you end up having to enter, quote, unquote, illegally.” It would be disingenuous, however, to pin this closing of the borders solely on coronavirus; the spectre of Brexit looms large over most current government policy, and in no department is that spectre more prominent than immigration. “The UK was always at the margins of the European Union when it came to asylum and immigration policy; it had the luxury of being able to hide behind territory and water,” Alex says of Britain’s immigration policy during the latter years of its EU membership, “the rules of the common European asylum system have meant that it’s the first countries of arrival, countries like Greece and Italy, that have responsibility for assessing asylum claims and protecting those people as refugees.”

Nevertheless, Alex insists, this is something that ought to be railed against; he asserts that “most politicians agree [there] is a proud tradition of Britain providing sanctuary to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, to Ugandan Asians fleeing Idi Amin’s regime in the 1970s, Britain’s role when people were fleeing Bosnia and Kosovo,” making his point more explicit by adding that “patriotic narratives shouldn’t be used as an example to exclude refugees. Part of what it means to be British is to provide leadership on human rights and access to safe passage for refugees.” Unfortunately for Alexander, though, his opinions seem to go against the trend that is being observed in many first-world countries such as our own, which, interestingly, according to Alexander, peaked at the same time as the refugee crisis. “2016 was the big spike in populist nationalism,” he notes, before stating confidently that “all of those politicians were pushing an anti-immigration position, quite opportunistically, for electoral purposes. And immigration became the scapegoat, the rallying call. And in many cases, the people who were voting for anti-immigration parties were not living in areas of their countries that had large numbers of migrants.” Such a phenomenon may be surprising and even seem counterintuitive, but Alexander readily offers an explanation: “immigration became the proxy issue, when the underlying concerns were more about automation, offshoring structural change in the global economy, jobs moving first from Europe and the United States, to East Asia, to Southeast Asia, and then being lost to artificial intelligence, automation, et cetera.”

Even more counterintuitively, however, this already worrying element of modern politics is the one area in which the catastrophic pandemic we are facing could spark an upturn in our fortunes, according to Alexander. “What will be interesting after COVID-19 is to see if that endures now the immigration debate isn’t as public, isn’t as obvious,” he comments, “will we see, as public priorities change, different issues emerge more salient, such as public health, unemployment and economic agenda?” He asks this question cautiously, before more boldly stating that “there’s a political realignment coming, and what it will mean for populist nationalism will be an interesting reckoning.” It feels wrong to see a silver lining to a virus that has killed well over a million people, but if one were pressed to identify any possible upsides, electorates across the world gaining a sense of perspective may be the best option we have.

Some people might not appreciate an academic such as Alexander being so outspoken on political issues, but as far as he is concerned, it is not only his right, but his duty. “I am an academic, but social scientists have to be engaged with the world,” he tells me, “there are an infinite number of things we could work on, but the choices we make about what we work on are ultimately motivated by what our values are, some of the changes we want to see in the world.” Betts has worked in an advisory capacity with a number of governments, businesses and international organisations – including the UNHCR and UNICEF – across the world, and this line of work is something he sees as vitally important, arguing that “politicians and policy-makers are not sitting in libraries, spending their whole time reading peer-reviewed journal articles; they need policy briefs, they need people to explain the research to them. They need different media to present and disseminate that. Part of what I try to do is that element of policy engagement, and also public engagement, to explain things to the public through the media, through broadcast, through public talks, through books that hopefully people who are not in academia can read. And I think that’s an important role that social scientists can play and should play in the world.”

Alexander’s commitment to taking an active role in global politics is not without challenges: “I have experience of being trolled and criticised by the right on social media, but I also know what it’s like to be criticised by the left,” he says with a smile on his face, “the right often don’t like what I’ve got to say, because it’s coming from a place of saying that refugees have rights, and we need to respect them. But often, the far left doesn’t like what I have to say, because it’s coming from a place of thinking through how we can reconcile states, markets and refugees; states have some constraints, and markets are one of the best ways we have to help and support people.” Despite the intensity of the flak he faces, Betts refuses to step back, even though he knows he could. “As an academic, you have the luxury of pure critique,” he acknowledges, “that’s not a role I want to take; I don’t want to just be about pure critique. If I’m going to knock houses down, what do we rebuild in their place? And as soon as you do that, and say, here’s the alternative vision, here’s a different way of doing things, you open yourself up to criticism.” 

Despite his determination to achieve political change, Alexander is under no illusions regarding the role he plays in that process. “I shy away from terms like ‘activist’; I see myself as someone trying to do academic research on issues I care about, and articulate that to the public,” he says, while admitting that “in some cases, I have normative convictions, and when they’re supported by the evidence, I’m going to push [them] fairly strongly. But those normative convictions are basically the elements of liberalism; the idea that if we can create more freedoms for more people without making other people worse off, then that’s a good thing. But those assumptions underlie my work.” Most would forgive Alexander for having normative assumptions, on account of the vast amounts of work he has done in the field of forced migration, work which should be difficult to object to for anyone familiar with it, regardless of their political leaning.

Some of Alexander’s most notable work has revolved around the principle of viewing refugees from a developmental, rather than humanitarian, perspective, and this approach has led to the implementation of one of his ideas by the governments of the Jordan and the UK, as well as the EU and the World Bank – an initiative known as the Jordan Compact – wherein Syrian refugees were employed in Special Economic Zones in Jordan. This idea – seeing refugees as economic contributors – is considered to be a developmental approach, but in Alexander’s eyes, to see this as different from a humanitarian approach would be wrong. “When people flee a crisis, or conflict, or persecution, they very often have extreme vulnerabilities. They need food, clothing, shelter, and crucially, a set of rights,” he acknowledges, “but in addition to that, one of the problems we’ve seen around the world is protracted refugee situations, where refugee camps last not five, not ten, but 20 years or more, and children are born into those camps, they grow up in those camps, they become adults in those camps. And they don’t have the right to work, freedom of movement, or other basic socio-economic rights. That leads you to recognise that many of those people don’t just have vulnerabilities; they also have capabilities. They have skills, they have talents, they have aspirations. How can we make more of that, so that people can live in dignity and with some degree of purpose?” Betts poses this question, but from the work he has done, it is safe to say he knows the answer better than anyone.

Professor Alexander Betts’ full interview with The Oxford Blue can be found on our YouTube channel here.

Image credits: Lucylimehouse

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Elliot Sturge

Elliot Sturge is Senior Interviews Editor at The Oxford Blue. He is reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics at St. John's College, and is entering his second year. Outside of term-time, he lives in Bristol, where he plays American football and argues about politics on the internet.