Global Governance Institute


Dealing with the Refugee Crisis: Europe and Britain

20 January 2016

Rebecca Ellis (MSc Global Governance and Ethics) on a GGI panel discussion with Professor Alex Betts, Baroness Sarah Ludford, David Goodhart and Dr Sarah Fine.


Amidst the differing perspectives of four experts in their field and a sea of emotional opinions, the moderator, UCL's own Dr Avia Pasternak, did a good job of ensuring that this absorbing debate remained civil and ran to time.

For first speaker, Professor Alex Betts, Director of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford, the breakdown of a "fair share" mechanism in Europe has led to a political failure in dealing with the refugee crisis. With more than 3,000 lives lost at the time of the debate, he maintained that Europe is dealing with a collective action failure of massive proportions, due to ad hoc reception of refugees corresponding to border proximity or an accident of geography. Any quota deal will probably be inadequate, he said, as the prevailing mentality is one of shirking the burden of shared responsibility. He highlighted that the UN has failed to take leadership, despite its emphasis on shared responsibility in the 1951 Convention on Refugees, and that the international system needed to reflect seriously and quickly on how to rectify its lacklustre performance.

Baroness Ludford, former London MEP and now the Liberal Democrats' Spokesperson for Europe, took many of the European policy-based questions. She recognised that there is a need for the public to have the assurance that a system of adequate safe legal channels for refugees is in place and their resettlement is well-managed. We should ask what responsibilities exist at the national versus the EU level, she said, there needs to exist a balance between solidarity and responsibility. Currently, EU law on the issue is not implemented across all states, while the "the UK is not doing enough to live up to its historic role". The Dublin Convention was meant to stop home-shopping of asylum seekers, or 'pass the parcel', but it has failed. However, Baroness Ludford offered little insight into what could or should replace the Convention.

David Goodhart journalist, former director of the Demos think tank and author of "The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-war Immigration", empathised with Downing Street, believing that the "government has the current situation about right" with the UK experiencing record levels of asylum applications. He argued that it would better to invest in allowing refugees to stay closer to their country of origin, quoting economist Paul Collier's statement that when "educated people leave, that society is doomed." While the UK may have some formal obligations with regard to refugees, these obligations are not clear and an outdated legal framework requires updating. "Yes, we have a duty to the poor and weak of societies, not just to individuals", he said. However, collectively, we must think rationally. He argued that borders are important in underwriting collective security and as a result generosity, we must change the rules and invest seriously in the refugee camps.

Sarah Fine, Lecturer in Philosophy at King's College, London, said that we cannot ask refugees to just "hold on and wait whilst we have a debate on the matter. Refugees cannot and will not wait"; they have no choice in the matter if people are dying. To Dr Fine, the issue of a 'fair share' within the EU has its place, but is a fair share actually all we should aspire to achieve? She argued that those countries closest to the borders should not have to shoulder the burden alone, there is an urgent need for mandatory redistribution.

After the speakers had made their individual statements, the meeting was opened up to questions from the audience and a lively debate ensued. Comments were made by the audience and via Twitter that the debate could have been enhanced by having a refugee on the panel to reflect better the reality of the situation.

In some lively exchanges, Alex Betts questioned why it is so difficult to temporarily house 20 million people in a world of seven billion. David Goodhart countered that the UK is doing something to help house them, by providing aid in adjoining countries, asserting, "we will all be blaming Angela Merkel for allowing so many refugees into Europe." Baroness Ludford responded: "We should be blaming Assad." Dr Sarah Fine's major point of the evening was to question whether it was right to debate the concept of 'fair share' at all when people are drowning on Europe's doorstep.

This was a thought-provoking and at times provocative debate which drew attention to the complexities involved in the refugee crisis and the difficulties of arriving at any consensus among competing views, strongly held.