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The Great Challenge of Our Generation: Peter Sutherland Talks Refugee Crisis

Peter Sutherland is UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for International Migration and a member of Berggruen Institute’s 21st Century Council

BERGGRUEN INSTITUTE: Why do you think migration is such a central topic in the political debates across Western Democracies? 

PETER SUTHERLAND: This is the global crisis of our time.  It will define our generation and possibly the 21st century. Economic migration is becoming more and more evident and will never go away, but more importantly, the reality of population – forget disaster and war – population growth is massive in some areas and anemic in others. Africa is growing more than 2 times as fast as Europe. The birthrate is 4.7 children per women compared to Europe’s 1.6 per woman. Also the number of people over 60 will be growing very quickly. By 2030 the developed world will see an increase of 56%.  Japan, Germany, Italy and Finland are at the top of this list. The youngest countries are all in Africa. Demography is going to challenge economies as working populations decline and the society has a large number of elderly to support. Europe needs migration to keep their economies going. The evidence everywhere is that migrants are more likely to be employed, make greater contributions than they take in benefits, and are more innovative and entrepreneurial than the native population. They are a net economic contributor everywhere they go. 

B.I.: So given the obvious and growing need and benefits, why is there so much resistance in the West to migration? Why are populist politicians winning in many western democracies? 

P.S.: The resistance is a perverted form of nationalism. Linked to ethnicity and religion. The acceptance of Christian refugees only – which is a proposal floated by such politicians – is a throwback to the religious wars. This mentality that is the precursor to Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations. It is a rejection of multiculturalism. Nativism is an attitude that pits migrants against other migrants. Compounded by the fact that thousands are losing their lives. 

When it comes to refugees we have a moral obligation to give them refuge. At this point, proximity seems to be defining responsibility, rather than any coherent response - if they land on your shores, they are your problem.

Macedonian border police help refugees and migrants to pass from the northern Greek village of Idomeni to southern Macedonia, Sept. 10, 2015.


B.I.: How would you describe the international response to the refugee crisis? 

P.S.: When it comes to refugees we have a moral obligation to give them refuge. At this point, proximity seems to be defining responsibility, rather than any coherent response - if they land on your shores, they are your problem. Italy and Greece are left with the burden while others, particularly in the Eastern Europe, build borders to stop the refugees from crossing. Germany and Sweden have been exceptional in their responses to the crisis.  The United States must also bear their portion of the responsibility. 

Soccer fans in Germany lift sign reading 'Say it loud, say it clear. Refugees are welcome here,' during match on September 8, 2015. Source: Daniel Bockwoldt/dpa

B.I.: How can they be compelled to live up to their responsibility to share the burden? 

P.S.: There is no world mechanism for sharing responsibility. There is a convention of 1951 that creates a legal obligation to accept asylum seekers but only where they land. And the definition of asylum seekers is quite narrow. People escaping disaster and war are not included. The EU commission has passed a law to share responsibility. But Central and Eastern Europe are resisting, which is a travesty. If its laws are not respected, the EU falls apart.  

B.I.: How much of the Western response – or lack thereof – is driven by public fear of radicalized Islam, in light of the terrorist attacks in Paris? What is your response to those who cite those fears? 

P.S.: I don’t think fear is the substantive reason for the opposition.  It is certainly being used by some of the politicians, but it’s not the cause of the negativism which is far more related to the national identity and who is in and out.

B.I.: What about Brexit? How important is the refugee crisis and migration in general in defining how people will vote on the 23rd?  

P.S.: BREXIT is about the right of free movement of people. All economic leaders - IMF, OECD, World Bank - say it’s a terrible idea. Two thirds of the members of parliament in the UK would not vote to leave the union. But the supremacy of parliament is being overridden by referendum. If Britain wants to have access to the single market, it will have to accept the laws of the EU. The only difference is it will have no voice in the development of those laws. Switzerland has had to accept the laws. The debate in Britain is outrageous. The leave advocates are spreading gross distortions about the number of migrants and numbers of refugees and the percentage of the population that is foreign born. Britain is a tolerant country. Ironically, we advocated for EU expansion and Greece’s inclusion. 

B.I.: What actions would you like to see taken at this point by western powers? 

P.S.: Solutions and partial solutions being proposed such as the mechanism for sharing the costs and responsibilities. Ultimately, we have to deal with the cause – war needs to be resolved. But in the future we need to open avenues of legal migration and to close off illegal immigration and trafficking. We cannot cut off the flow from one source without opening other avenues. Our economies need it and the people immigrating will not stop coming.  In order to avoid the economic and humanitarian crisis we need to enable the global rebalancing. There have to be multiple bargains with countries of transit, a complicated mosaic of agreements. 

The basic concept of our civilization is dignity of human person and equality of man. Both are under severe challenge, the challenge of our generation. [...] If we do not rise to the challenge and find a solution we will have failed in our moral obligation to these values. 

Children back in the classroom after leaving their homeland - and school - behind in Syria. Source: Adam Patterson/Panos/DFID

B.I.: Final thoughts? 

P.S.: The basic concept of our civilization is dignity of human person and equality of man. Both are under severe challenge, the challenge of our generation. These beliefs - and the consequences of dismissing them - were brought into sharp focus in the aftermath of the holocaust of WWII. Most of us have not faced war or faced a terrible moment. This is our terrible moment. Thousands are dying as we squabble. If we do not rise to the challenge and find a solution we will have failed in our moral obligation to these values. 

This interview was conducted by Berggruen Institute Executive Vice President, Dawn Nakagawa.