Refugee crisis: what the experts say

Academics from across the University of Sheffield share their views on the refugee crisis.

What the University is doing for the crisis and how you can help

Dr Lucy Mayblin, Department of Politics

Lucy MayblinFor administrative purposes politicians and civil servants like to make a very clear distinction between economic migrants and refugees. Almost every policy maker interviewed on TV about the current refugee crisis will talk about the need to distinguish between economic migrants and refugees. This distinction between the two is then logically followed forward into policy making. So the UK should not do anything that ‘sends out a signal’ that economic migrants should attempt to come here.

There are two problems with this account of migration to the UK. First, there is in fact not a clear distinction between forced and voluntary migration. The lines are blurred. In simple terms it is entirely possible for someone to have been persecuted but also have hopes and dreams for the future, which like the rest of us probably involve working. Second, there is a large body of research into the reasons that asylum seekers end up in destination countries. All of the research has consistently found asylum seekers to have little knowledge of the UK before they come here. Often they are not able to exercise choice about their destination country as they have paid smugglers who constrain their choices. Where they are able to choose, they come to the UK because of a combination of having family or friends here, and having a vague idea of Britain as a fair country where the rule of law and human rights are respected, so they will be safe. Vitally, histories of colonial relations are one of the most significant factors determining destination country. This is partly about language and it is partly about that image of Britain as being a safe, fair, lawful society.

While it is easier from an administrative point of view to suggest that refugees and economic migrants are distinct groups, and that people come to the UK because they have heard about the current policy approach, this simply does not match the complex realities of migration patterns on the ground.


Dr Catherine Harris, Research Fellow in EU Migration

Dr Catherine HarrisFaced with the pressure to accommodate the unprecedented surge in volume, of refugees and asylum seekers, Europe has turned its back on the concept of “one Europe” and returned to a traditional formula: the search for national governmental solutions in dealing with a global problem. The Germans have demonstrated their willingness to accept refugees in percentages far beyond their proportion of the EU’s total population. The British have focused on arguing with the French about the relatively few people who might get to Britain through the Eurostar’s Channel Tunnel at Calais. Only this week did Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron belatedly pledge to accept 20,000 more Syrian refugees over the course of the next five years. And he insisted that they should be drawn from people still in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey rather than those who have already arrived on Europe’s shores.

Germany, Britain and France have called for an emergency meeting on September 14 of European Union ministers to find solutions to the crisis. One suggestion is to scrap the Dublin Regulation that governs asylum policy altogether. It is not clear, however, what will replace it and decision-making on coordinated EU policy is slow. For the time being. it appears that Germany’s chancellor is the only voice in Europe, calling on each country to do only what “is morally and legally required” of them.


Dr Alexandra Bohm, School of Law

Alexandra BohmThe UK, like many other countries, has international legal obligations to protect refugees (people fleeing conflict or persecution because they are at risk of losing their lives). One of the main obligations is to refrain from returning forcibly those who seek asylum (protection in a new country) to the place where they faced persecution. Although the UK has traditionally accepted very few asylum seekers, the recent humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean region has raised awareness of the plight of refugees, particularly those fleeing the war in Syria.

Governments in Europe are pledging to increase the number of Syrian refugees which they will take in. Whilst this is a promising response to the immediate crisis, long-term solutions - for all 19.5 million refugees worldwide and not just for Syrians - must not be forgotten. We must focus efforts on preventing refugee crises from arising in the first place - and one of the key ways we can do this is by working to prevent the wars from which refugees flee. There is a danger that the UK's (and other states') military actions in countries such as Libya and Syria will worsen their instability and so drive out more refugees.


Professor Bob Moore, Professor of Twentieth Century European History

Bob MooreThere are many similarities between the refugee crisis of 2015 and those of previous decades, both in terms of their creation and in terms of the individual national and international responses. However, there are also some marked differences, for example in terms of the speed and facility with which would-be refugees/migrants are able to travel and also their access to relevant information - making it ostensibly much easier to make objective decisions about their futures and ultimate preferred destinations. Likewise there is an inevitable but unhelpful consolidation of war refugees and 'economic migrants' in the discourse about admission to the first world. Current British policy can be compared with that of 1938-39 (and indeed these parallels have been drawn by policy-makers) but both in fact represent(ed) a meagre yet self-aggrandising agenda by prioritising (orphan) children. Even more telling is that in both cases the children's long term security does not appear to be guaranteed - as in the present scheme where such children will only be given 'humanitarian' visas with a five year validity.


Dr Holly Lawford-Smith, Lecturer in Philosophy

Holly Lawford-SmithResettling and welcoming refugees in large numbers requires sustained political will; it's an interesting question whether the current wave of citizens' empathy will last given strong anti-immigration tendencies in British politics. I'm interested in the ways we can try to change the minds of those hostile to humanitarian protection, and how we can get people to act on their obligations.


Professor Andrew Geddes and Dr Majella Kilkey, Directors of the University's Migration Research Group

Andrew GeddesThe refugee crisis demonstrates very clearly how far out of line are the drivers of refugee flows and migration and the drivers of migration governance and politics.

The key driver of the current refugee crisis is the conflict in Syria plus effects of conflict and oppression in countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea and Iraq. Other factors also play a role in migration more generally. Economic inequalities, the role of social networks linking migrants with kith and kin in other parts of the world; demographic change; and the effects of environmental and climate change are and will undoubtedly remain key future drivers of migration.

In contrast, migration politics and governance in many European countries are powerfully shaped by a breakdown in trust between the people and their political leaders. This is probably linked more to th

e effect of economic and crisis and austerity than to migration, but the evidence about its effects is quite compelling: those who tend not to trust their political leaders and institutions tend also to be hostile to 'immigration' in its various forms.

This disjunction between the drivers of migration and the drivers of migration politics can helps to explain both the causes of the refugee crisis and the slow response of many European governments.


Dr Francesca Strumia, School of Law

Francesca StrumiaThe crisis challenges our very sense of humanity and forces us to think about the meaning of living in bordered societies. At the same time by revealing the inadequacy of existing approaches and legal frames, it is an opportunity for EU Member States to think constructively about the nature and degree of the cooperation that common external borders and open internal ones call for, and about the extent to which the European integration project can, and wants to, revindicate commitment to values of openness and solidarity.