Dr. Michel Maietta: “The current international definition of a refugee is outdated and poorly limited”

Dr. Michel Maietta, the Former Director of Strategy at Save the Children International and Action Against Hunger, and the founder of the Interagency Research and Analysis Network, recently gave an interview regarding the issue of migration from the humanitarian and European perspective. The interview also touched on other matters, including media perception and the role of NGOs and civil society on the matter.

12 mins read

Abdennour Toumi: The question of migrants has been challenging policymakers on the one hand and has worked as a catchy political selling point for right-wing and far-right parties on the other. What makes the issue of migrants move from its purely humanitarian principle to a rhetorical political discourse in the host countries in the West in general and Europe in particular?

Dr. Michel Maietta: With economic instability, xenophobic expressions and actions increase. The anxiety fostered by uncertainty and the fear of access to limited resources both fuel xenophobia and exacerbate discrimination. Xenophobia is an atavistic fear towards people whose identity is different.

With economic instability comes political struggle, and xenophobic feelings towards migrants become a fertile ground for demagoguery. Western society and its presumed universal values are today challenged externally and internally, and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the crisis.  All these ingredients merge to make migrants and refugees the perfect political scapegoating. Even Mediterranean societies, which are historically open to foreign contacts and influence, while maintaining its own tradition and character, are giving in to the temptation to blame migrants and refugees.

Abdennour Toumi: Is this related to the paranoia of politicians, and the media about the threat of terrorism in Europe?

Dr. Michel Maietta: The business model of the most performant media operators and the financial sustainability of many media actors, particularly the independent ones, made media very vulnerable to political influence. If the migrants and refugees become a political scapegoating, then the media turn in its primal vehicle.

Abdennour Toumi: What is the difference between a refugee and a migrant? Do both need protection according to the 1951 Geneva Convention?

Dr. Michel Maietta: Migrants and refugees are both people on the move. Refugees fled their own country to save their life or because they are at risk of human rights violations and persecution. They have no choice. Migrants are all the people deciding to live outside their country of origin who are not refugees.

The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol assert the principle of “non-refoulement,” which affirms that a refugee should not be returned to its country of origin if lifesaving threats, human rights violations and persecution risks persist. However, the two define “refugee” as a “person that is outside of the country of his/her nationality and is unable to return, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” The text limits the fleeing conditions to war and civil strife.

Abdennour Toumi: In this case, do host countries who ratified the convention have a moral responsibility to offer aid and protection to the migrants and the refugees alike?

Dr. Michel Maietta: If the international definition of a “refugee” is coherent with the history of the international refugees’ law in the twentieth century, it is today outdated and poorly limited. The lifesaving threats forcing migration embrace all the possible needs of the first two levels of the Maslow Pyramid: safety and physiological. This is why economic and climate migrants are morally considered refugees too and states need to extend the international protection accordingly, without hiding behind a vintage refugee definition.

Abdennour Toumi: How are Italy, Spain, and France dealing with this thorny issue? Why did Germany take another direction on the issue of migrants in the aftermath of the influx of Syrian migrants on its borders in 2015?

Dr. Michel Maietta: Between 2015 and 2016, as media diffused the distress of people fleeing war and terrorism in the Middle East, German public support for accepting refugees increased. At the time, Merkel’s decision was not politically risky internally. Five years later, Germany received over one million refugees and half of them had found already a job. Integration is a core policy area in Germany, and it is considered a task for all of society. In 2019, the Federal Government introduced legislation to promote education and employment for foreigners. We are far from such integration awareness and effectiveness in Italy and France. In Italy, this is because the country still struggles for its own economic development against growing territorial inequality. In France, on the other hand, this is due to the integration experiment after the decolonization process was a failure, the consequences of which are still echoing today without political countermeasures.

Abdennour Toumi: There are groups who are making a living on this tragic humanitarian crisis like smuggling and trafficking of human beings. Does this entail the need for strong coordination in a tripartite way between the country of departure, the transit country and the host country?

Dr. Michel Maietta: The lack of global awareness of people on the move, the redundant international refugees law, and the political scapegoating of migrants and refugees all set the conditions for a long-lasting economy of human trafficking. Human trafficking and the smuggling of migrants are practically and legally interlinked. Trafficked persons are smuggled across borders and smuggled migrants are particularly defenseless in the face of human trafficking, given their insecurity and vulnerable situation. As all sustainable systems, to tear down human trafficking you need to unravel its root causes, starting by extending the refugees international protection, setting up a global coordination mechanism on people on the move and educating young generations on the evolutionary wealthiness of diversity and the importance of integrating migrants and refugees for the well-being of our societies.

Abdennour Toumi: As for the question of INGOs and NGOs, how are they performing, considering project implementation programs for example in Turkey with UNHCR and ECHO?

Dr. Michel Maietta: INGOs, NGOs and civil society, in general, are doing their best to compensate for the default of protection and integration of migrants and refugees perpetrated by our current international and national systems. However, their programs are drops in the ocean, and it is hard to address the root causes effectively. UN agencies, the UNHCR, and the UN need deep reforms to transform themselves in order to fit for the future. In general, all humanitarian actors addressing migrants and refugees’ needs with limited resources and obsolete structures require to think more strategically to maximize impact. They should not be content with the current state of business. Foresight, strategic planning and collaboration are keys for change and transformation, and to save more migrants and refugees’ lives at the end of the line.

Abdennour Toumi: What makes European countries not have a coherent migrant policy? Do European countries look at this humanitarian question as a natural disaster instead?

Dr. Michel Maietta: European leaders fear that xenophobia and discrimination, combined with the rise of nationalism, will fuel political instability in Europe and threaten the European Union itself. Containment is the most reactive and consensual policy to implement, whereas integration is more contentious when refugees and migrant flows knock at European doors. The lack of political anticipation of this crisis was emblematic. Unfortunately, humanitarian aid is not exempt of political influence or manipulation. The business model of most humanitarian actors makes them vulnerable to political influence, and when a major European humanitarian donor bank for containment, some humanitarian actors are tempted to support it blindfolded, comforted by “saving lives” in the short term.

Humanitarian actors are engraved in a culture of emergency, where “saving life” is a litany and operations are a central value chain. When it comes to addressing complex issues like migrants’ and refugees’ safety and well-being, once their life is temporarily saved, the humanitarian actors often lack strategic thinking. Some humanitarian actors even defend themselves to play in the political arena, in name of an impossible “neutrality,” and despite this, they are played by political actors. Strategic paradox, culture of reactivity, “white savior” ideology and organizational inertias all deteriorate the humanitarian impact and actors’ potential to offer a sustainable future to people on the move dramatically.

Abdennour Toumi: How do humanitarian think tanks like IARAN enhance humanitarian action and policies toward decision-makers?

Dr. Michel Maietta: Foresight has been used for decades by decision-makers in national militaries, by governments at many levels and by large companies. However, it has not yet been mainstreamed into the ways of working of humanitarian actors. The IARAN was conceived as an operational research experience in 2012 and, at the end of 2018, it became an independent entity. The work that has comprised this experience has mostly been in the practical application of strategic foresight for operational humanitarian actors, though it has also included support to governments and academic institutions. Since its inception, and in every version of its structure, the IARAN has been working towards a vision to create a more equitable and effective humanitarian ecosystem where every actor leverages their particular skills and experiences to contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

IARAN operates as a collaborative network of humanitarian professionals with decades of experience working for a multitude of different organizations. A think-tank with an active fellowship and a consultancy wing through which we provide training, foresight research and strategic foresight support to a wide range of humanitarian actors. In October 2021, we have published a manual to provide an entry point for humanitarian actors to improve their future literacy and exploit strategic foresight tools in their work.

Abdennour Toumi

Abdennour Toumi is a journalist and a North African Studies specialist who received his PhD in Political Science from Toulouse University in France. His articles have been published by many outlets, and he has featured in reputable media channels including Daily Sabah, TRT World and BBC Turkish. He worked as a lecturer in the Department of Middle East and North African Studies at the Portland Community College, and was a member of the Portland State University Center for Middle Eastern Studies. His focus is on issues such as the socio-political mutations of North Africa; the role of Turkey in this region; the problem of immigrants, and the interactions of the North African diaspora in France.

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