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On Wednesday, Nov. 29, VUB is awarding an honorary degree to Emma Bonino and the people of Lampedusa, a small island in Italy that unwittingly found itself on the frontline of the recent refugee crisis. With the honorary degree, VUB wants to honour Bonino and the Lampedusa islanders for their efforts in defending and safeguarding the rights of the refugees and migrants who have arrived in Europe in recent months. VUB Today spoke to Bonino about the migration crisis and the role European lawmakers and higher education institutions like the VUB can play in resolving that crisis. 


Text: Linda A. Thompson for VUB Today
Photo: Emanuele Camerini

Emma Bonino is an Italian lawmaker and activist who has occupied a variety of roles over her-decades long career in politics, from Italian foreign affairs minister to European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid. As an activist, her work has focused on promoting women’s rights, combating female genital mutilation and fighting for the legalisation of abortion and euthanasia.


Do ordinary Europeans have a moral obligation to people fleeing war and violence?
“Look at your history, my history, everybody’s history. Every European member state has a history of emigration. Global mobility has been with us since the beginning of humanity. Between the First and Second World War, 20 million Italians left Italy looking for a better perspective; the same for Ireland and the same for other countries. So this is a trend that will not stop.”


People fleeing war and violence is a trend that will not stop
Emma Bonino

What role do you think higher education can play in addressing the challenges of the current refugee crisis?
“I think that both higher education and education in general are essential to integrating people. In Italy, when I visit universities and talk reality to students, I see that young people do understand. The question is: What is the message you pass on to these people?  We are facing quite a complex problem of integrating migrants. I am not denying that, but this is a situation that is here to stay for the next generations. So you cannot eliminate the issue, but you can try to alleviate the consequences. And you should try to integrate migrants into a society that – except for a few countries that are not facing demographic declines – badly needs them.”


Education is essential to integrating people. When I talk to students, I see that young people do understand
Emma Bonino

You were European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid between 1994 and 1999, during which time you were also competent for refugee policies. Have you seen a shift in people’s attitudes on migration and refugees?  
“This is for sure, and not only in Europe but also in the rest of the world. I do remember that when I was much younger, there was much more attention to, compassion for and legal solidarity with the “Vietnamese boat people”. Today we see different attitudes. There are definitely political parties that are waving the flag of the threat of migration and immigrants when they are the first ones whose people move around for a better salary. Poland [which has been a strong critic of the EU mandatory resettlement scheme] had 800,000 of its citizens move to a different European country in search of work, and that’s their right. That’s why I’m saying it all comes down to political manipulation, combined of course with the recent economic crisis. So it was easy to say to people: “We don’t have jobs because migrants are stealing your jobs.” Which is not true of course, but that has been a very popular thing to say.”




Many parties on the right argue they are simply voicing the concerns of citizens, who they say oppose unbridled migration.
But the role of a political leader is not to follow the mood of people; it’s to try to make them understand what is reality rather than perception. In my country, for instance, the perception is that we are invaded by foreigners and that they represent 30% of the population, when migrants are less than 8%.


The role of a political leader is to try to make people understand what is reality rather than perception
Emma Bonino


How would you like to see European counties addressing the migration crisis?
“We don’t have to invent the wheel. The solution that was proposed back in 2001 after EU member states asked the European Commission to present a proposal on economic migration is the same one we are proposing now – a legal path for people to reach Europe and to work in Europe. The question is not technical; the question is totally political. Europe is a rich continent that is facing a dramatic demographic decline. On the other side of the Mediterranean, we have a kindergarten explosion with the highest population rates. In fact, the González Reflection Group on the Future of the EU 2030 warned in its 2010 report that just to maintain its population, working force and welfare systems, Europe will need 100 million more people by 2050. So I don’t have to add anything to these figures; everything is clear. The question is political courage, political will, which are both lacking the most.”


Europe will need 100 million more people by 2050. The question is political courage, political will, which are both lacking the most.
Emma Bonino

According to 2016 figures from the UN Refugee Agency, 84% of the world’s refugees are today sheltered by countries in developing regions like Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon. Yet many European countries have warned they are facing an unprecedented influx of refugees. Is our understanding of the global refugee crisis and who is shouldering the biggest burden wrong?
“What I do think is that there is no invasion of migrants, and I published a pamphlet on this kind of fake news representation. There is currently a population of 60 million people refugees and migrants worldwide, and Europe is a continent of 500 million. A very small number of this migrant population is reaching Europe. So this perception of what is going on globally and of the impact of the refugee crisis on Europe is wrong. I think this misperception flows, not from the actual numbers, but from perception and political manipulation, with words like “an invasion” and the like being used. I think that at the political level, everybody knows the reality. Nevertheless, [politicians] don’t oppose the manipulation of this issue.”


There is no invasion of refugees. Perception of what is going on globally and of the impact of the refugee crisis on Europe is wrong.
Emma Bonino

EU member countries in 2016 reached a deal with Turkey under which migrants arriving in Greece are to be sent back to Turkey if they do not apply for asylum or their claims are rejected. Critics contend that Europe has essentially outsourced its border controls with this deal.
“This is for sure. We are outsourcing not only the defence of our external borders; we are outsourcing the problem of migrants to others. That is crystal-clear in Turkey and it’s even more worrying when we look at Libya. Just look at the declaration of Prince Zeid today, the UN high commissioner for human rights – which is really terrible. [UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein described the conditions under which migrants are being kept in Libyan detention centres as “inhuman” on Nov. 14, the day this interview was conducted.] We simply want to kick migrants out any cost, and migrants are paying the cost for that.”


This conversation was edited and condensed for clarity.