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Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.

Sep 24, 2018

“We don’t have an immigration crisis,” contends Harvard professor Jacqueline Bhabha: We have a “hospitality crisis.”

Under President Donald Trump, the United States’ limit for refugee admissions has reached a record low. Last week, the administration proposed to again sharply reduce the limit for refugee admissions — from an already anemic 45,000 in 2018 to 30,000 in 2019. Under this year’s cap, the US is on track to admit only 22,000 refugees, less than half of the projected maximum.

Bhabha joins Peter B. Collins for this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast. Bhabha is professor of health and human rights at the School of Public Health, research director at the FXB Center, and lectures at Harvard Law and the Kennedy School. She is an expert on the global refugee crisis.

Natural and man-made disasters, such as wars, ethnic cleansing, and famines have displaced millions of people throughout the world, but Bhabha maintains that the international community has the resources to handle the “challenges” that these migrations cause. She points out that migration is “200,000 years old,” a fact of life as long as humans have populated the Earth.

The problem, she adds, is not that there are too few resources and too little space to handle migrants; it’s that world leaders, including the president of the United States, perceive immigrants as “evils” to be driven back, rather than a new, young potential workforce to be assimilated.

The administration’s stated goal is to reduce immigration — both illegal and legal — in order to keep out undesirables whom it sees as a threat to national security. The president frequently has cited the violent acts of the infamous MS-13 gang, and isolated incidents of illegal Mexican immigrants committing violent crimes, as grounds for building a wall on the US-Mexico border.

At the same time, the president has faced push-back for his “Muslim ban,” an executive order which restricts travel from several Muslim majority countries. The conservative majority on the Supreme Court recently delivered his administration a victory by upholding the ban’s constitutionality.

The irony is that the migration crisis facing both the US and Europe — exemplified most recently by the Syrian and Libyan refugees — has its origins in policy decisions made by these same Western countries.

 As the author of Child Migration and Human Rights in a Global Age, Bhabha deplores the “barbarity” of family separation under Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy. She notes that the US has never signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and that its bad record regarding treatment of migrant children precedes the current administration. While also critical of some of President Barack Obama’s immigration policies, she says that Trump has further polarized discourse on immigration while criminalizing it in many ways.

But the migration crisis is not confined to the Western world, nor is it always just about crossing international borders.

Bhabha describes the brutal displacement of Rohingya Muslims by the Buddhist majority in Myanmar. The UN report released on September 18 strongly rebukes Myanmar and its military leaders for acts amounting to ethnic cleansing.

Bhabha notes that the UN will be addressing the “final draft[s]” of two global compacts on migration and refugees at the upcoming General Assembly. Both documents attempt to spell out the “universal human rights and fundamental freedoms” that should be accorded to migrants of all kinds.

Bhabha’s latest book is Can We Solve the Migration Crisis? (Global Futures, May 3, 2018).

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