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Professor Michael Ignatieff praises UEL for its work with refugees and asylum seekers

Refugee camp

Rector of the Central European University uses guest lecture to highlight plight of migrants

Imagine waking up in a cold tent at 5am in a country far from your own. Then walking for half an hour, followed by two-and-a-half-hour bus ride, just so you could get an education.

This is the daily experience of migrant asylum claimants in Hungary who travel to the Central European University (CEU) each day. The story was recounted by CEU’s Rector, Professor Michael Ignatieff, during at guest lecture at the University of East London (UEL) on 26 April.

Professor Ignatieff, an academic and a former Liberal Party leader in Canada whose ancestors fled Russia following the communist revolution, spoke on the subject of ‘The refugee as the invasive other’ to an audience of students, academics, members of the public and journalists. 

The lecture was part of a launch event for UEL and CEU’s new EU-funded partnership partnership offering the Open Learning Initiative (OLIve) programme for refugees.

The course gives refugee and asylum seekers the educational grounding to progress to a foundation course and ultimately a full bachelor degree. The partnership also includes the University of Vienna and the European Network Against Racism.

Around 100 legal refugees and asylum seekers are educated at CEU each year and a ten-week OLIve course began at UEL on the last weekend of April.

“These people show a real hunger for learning, a hunger for education,” said Professor Ignatieff. “This is what universities are for. Our calling is to educate.”

In comments to the media, Professor Ignatieff praised UEL’s work with refugees, including its cooperation with CEU.

“There are not a whole bunch of universities doing this, so we have to work together,” he said.

During his talk, Professor Ignatieff discussed how Europe’s refugee situation could be understood from a human rights approach based on law, or a charitable ‘gift’ approach, based on the writing of British social policy expert Richard Titmuss.  
“What is our definition and understanding of charity? I remember when refugees arrived at Hungary’s Keleti station, lots of people, including CEU students, would go with an abundance of blankets, clothes, mobile phone chargers and other useful things. It was a warm welcome.

“And I spoke with the police in Munich who told me about the sudden influx of refugees. Whenever they ran short of something, they’d put a request on Twitter and within 20 minutes people would come with an abundance of whatever was needed.

“There was an initial generosity from these people towards refugees and asylum seekers, but that has been forgotten.”

Professor Ignatieff argued that countries had the right to control their borders but also had to balance that with obligations towards refugees under the UN Refugee Convention. 

In comments to the media, he drew on this theme in relation to universities and discussions around visa requirements for international students, which is an ongoing issue in the UK. 

“Any university has to be respectful of a sovereign state’s right to review all people coming into the country on security grounds,” he said. “No university can contest that. 

“The issue is when governments start to use visa scrutiny as a way of abridging the freedom of universities to recruit who they want.”

He said tightened visa controls presented a direct threat to academic freedom, along with ‘political correctness’ stifling freedom of speech on campuses.

Professor Ignatieff also raised questions about attitudes towards immigration. 

He said, “Resistance to migration is a question for democracies as we see democrat populations who don’t want to see more migrants. They are citizens and, in a democracy, citizens must be able to decide who belongs, and people feel there is more talk about refugee rights than citizen rights.

“We also see recent immigrants who vote for parties opposed to more immigration because they are citizens, not immigrants. They don’t necessarily feel solidarity with people from their home country wanting to come. Then along come noble conservatives who speak to peoples’ concerns as citizens.

“A frozen political correctness about being multicultural and multi-ethnic, and calling people racist because they have an objection or concern, isn’t going to get us anywhere. Being annoyed or frightened doesn’t make someone a racist. Calling them that is the easy way out.”

Hungary has taken a strong line against allowing free entrance to those seeking asylum and places migrant applicants in camps near its borders while they wait for their applications to be reviewed.

CEU has also been in the news and received international support following a law passed by the Hungarian government which introduces new requirements which may cause CEU to leave Hungary. Some attending the lecture asked Professor Ignatieff if the situation had echoes of 1930s Germany. 

“People who say this situation has echoes of 1930s Germany have no idea how terrible Germany was at that time,” he said. 

“Hungarian President Viktor Orban is a populist democrat. He won a free and fair election. In Budapest, you're not in the deep freeze of communist Hungary or fascist Germany.”

Professor Ignatieff concluded his talk by tackling some current language used when speaking of migrants. 

“There is a weird microbial language normally used for describing invasive animal and plant species now being used to dehumanise refugees,” he said.

“I don’t like giving credence to this language. I hate this sort of language. It makes the political answer seem obvious, so that only one solution is possible.”