Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism

Populist rise forces rights activist to change views

29 September 2018
Protesters hold a plate reading 'Human rights for all' in front of the German Chancellery during a demonstration organized by the 'Seebruecke' group in Berlin in June 2018. (EPA-EFE/Alexander Becher)

"I began to worry that we are just preaching to ourselves." 

For human rights advocates in Europe, there's been much to lament in the continent's handling of migrants.

In Italy, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has repeatedly blocked rescue ships filled with migrants pulled from the Mediterranean from docking at Italian ports. In Hungary, populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban is building walls that keep out not just economic migrants but refugees fleeing war and oppression. Even mainstream parties in countries like France and Germany have become more hostile to asylum-seekers. 

As the director of Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia program from 2012 to 2017, John Dalhuisen was deeply involved in advocating for the rights of those landing on Europe's shores. But Dalhuisen, now 42, grew disillusioned with the approach of Amnesty and other human rights groups. Not only were they losing badly in the court of public opinion, he felt, they were also failing to advance realistic solutions to the complex problem of mass migration.

John Dalhuisen

So after ten years at Amnesty he left to join the European Stability Initiative, a think tank that played a leading role in the EU's 2016 agreement with Turkey that has significantly reduced migrant flows in the Aegean. The deal his new employer helped create was one that Dalhuisen and Amnesty once denounced in strong terms. 

Dalhuisen spoke with Global Journalist's Shirley Tay about his change in perspective. Below, an edited version of their conversation: 

Global Journalist: Tell us your initial perspective on the migration crisis.

Dalhuisen: All the way until 2015, I was the director and I was leading that work. If you were looking for the most visible, ideologically, uncompromising spokespeople at the time, I was certainly one of them. I described the EU-Turkey deal as "morally bankrupt." 

I'm not talking about someone else – I'm talking about my own excesses of idealism and political naiveté. 

I still thought at the time that this is a transitory phenomenon, everyone just needs to keep their cool, the system was fine as it was and we need to just keep on receiving people. 

GJ: When did it begin to change?

Dalhuisen: Only as 2015 dripped into 2016 and we saw the degradation of the debate in Italy, the rise to power of Salvini, Orban's [anti-immigrant] narrative being very successful not only in Hungary but translating to other political spaces. Then I began to question whether the way I was speaking, the kinds of things I was saying, were influencing society at all – which they weren't, really. More significantly, were they influencing any policy maker? They emphatically weren't – even within the mainstream political universe.

That was a big strategic mistake. It was to lose the mainstream, it was to lose the middle ground. When you've lost influence over the remaining liberal forces in Europe– [Germany's] Merkel, [France's] Macron, Sanchez in Spain–if you can't influence the bulwark against populism, then you're really lost.

Because the bulwark against the rise of populism is not in Europe at least the liberal left. They agree with Amnesty International, but they have been decimated. They have disappeared from the political landscape. So having them on board is totally irrelevant. The people that rights advocates need to be convincing are those who can still hope to win an election. 

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has built walls to keep out both refugees and economic migrants. (Szilard Koszticsak/MTI via AP)

GJ: What was the deciding factor that made you leave Amnesty International?

Dalhuisen: I left at the very end of 2017. The essential reason for it was this anxiety that, not just Amnesty International, but the broader human rights community, wasn't adapting to the new strategic challenge well. The rights universe is not intellectually sensitive to public opinion. 

Even though numbers [of migrants] are significantly down, the politics surrounding the issue of migration has shifted. Populist forces have been able to mine the growing anxiety about borders to achieve electoral success. In the face of what I saw as a rising populist threat, I began to worry that we are just preaching to ourselves. 

I struggled to convince the people I was working with – and the wider [human rights] community – to be more pragmatic and see that there is a bigger strategic challenge. The failure was also my inability to convince from within. I was fighting a losing battle in which I was going to lose all the things that I really believed in. I knew that there had to be a smarter way of protecting these things – so I left an organization that I loved and does brilliant work, because I thought the real challenge was somewhere else.

GJ: Do you still stand for the same human rights mission?

Dalhuisen:  Absolutely. This is something that I’ve devoted 20 years of my life to. The human rights community wants all the right things. But the question is, are they going about getting them in some key areas? In many areas, nothing has changed at all.

The migration issue is fueling dangerous political forces that want to undo rights protection not just for refugees, but for everyone. If you don’t get the real measure of this problem and this threat, then I think it’s is not the time to just talk about resistance and resilience. You have to engage with the political reality, you have to build a consensus around core issues that have a chance of getting...implemented.

GJ: What do you think is the best way for those who care about human rights to move forward on the migration issue?

Dalhuisen: The challenge for the rights movement on migration is to put their minds to thinking about a meaningful asylum system: a border policy that is porous that allows people to come - so it's not a fortress –, [that] processes claims fairly, and returns those who do not have an [asylum] claim to their countries of origin, or conceivably, third countries in which they will be safe.

What does that system look like? One: It probably requires reception centers that are closed for some [migrants]. You're processed on EU soil with restrictions on your liberty to prevent absconding. A lot of people within the rights community struggle, for very good reasons, to accept that. 

Two, you have fast procedures, within two months you have a first administrative decision and a judicial appeal.  The default reaction of the rights community being: "It mustn't be too quick, you can't reduce the number of appeals." No, it must be possible.

Thirdly, you need the ability to return [migrants whose asylum claims are rejected], which is often at some psychological level and even a moral level, difficult for rights organizations and activists. Generally, they don't like the idea of returning anyone. Even if you don't have a claim for protection under refugee law – you're still often fleeing poverty or there are other reasons which are rightly sympathy-inducing.

But it's impossible to have a system that admits everyone and that [European] society will accept. Because it won't. If the asylum system makes sense, it has to be discriminatory in the positive sense – distinguishing between those who have a claim and those who don't. 

It's much better to discourage arrival through the prospect of prompt return than the current situation, which is discouraging their arrival through the certainty of their being treated appallingly in Libya. That's a horrific system, but that's the system we've got at the moment.

Migrants sit in front of a painted wall at Abu Salim detention center in Tripoli, Libya in 2016. (EPA)

GJ: What's one piece of advice you would give to human rights advocates?

Dalhuisen: The human rights community needs to acknowledge that the strategic challenge has shifted from attack to defense. Defense requires a willingness to build alliances, to compromise and to ensure a consensus around core values. Compromise on the outer reaches of ambition and moral intuition is required in an idealist today.  A letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison in 1789 sums it up. He wrote "Half a loaf is better than no bread. If we cannot secure all our rights, let us secure those we can." 


Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism.
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