Professor Peter Scholten: ‘Migration isn’t going away any time soon’

Peter Scholten was one of the early contributors to Challenge Accepted. Above all, he believes in interdisciplinary collaboration. He is Professor Public Policy and Politics at Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB), and coordinator of the interdepartmental research cluster on the Governance of Migration and Integration.

What is the reason you decided to contribute to the Erasmus Initiative 'Living together in vital cities'?
‘If there’s one relevant theme in 2017, it’s migration and diversity. So for me as a researcher, it’s wonderful to get involved. Personal interests aside, I truly believe we need collaboration to solve the great challenges of the 21st century. I believe in interdisciplinary research. But it appears to be difficult to break the boundaries between faculties.’

Why is that important?
‘Challenges like how to cope with the effects of migration on society demand an interdisciplinary approach. These days we are doing a little more work together – for example in the Erasmus Migration and Diversity Institute, which is a small initiative involving ESHCC, ESL and ISS faculties – and I discovered that some law researchers are looking at the almost exact same migration cases we do at ESSB. We can join forces.
Another thing is this. If Erasmus University Rotterdam wants to be taken seriously as a top university, it’s important to do interdisciplinary work. Or to be eligible for larger funds, since large funds like Horizon 2020 only reward multidisciplinary research. We live in an age where you can’t say: we are going to look at this big problem only from an economic point of view, or only from a social point of view.
It is also very nice to work together with other faculties, to take a look at each other’s research, see what we all are doing here at Erasmus. I think the initiatives are a great way to start doing so.’

'I truly believe we need collaboration and interdisciplinary research to solve the great challenges of the 21st century.'

Peter Scholten, Professor Public Policy and Politics (ESSB)

What is your research based on?
‘I look at migration and diversity, one of the biggest themes of our time. Rotterdam is a fantastic laboratory, it’s the place where it all happens. A lot of people are coming to Rotterdam each year, a lot of people are going away. It is a super diverse city, more than any other city in the Netherlands. Walk down the Lijnbaan and you will see everybody, a hodgepodge of people, very well integrated.’

You sound very positive about Rotterdam, but there is another side as well, that is anti-tolerance. The PVV (in 2015) and Leefbaar Rotterdam (in 2018) got a lot of votes.
‘Yes, but whining and complaining also come with the territory. The fact that diversity and mobility are part of our society doesn’t mean it’s only peace and harmony. In the last century the working class became integrated, and that process didn’t go without a hitch. In Rotterdam, it doesn’t matter in which part of the city you are, you’re always facing migration and diversity. In this city we don’t really have a ‘white elite’ of people who don’t have anything to do with migration. That’s great, but it also brings friction. Still, I believe Rotterdam is a wonderful authentic city and an example of how the process of integration and acceptation goes. You see it everywhere, not only in politics but also within companies. Migrants are a very important addition to the economy. In Rotterdam, this process started long time ago since we’ve had this big harbour for such a long time. I find this fascinating. In what way does a city like this, with a long and important migration history, develop? And how can we handle the friction that it brings along?’

Because the point is achieving peace and harmony, right?
‘No, I don’t think you should only want peace and harmony. I believe it happens in stages. Look at the acceptance of gay people. At first, the general public tends to ignore the whole issue, then that approach changes into talking about the subject, after which it can change to acceptation. So I say let’s talk more about headscarfs. Apparently people need to rebel against, talk about, and discuss these things. I believe in ten years time headscarfs will be totally normal.’

In the end we will tolerate things.
‘I actually don’t like the word ‘tolerance’. It’s quite elitist. Being tolerant means you don’t care. It’s a sign of indifference, to be tolerant. I would like to say: let’s strive for respect.’

Can you give an example of a myth you shattered?
‘There was the idea to not let newcomers integrate before their immigration status was clear – they were only allowed to start with the official integration course once it was decided they could stay in the Netherlands for at least five years. This rule is counterproductive. First, you should start the integration process the very first day a refugee arrives, because people like to learn from day 1. The later you start teaching them, the more difficult it gets for people to become motivated. Secondly, some right-wing parties like to say that refugees won’t want to go back once they learn the language. The opposite is true, particularly those people who did learn something new – like the language, or those who obtained a degree in something and had a great new experience – they like to go back, whereas those who haven’t, don’t like to go back. This is a general human scenario - you want to return home with a success story.
My role as a scientist is not to make policy, it is to watch closely, observe, investigate. I think now it’s more important than ever before that decent research is done. There are enough people who just sound off with non-facts in the media. This complexity is a characteristic of today's society. We live in a complex society - integration and migration are simply themes where this becomes most clear. I find it interesting that people argue about it, and get angry; very emotional even. So this research matters. I try to be as neutral as possible. Migration is an issue that is not going to go away any time soon.
Another myth we shattered is this one. Some cities are called ‘welcoming cities’, like Bari in the South of Italy. This doesn’t mean, as people tend to think, that these cities are welcoming refugees in deliberately, or happy with these refugees coming in. Mainly, it means that people arrive in this cities, but also move away quickly.’ 

Will migration flows increase?
'All indicators predict that they will increase. In Lampedusa, the boats still come in every day. There are no longer any Syrians in them, rather Sub-Saharan Africans from countries like Cameroon, Ghana, and Nigeria. Although these countries are experiencing economic growth, their population growth is larger. So there are more and more people, and they have some money, so they can get away. Migrating appears to be very expensive and only reserved for people with money. Europe cannot stop this migration flow. We’ve known this for years, though. Sometimes ministers say things like: "We didn’t know", or: "We didn’t have time to prepare". But take the migration flow from Syria - we knew this would happen back in 2011. In 2015, Dijkhof said: "We did not see this coming!", which was nonsense.’

Isn’t there a difference between economic refugees and war refugees?
‘In reality, the difference is not that big. You could make the point that all Syrian refugees are actually climate refugees, because Syria’s political instability started with a drought that wasn’t addressed properly.
Furthermore, mobility increases worldwide. It is more common to move and switch places or countries, for everybody. This makes the migration flows even more complex. It is a very contemporary phenomenon.’

What is your most recent research about?
‘We do a lot of things. One is a big study about different European cities and how they deal with migration in their own ways. I don’t believe in a ‘one size fits all’. It is hardly possible to reduce the complexity of the issue, because it’s impossible to make any policy that fits all.’

Universitair Hoofddocent

Prof.dr. Peter Scholten

Meer informatie

Peter Scholten was one of the earliest contributors of Challenge Accepted, a joint campaign of Erasmus University Rotterdam and Erasmus Trustfonds to tackle the grand challenges of the 21st century. You can contribute as well: check out the website or become a member of EUR Connect.

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