“It’s not a refugee crisis - it's a damn political failure”
Now is the time to take action on the refugee crisis and move past the usual, useless blather, says Joséphine Goube, Expert on Immigration for the European Commission. Read More
There's a lot talk about immigration and refugees nowadays and while we are hearing a lot of different voices on the issue from politics, the private sector and civil society, one person in particular stands out for her willingness to point out the problems with brutal and unfailing honesty, identifying the weaknesses in Europe’s refugee policies: Joséphine Goube.
At the tender age of 23, she was named Director of Strategic Partnerships at Migreat – a UK-based online platform that accompanies two million individuals through every step of the immigration process in Europe. She made Forbes’ most recent list of the most influential “30 under 30” and was asked by the European Commission to be their Expert on Immigration. Today at 27, she has left Migreat to throw herself into a new project – the Techfugees. If there is one person who knows what is going on – and perhaps more importantly what is not going on – in refugee policy, then it is Joséphine.
We talked to her about the good, the bad and the ugly in European refugee policy, why social media can be more of a curse than a blessing for refugees, and why Germany’s refugee policy, which has recently been the subject of bitter attacks, is the right way forward.
Joséphine, you started working for Migreat a couple of years ago at a time when everybody was talking about migration as a crisis. What was Migreat about then and now?
Migreat started as a social network where migrants could exchange information on migrating. It quickly evolved into a visa tool for accessing practical information on getting a visa. People could access the site, enter their nationality and the country they wanted to migrate to, and the website would personalise the information for them, giving them only the visa and migration rules that applied to them. It moved quickly into an AI assistant for migrants, which was exciting to see happen!
How did this change come about?
We were trying to understand the migration journey. So we looked at the information people were looking up on our website and the interactions there. After collecting this data, we noticed that the value we could offer was in providing information about getting a visa and building a product that would answer that need. We continued to develop a product that fits these needs. It sounds very easy now, but it wasn't.
Who are the people behind Migreat?
In the beginning it was just the founder, a CTO, the tech lead, and me. We have built a solid team of 20 people over the last 3 years. Recently, the shareholders decided they want to take a more commercial direction, which led me to leave the company. I have now moved on to contribute to a new tech initiative related to refugees – Techfugees – as COO. I am also assisting in the business development of YBorder, a platform for technical talent wanting to move to better paid jobs in the UK, France or Canada. I want to continue to help refugees and migrants who share a common obstacle: the us versus them mentality of host countries.
How does Migreat make money?
It uses the classical model of a commission-based deal: a percentage of the traffic to the site is people urgently looking for a lawyer. We put them in touch with the right lawyer, who pays a subscription fee to access the platform (and so the migrants). We did a lot of PR and marketing directed at entrepreneurs and techies because we know that entrepreneurs want a visa quickly and safely and don't want to deal with problems and issues. Technical talents get job offers pretty fast and reliably, and immigration rules are easier for them. They often don't have to go through the Resident Labour Market Test.
“Technical talents get job offers pretty fast”
The Resident Labour Market Test requires employers to advertise a position in the UK in certain prescribed ways to demonstrate to the UK Border Agency that there is no suitable worker in the UK workforce who could do the job and fulfil the special requirements. We used to do it in Germany as well but get rid of it a couple of years ago...
I love Germany for what you guys are doing! Germany has done such a great work in the last five years!
Please tell some of our citizens that – not all of them are happy with Germany’s refugee policy.
I'm afraid it is only going to get a lot of even worse bad press this year. The extreme right will take advantage of any story in the media to say: Look what is going on here, that is what you get from an open border policy! All kinds of problems will be blamed on refugees. They frame it with claims that they are just trying to prevent the rise of crime and sexual assaults, and that they are real feminists. It is funny to see people declaring themselves “feminists” for the first time, then say something really racist right after. Like that makes it acceptable…
But the German government has done an amazing job pioneering investment in the education and training of migrant workers. Germany is a frontrunner in recognising foreign diplomas and skills, which is why Germany will be well ahead of the pack in integrating migrants into the economy. If public opinion shifts to a fear refugees and the belief that foreigners are a threat, it will slow down the process of integration and the economic potential will be lost. If people choose to be irrationally scared of refugees, it will slow down the release of governmental resources. In so many ways, people want to see refugees as a burden and not as a resource.
I am still hopeful though that if we speak out about how much they can contribute to the future, we can keep things moving in a positive direction. As Merkel has said, it's a challenge, but also a huge opportunity to make Germany stronger.
Yes, you would think everybody would understand the advantages. Still, the phenomenon of irrational fear seems to be taking over.
Offering education & trusted information is the key to preventing fear of the other from propagating. We have to tell people why they need not be irrationally afraid; that refugees are not necessarily burdens, thieves and rapists (maybe only Trumps believes that) and citizens need to look for trustworthy sources of information about who the refugees are. One thing that is not helpful today is social media – it's a major, major player in the spread of disinformation. Yes, we love social media because it gets the message out fast, but in this case it’s being used to spread misinformation and fairy tales.
If governments want citizens who are not afraid and are not attracted to the extreme right, they should invest in and protect quality journalism and media. Just for the record, the majority of the suspects in the Cologne New Years’ event were of Algerian (25 people), Tunisian (3) or Moroccan (21) origin and three were German citizens, according to Cologne public prosecutor Ulrich Bremer. They were not refugees, but a mix of migrants who seem not to have integrated well into the social rules of the country they are in. So the problem here was integration (or the lack thereof) and not a surge of refugees arriving in recent months.
What is your role as expert for the EU all about?
I use the Migreat tool to look up data, such as what entrepreneurial migrants are looking for in terms of immigration rules. And based on that, I report to the EU and advise it on how to make better policies.
"It is a shame they are surrounded by a lot of crap from of lobbyists and people who are not courageous enough to take the risk of thinking differently."
And do they follow your advice?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no, it depends on the political priorities and what is acceptable. And then there is the issue of time, how long it would actually take to implement some of my ideas. I’m always joking with them, “Let’s meet in three years when you have gotten it done.” But hey – they asked me to be the expert because they wanted someone to say something different and more positive. The people at the European Union are really working hard – it is a shame they are surrounded by a lot of crap from of lobbyists and people who are not courageous enough to take the risk of thinking differently.
Can you tell us a bit more about the data you get from Migreat? Have you noticed a change in what migrants are looking for?
Yes, there has been a change. Basically when people access the website, I can see the country and city they are located in and what they click on. For instance, people are increasingly looking for scholarship opportunities, hoping to get a cheaper education in Europe. And as the immigration rules get tougher, people are looking more and more for tips on finding a backdoor. That’s new. But I guess that’s very specific to the UK, because the UK doesn’t want poor immigrants. That means they rule out everybody who earns less then 35K a year.
You recently left Migreat and started working for Techfugees. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
Techfugees is a social enterprise coordinating the international tech industry’s response to the needs of refugees. It was founded by Mike Butcher, the European editor of Techcrunch. Mike knows almost all the entrepreneurs behind the tech businesses in Europe and their investors. Mike can bring in the full force of the entire tech branch to bear on the issue. I came in to bring my knowledge of immigration policies and the innovation I know is happening in the space.
How can you protect refugees with technology?
This brings up an important aspect of any technology being built to be used by refugees: it needs to protect their data and identity. Many refugees are fleeing their homelands because they are being persecuted, persecuted because of their beliefs, their religion, etc. And persecution doesn’t stop at the border, so their identities and their names have to be protected. Either made anonymous, secured, or rendered safe by a user profile that asks for minimal information about the person. Otherwise the persecution will continue in the new country, too, or get even worse when/if they return to their home country.
Many people in Europe want to help refugees by developing new apps for dealing with everyday life. Is data protection the reason you criticize a lot of these apps?
Even if the apps are set up with the best intentions, you should not build anything without remembering that you are dealing with vulnerable people and, let’s just put it out there, smugglers too. It is completely irresponsible to do otherwise. If this sounds harsh and provocative, that’s only because I want to stress the importance of data protection and how it can affect lives. We need apps that think of protecting personal data first. If they don’t, this puts users in danger. I will add to this: knowing a little is more dangerous than knowing nothing. Techfugees encourages any techie building an app for refugees to work with an established NGO, and I would encourage anyone to have someone who’s worked with refugees and an expert on data protection involved in building any serious tech for refugees.
Do you want people to stop developing those apps?
Oh no, that’s not my intention. I want them to improve the apps and make them safe for refugees. There is a really good guideline online for that: The Principles for Digital Development: digitalprinciples.org. It institutionalizes lessons learned in the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in development projects. They were written by and for international development donors and their implementing partners.
What about the refugees themselves – are they aware of the lack of security?
The situation is different for every refugee. I have noticed that some refugees from Syria and Iraq are using Facebook or Whatsapp to stay in contact with their families, for instance, but that they are very wary, aware of security, and use these new tools very carefully. Then there are groups of Syrian people using apps to flag members of ISIS travelling across Europe and report them to the police. It’s a very complex mix of platforms and networks used.
It’s not a refugee crisis – it’s a crisis of damn political and governmental failure.
Nowadays it seems that everybody in the start-up scene wants to do something for or with refugees. As a result, many apps are only available in the language spoken by the people who made it, which means these apps or initiatives are pretty much completely useless. What would you recommend to all those entrepreneurs planning to start a refugee project?
Don’t reinvent the wheel, don’t start from scratch and re-create (in beta) something that already exists! And please: don’t build unicorns. NGOs and refugees need tech support more than anything else! The press likes to talk about cool apps, and it gets difficult for NGOs that have been helping refugees for years to set an example out there. But the good thing about this development of the “cool” is that it seems it's helping drive people to work in the sector, and people are getting interested in fixing the problem. And any form of media coverage calls attention to the things that need to be done.
What needs to be done to tackle the crisis?
It’s not a refugee crisis – it’s a European governance crisis and government failure to deliver on what they signed up for: assistance to refugees. Social entrepreneurs and techies can do so much to ease the integration of refugees but they won’t solve the issues and problems created by our governments. The cool apps and tech should not detract citizens' attention from the way some governments are not taking responsibility for their failures in what’s happening! I am so grateful to have the role of an expert at the EU level. I can directly report, hold them accountable and spot where I can contribute. I wish more people in the tech sector would hold politicians accountable for the crisis. The failure of some states is feeding extreme right parties at the moment. To some extent, one can say the biggest danger for democracy and a united Europe that is starting to crack is not the extreme right; it’s actually people in government who are not taking responsibility for the problems faced by refugees today. In so doing, they are creating ideal conditions for the extreme right to come in.