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Cate Blanchett: ‘We’re caught up in the whirlwind of this xenophobic narrative. I find it repugnant’

The Australian actress and goodwill ambassador for the UNHCR talks to EL PAÍS about the refugee crisis, the need for collective responsibility and why the dehumanization of asylum seekers needs to be stopped

Cate Blanchett
Cate Blanchett, on April 26, at the home of a Syrian refugee in the Zaatari camp in Jordan.Caroline Irby
Rafa de Miguel

Cate Blanchett is a universally-admired actress who has nothing left to prove. She has won two Oscars, four BAFTAs, and four Golden Globes. For some critics, she is the best of her generation. The fact that she devotes all that power of influence to support refugees makes her a powerful spokesperson. She spoke to EL PAÍS in a London apartment in the southwest of the city, near the Tate Modern museum. She hardly needs to be asked questions. Her message is resounding and passionate — a monologue full of data and elaborate reasoning. Blanchett is a goodwill ambassador for UNHCR, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. She has just returned from her second visit to the refugee camps in Jordan.

Question. How do you feel after returning from Jordan?

Answer. It was seven years since I’ve been to Jordan. And so I was reconnecting with some refugees I’ve met. They’re both in urban settings and in at archery, camp, and just to see their level of resourcefulness to make something out of nothing is amazing. It’s so disappointing to me, and maddening, that this xenophobic rhetoric around the welcoming embrace of refugees takes root [in the West], because they are people who have so much to offer, because they can see opportunities where often other people can’t.

Q. What led you to support this cause?

A. It’s the same with the challenges we have with addressing climate change. You can see something happening, and at the same time, you see how people are either turning a blind eye to a festering problem, or talking about the problem, like it doesn’t exist, or not describing the problem as it actually is. But in the case of refugees — with people using wildly xenophobic, inaccurate terminology and dehumanizing them — there’s something in me that is compelled to address the falsification of that narrative.

Q. Your experience in your home country contributed to this?

A. Being Australian, I grew up in a country that was — colonial invasion notwithstanding — really positively built on a welcoming embrace of refugees and asylum seekers. So as a result, the “brand Australia” that I grew up in as a child was “multiculturalism.” It was all about the integration, in a country that had been colonized by the British, but a very powerful indigenous history. We were a melting pot. And I think that that produced a really positive global outlook, creatively, culturally, we punch above our weight because of that welcoming embrace.

Q. That spirit faded at the end of the last century, with the arrival of so-called “boat people” from Vietnam, Cambodia and later, the Middle East.

A. All of that calcified and was dehumanized. From the mid to late 1990s onwards, I saw the detrimental impact it had on the Australian civilian population. The inhumane offshore processing of asylum seekers and refugees [since 2012, Australia has been sending undocumented migrants to the islands of Nauru and Manus, near Papua New Guinea] was shameful. I’m also seeing now that turn around, that we are having to acknowledge that shame. There’s much still to be done.

Q. Australia has taken a step forward, and the United Kingdom has taken a step back, with a similar offshore processing plan that consists of deporting irregular immigrants to Rwanda.

A. It doesn’t work. It is expensive. The human cost and the economic cost of exclusion is far higher than the cost of inclusion. And so to buy into that false rhetoric is an economic and humanitarian disaster. Rather than looking at the outcome, we’re being caught up in the whirlwind of this xenophobic narrative. We must remember we are talking about a basic human right. Everyone has a right to seek safety.

Q. And the problem is exaggerated. In reality, it only affects the West to a small extent.

A. Seventy-four percent of refugees are housed in poor countries. They’re not housed by wealthier countries, despite the figures from the fearful narrative that we’re all fed. One in four people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. It behooves everybody to help those neighboring countries shoulder that responsibility.

Q. But neither the left nor the right, at least in the U.K., want to face an issue that is unpopular with voters.

A. I think that when you make people fearful of something, they’re easier to control. And I think we can see that not just in the rhetoric around the refugee crisis, the human displacement crisis, but we can see it around issues of climate. It’s a way of evading responsibility, of avoidance. I find it repugnant. Any country — not just England — that pushes the issue onto another country will only have another problem, another incursion, another conflict. The pressure is too great. It has to be part of a collective responsibility.

Q. Has the situation worsened in recent years?

A. After 2015, when the funding waned to the neighboring countries, we saw a massive influx of people making unsafe journeys across the Mediterranean. It’s important to keep up humanitarian aid to countries like Jordan. Spain has been an incredibly welcoming country, particularly in the wake of the Syria and now with Ukraine. But we have to continue to see it as our collective responsibility. As an investment in human capital.

Q. We are seeing this with Ukraine. Support from governments and the people for asylum seekers started to wane after a few months.

A. This is the case of Syria, which is a protracted crisis. We must invest with organizations like UNHCR over a long period. You have to keep investing in the education of these people. But it doesn’t serve anybody if they are not to do anything with those skills that they have developed.

Q. One thinks of the former German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She accepted 1.2 million refugees from Syria, and it ended up causing an internal political problem that played against her.

A. That government thought, as one of the leading countries in the EU, we will set the example. But then what happened is other countries didn’t follow with having similar levels of intake. So there were only a couple of countries who were shouldering the massive responsibility. It became difficult for [Merkel] internally because it wasn’t reciprocated.

Q. It is not a problem unique to one country.

A. We’re all so connected, with information flows on the internet. But yet we’re building these nation states, as if humans never moved, and shall never move. And the truth is that they have done so since time immemorial. I have seen in my own country, what happens to the national psyche, the negative impact it has, when you know that your country is contravening human rights. It starts to harden. You start to then be antagonistic towards your neighbor. We started talking about refugees, not as people, but as a problem.

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