As we reach the last weeks of the open call for the WDCD Refugee Challenge, we are taking the time to speak with some of our international jury members on their hopes & expectations for the months ahead. This time: a chat with the brilliant Oxford Professor Robin Cohen.

As Professor Emeritus of Development Studies at the University of Oxford, Robin Cohen is an authority on migration and diasporas; and we are thrilled to have him on our Jury. Together with leading figures like IKEA’s Head of Design Marcus Engman, and founder of URBAN REFUGEES, Sonia Ben Ali (read our conversation with her here) Cohen will review the challenge entries and ultimately vote for the five winning ideas.

In this interview, we discuss the ‘moral’ and ‘practical’ sides to the refugee crisis, how to overcome what Cohen calls the  ‘solution fatigue’, and at which points of intervention he thinks designers can make the biggest difference.

Q: What made you decide to join this challenge as a jury member?

The current refugee and migration crisis is one of the great moral and practical challenges of our times. ‘Moral’, because many people recognize our common humanity and the need for empathy with people in distress. ‘Practical’, because this sentiment is not universal and we have to deal with resistance and push-back by settled groups against population movements. Causes and solutions are complex and we need to share ideas, not leave it all to others.

Q: What are you looking for in a winning idea?

I’ll be looking for something imaginative and original that might work. So much has been tried and found wanting that we have reached ‘solution fatigue’. A fresh idea that can grip the imagination and give hope will be the one I’ll look out for.

Q: What do you consider to be the most challenging issue design should solve for refugees?

Providing appropriate housing / shelter is an obvious point of intervention. I would also like to see something that will work at ‘multi-scalar’ levels, recognizing that issues will change as local, national, regional and global levels change.

Q: Any story in relation to refugees you want to share?

I find the contrast between those refugees bearing artefacts and memorabilia with them and those that discard them intriguing. A colleague told me of her Brazilian respondents in London who brought religious images and statuettes with them to remind them of home.  I shared the contrasting story of my uncle who was given a valuable religious artefact by his father to accompany him on his journey from Lithuania to South Africa. He threw it into the Baltic Sea, wanted to start his new life unencumbered by the past. We need to understand this tension between memory and hope.

Q: Any existing project/initiative that you find remarkable?

I’m impressed by the generosity of people in Jordan, Lebanon and Greece and like the thought that viable solutions can emerge from below. For example, I am moved by the actions of a young woman in Germany I know who is very ill, but nonetheless has taken it on herself to teach refugees German in her home. The multiplier effects of many small acts of kindness can do much to reduce cultural tensions.

Robin Cohen is Professor Emeritus and Director of the International Migration Institute at the University of Oxford. He is also an author of several books on migration, including The New Helots: Migrants in the International Division of Labour (1987, 1993, 2003), Frontiers of Identity (1994), Global Diasporas: An Introduction (1997, rev. 2008) and Migration and Its Enemies (2006). Robin has edited or co-edited 20 further volumes, particularly on the sociology and politics of developing areas, ethnicity, international migration, transnationalism and globalization. 

See all the Jury Profiles at
Want to meet the five finalists of the Challenge? Join us at WDCD2016 in Amsterdam, where the prize-giving ceremony will take place: