Refugee Panel at Hamilton

Before Thanksgiving recess, students and professors filled the Red Pit to capacity to attend a discussion panel hosted by Professor Erol Balkan (Economics), Professor Heather Merrill (Africana Studies), and Professor Alan Cafruny (Government) regarding the global refugee crisis.

In the wake of terror attacks in Paris, politicians and candidates have engaged in a public debate over how the U.S. should handle Syrian refugees. Professors Balkan, Merrill, and Cafruny did not focus on whether or not to take refugees, but on the context surrounding the assumption that thousands of Syrians will be accepted into the US.

Professor Balkan began by giving context to daily struggle of displaced civilians. Almost 4 million refugees have fled their homeland as a result of the bloodshed perpetrated by ISIS and Assad. The burden of housing refugees has fallen predominately on surrounding countries like Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, the Syrian Civil War has displaced 11.5 million people. Balkan showed the haunting and widely published photo of a young Syrian boy who drowned while attempting to cross the Mediterranean. The image sparked a desire to find a quick solution to the refugee crisis. Regrettably, such a solution does not exist.

The demographic composition of refugees is deeply concerning. According to Professor Balkan, for every five adults fleeing Syria there are six children. This not only presents a problem for host countries to provide education, healthcare, and other necessities, but also for the future generations of Syria. As the “lost generation” ages, these children have lost any semblance of normalcy, jeopardizing the future social and economic development of their country. Moreover, because of increasing uncertainty in resettlement programs in European countries, their future is more unstable.

Professor Merrill gave a history of other refugee crises. She questioned the relative lack of attention to African refugees. Every year, thousands of African refugees attempt to cross the Mediterranean, often unsuccessfully, to find new life, mostly in Italy. Yet, they have never garnered as much media attention as Syrians. She placed blame specifically on imperialist attitudes in the Middle East from the US, UK, and Italy. Countries that impose government or social systems on foreign countries only prolong conflicts that displace thousands.

She continued by describing the social stigma under which African refugees live in Italy. They are regarded as criminals and illegals and are generally pushed to the periphery of society.

Professor Cafruny said that the global refugee problem will only be solved when we address the causes of the crisis. Imperialist intervention and rivalry by western countries only further destabilizes a delicate power balance in the Middle East and Africa. Professor Cafruny drew examples from U.S. intervention in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. He also expressed future concerns in Yemen.

Focused on the removal of Assad, the United States, as Cafruny contended, inadvertently led to the rise of ISIS. “The U.S. created ISIS… ISIS would not exist without our intervention and invasion.” Cafruny further criticized U.S. foreign policy by describing it as, “a cat that wants to eat a fish, but doesn’t want to wet its feet.” We want an advantageous government installed in these countries, but we don’t want to deal with the fallout of a failed initiative.

Cafruny concluded with a strong policy recommendation: the United States needs to cease its military intervention in the Middle East (particularly its ties with Saudi Arabia) and give support to Kurdish troops to help with a constitutional transition in Syria.

We have yet to see the fallout of refugee acceptance since the Paris attacks. While everyone is on high alert in Europe and the United States, it is important to keep in mind that millions of refugees need assistance and we have a moral imperative to do what we can.

Outdated UN policies from 1951 can do little to assist refugees fleeing for their lives today. The United States needs to update refugee policies to alleviate already overly burdened countries like Turkey, while keeping an eye on national security concerns.