In between classes last week, a group of faculty, staff, students and community members gathered in Hubbard Hall to discuss the millions of displaced Syrians fleeing their violent country.
The McKeen Center for the Common Good organized the public event as part of its new discussion series that invites faculty and other local experts to hold informal talks on campus about current events and issues of concern as they come up in the world.
Michelle Vazquez Jacobus, the McKeen Center’s associate director, moderated the event. At the outset, she suggested that the group consider questions such as whether nations have an obligation to offer refuge to displaced Syrians, and whether the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and in California might indicate that national security concerns outweigh humanitarian ones.
Before opening the conversation up more generally, Jacobus asked three invited experts to offer brief analyses. They were Laura Henry, Bowdoin’s John F. and Dorothy H. Magee Associate Professor of Government and Legal Studies; Reza Jalali, advisor to Bowdoin’s Muslim Student Association and the coordinator of multicultural affairs at the University of Southern Maine; and Gordon Adams, a retired professor who taught at American University and George Washington University and who now lives in Maine.
Henry began by critiquing the well-worn phrase, “European migrant crisis,” which has popped up in newspaper headlines over the past year. She dissected the phrase word by word.
First, she questioned the use of “European.” Of the 4 million registered Syrian refugees (and there are likely 1 million more unregistered), 2 million are in Turkey, more than 1 million are in Lebanon, more than 600,000 are in Jordan, and several hundred thousand are in Egypt and in Iraq. “Shining a spotlight on Europe” is misleading, Henry said, since the exodus from Syria is certainly not confined to Europe and is affecting the Middle East in dramatic ways.
Second, the word migrant, rather than refugee, is a questionable one, she said. Refugees are entitled to some rights under international law, including the right to not be immediately deported back into perilous circumstances. “A refugee is an individual who lives outside his country, who is unable or unwilling to return to their country due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group,” Henry explained. International law, doesn’t, however, specify how states evaluate refugees, how many they should take or how they process them.
Migrants, on the other hand, are considered people seeking to improve their lives economically by moving abroad. They can safely return to their home countries. By using the “neutral” term of migrant rather than refugee, politicians, the news media and others are “distancing us and absolving us a little bit,” Henry argued.
Finally, Henry skewered the word crisis. “A crisis is usually temporary. It’s exceptional. It requires dramatic short-term measures,” she said. “It is certainly not the new normal.” She argued that nations instead should respond to the problem of massive populations on the move with more visionary solutions.
“I wonder if we’re not entering a time in world history when we need to think more proactively and in a more longterm way about displaced people, about refugees,” she said. “One of the great risks of using the term crisis is it denotes a threat, and it activates a particular kind of concern. And what we’ve seen is a rise of xenophobia and the increasing popularity of far-right parties. I think crisis language is in many ways counterproductive.”
Reza Jalali began his comments by describing his own journey to Maine as a refugee 30 years ago. Jalali, who was born a Kurd in Iran, was not allowed back into his country after he left to attend university in India. “I was a stateless person. I had no country to go home to,” he said. “That is how a refugee’s life begins. It is a bomb dropped in the middle of a market, or a midnight knock by the militia, and you see a family member of friend disappear.”
He argued that states like Maine, which has an aging population, benefit from an influx of younger people who can buttress the economy. “If it weren’t for the arrival of immigrants, many of our communities would disappear and our schools would close down,” he said. “They bring vibrancy, they consume, they pay taxes, they start businesses. Immigrants throughout history are known for working hard, sending their kids to school and contributing to communities.”
Jalali also addressed fears that accepting Syrians and other Muslim refugees into the United States increases our risk of terrorist attacks. “It is heartbreaking to me that my religion is defined as violent and intolerant,” he said. He suggested citizens should have more faith in the U.S. government’s extensive screening process for refugees, a vetting that can take between two and five years. “Do we need more checks? Perhaps,” he said. “But they are in place already.”
Gordon Adams also addressed the fear and racism embedded in the public’s responses to the prospect of accepting Muslim refugees. He said it is appropriate to question how asylum applicants are evaluated, adding that Americans need reassurance that the screening mechanisms are robust enough to catch potential threats.
A key piece for safely accepting refugees, Adams continued, is considering “how you treat [refugees] when they get here.” He said, “Nothing more certainly guarantees a low incidence of violent behavior in a refugee community than being welcomed,” he said, adding, however, that generally refugee communities in this country don’t have higher rates of violence than other communities. He continued, “Nothing more certainly guarantees that there will be opportunities for ISIS recruitment in the Muslim population, which began as refugees, than rejection and shunning.”
In the wider discussion, participants raised considerations such as the possibility for large groups of new refugees to change and destabilize communities, particularly poorer ones. One student suggested that the United States has an obligation to accept refugees not only because of its history and precedent of welcoming new Americans, but also because of the role it has played in the Middle East and in Syria.
Adams also acknowledged the general belief that the current refugee situation is unique. However, in some ways, he argued, there are similarities with past influxes of refugees. He noted that while the U.S. has a history of welcoming people who want to be in this country, it is a mixed history. “There is a history of resistance and fear with every new wave of refugees,” he said, citing for example, the 1942-1945 Japanese internment camps and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
“What is the difference here?” Adams continued. “In this case, it is tangled up with the question of terrorism,” he said.