In the wake of the recent terror attacks in Paris, ‘the refugee question’ has received redoubled interest from the international community. However, this global refugee crisis is in no way a new phenomenon, and has its roots far outside of the Middle East. To clarify the current state of duress, Professor of Economics Erol Balkan, Henry Platt Bristol Professor of International Affairs Alan Cafruny and Professor of Africana Studies Heather Merrill held a panel discussion on Nov. 17 for an overflowing Red Pit of students, faculty and community members.
Balkan began by explaining the most pressing issue, at least in the popular media, the current exodus out of Syria. He described the issue as “the worst [refugee] crisis of our lifetime,” noting that about 12 million, roughly half of Syria’s population, have been permanently displaced and roughly 6 million are now seeking refuge in other countries. To date, Turkey has accepted the most refugees of any country, a little over 2 million, followed by Lebanon and Jordan. To contrast this, Germany, which pledged to accept 35,000 refugees has taken none thus far; while Sweden and Norway have met half their pledge of 2,000.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the crisis, at least for Balkan, is that for every five independent adult refugees, there are six children who fled alone. This poses a unique problem for Turkey, whose law gives every refugee the right to education and healthcare. Makeshift schools and hospitals in refugee camps, which can house up to 100,000 people, face language barriers, sanitation concerns and equipment inadequacies. Moreover, although Syrians are among the most educated refugee populations, they are forbidden to work in Turkey, under the same law that gives them the aforementioned rights, which has led to a job crisis in the region.
Balkan explained that, prior to the current conflict in Syria, the country had very strong infrastructure. Previously, 99% of children attended primary schools, and 89% attended secondary schools, healthcare was accessible and everyday life was, relatively, stable. Today, however, epidemics are breaking out in areas with high population densities, and the school system has been so thoroughly eradicated that scholars have begun referring to “the lost generation of Syria.”
Merrill, who specializes in studies of the African diaspora and Italy, was struck by the international news coverage working to humanize the Syrian refugees and elicit compassion from the global community. She highlighted the marked difference in such international support for the Syrian refugees, when compared to African refugees from about a dozen countries over the past decade. While using personal stories and photographs individualize the crisis, African immigrants are often described as a “flood” or “deluge,” grouped into one faceless crushing entity.
Although the wave of Syrian refugees were compared to the Jewish population during WWII, no such comparison was drawn for Africans, hundreds of thousands of whom have died trying to cross the Mediterranean for asylum in Europe.
Africans are demonized as criminals, intruders and illegals, they are victims of violence, police profiling and brutality; yet they are fleeing totalitarianism and collapse, murder and torture, just as much as the Syrians.” The difference is rooted in colonialism, which has “compartmentalized the world based on race, namely white and Black, and sent the message that violence is their only path to freedom.
“The US and its allies are in some way responsible for the refugee crisis, which leaves innocents caught in power struggles and political instability due to capitalist interests,” Merrill explained. She used Libya and Somalia, both of which were colonized by Italy, as examples of unwarranted foreign intervention, toppling of governments, militarization of citizen groups, and supporting ongoing and unbridled warfare. In the case of Libya, one political theory posits that the goal of the US was to remove China from the country, limiting their access to oil, 75% of which goes to the US or its allies.
Cafruny spoke last and dissected the causal role played by the US, by capitalism more broadly and, ultimately, by neo-imperialism, in the creation of ISIS. He criticized the media for framing the crisis as an issue of resettlement: “We aren’t going to resolve the problems of tens of millions of refugees until we understand the causes of these conflicts and develop solutions.” These causes seem self-evident in the popular press, which “naturalizes the situation as ‘all these crazy Muslims running around, hating us and our way of life, and they’re backward and barbaric’ etc.”
In reality, Cafruny maintains, “the Middle East is a crisis of US foreign policy and imperialist rivalry, traceable back to the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire by Western colonial powers after the first World War.” It was after this time that “sovereignty was no longer contingent or expected, and when the only way to avoid being ousted in a regime change is to follow what is in the best interest of the the US [or foreign power],” he continued.
In 2003, ISIS was actually a more mild alternative to the Shiite regimes backed by the US, supported by those who were deserted in their native country while it descended into chaos and served as a breeding ground for the terrorist organization. One need look no further to see the self-serving and careless actions executed by Western superpowers than to Muammar Gaddafi, who was personal friends with Tony Blair, former Prime Minister of the UK, and even helped finance the campaign for Nicolas Sarkozy, former President of France.
The US has still not learned it’s lesson, advocating for the immediate removal of Bashar Hafez al-Assad, President of Syria, at all costs. Russia opposes this strategy, and has since 2012, when it urged the West to back Assad for now so that ISIS cannot gain ground in the region. The Syrian and Kurdish forces are the ones really doing the most to counter ISIS, and if Assad is removed, Russia fears that Syria will also descend into, what Putin calls, “controlled chaos.” Two weeks ago, Jimmy Carter wrote an Op Ed in Times Magazine also in favor of Assad, stating “right now, to be against Assad is to be in favor of ISIS.” Cafruny seemed to also be in accordance, saying “The US created ISIS, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that; ISIS would not exist without our intervention and invasion.”
Beyond current threats, the region continues to see such intervention and turmoil. Yemen will become increasingly important, Cafruny predicted, being the most recent victim of genocidal strikes backed by the US. “Prior to the current conflicts, there were no refugees,” he stated, “the countries in the region were multi-ethnic and home to a variety of religions, they were even relatively prosperous and peaceful.”
Cafruny concluded the event by acknowledging that, “It’s hard to have your government criticized, but it’s necessary and it’s even patriotic. There is no humanitarian solution to this crisis, there’s only a political one and that requires returning sovereignty and stability to the region.” Cafruny fears the recent attack on Paris will halt free movement in Europe, which would “cause all hell to break loose.” He referenced an attack on civilians that occurred more than a decade ago and solemnly declared, “the drums of war are beating again, just like in 2001 -- and look what happened then.”