Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

On Friday, September 18, Middle East Studies hosted a teach-in featuring presentations and discussion by Brown faculty and alumni with intimate knowledge of the causes, realities, and consequences of these crises. 

Understanding the Refugee Crisis

September 17th, 2015

Watson affiliated faculty from a range of disciplines and experiences offer their perspectives on the various issues to be confronted.

A Question of Scale, or a Historic Geopolitical Shift?

The question publics and policy-makers must answer in 2015 is straightforward: is the current crisis (with over 50 million refugees world-wide) different only in scale from past experiences of human mobility, or does it mark a radical shift in geopolitics?

There have, for example, never before been 4,000 would-be asylum-seekers in Britain encamped around Calais, making nightly efforts to enter the Channel tunnel.  The state capacities of Southern and Eastern European countries, already eroded by the economic crises of the 2000s, are facing unprecedented strain, both from the numbers of migrants seeking entry and transit (as many as 7,000 a day at the Gevgelija crossing from Greece to Macedonia), and from the critical scrutiny of international media.

Especially in light of the overheated xenophobic rhetoric, and the apparent success of populist right-wing politics, it is easy to think that this is a tipping point.  For a security guard or truck-driver at Calais, or a policeman or street-cleaner in Gevgelija, it might sometimes feel as if the stream is endless, each day an overstretch. And that is understandable; at peak operating capacity in the early twentieth-century, immigrant inspectors at Ellis lsland processed and admitted 5,000 newcomers in a day.

These individuals—as well as those volunteers and professionals providing aid and counseling to migrants held up by national borders—are dealing with the outcome of larger systemic factors.  At the system-level, the increasing numbers of migrants are “blowback” from decisions taken, and decisions postponed, by the international community with regard to the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.  Across multiple sites of US-led intervention, regime change and sectarian conflict, people are taking rational, risky decisions on the basis of the knowledge at their disposal.  As news has spread of the dangers of the Mediterranean route, as well as increased policing, pressure has increased on the route through Turkey and the Balkans.

The situation is highly fluid—when Hungary closed its southern border, Croatia’s foreign minister declared her commitment to “try to restore a decent face to this part of Europe,” only for border crossings from Serbia to Croatia to close the next day.  Countries like Sweden and Malta, which have accepted high numbers of asylum-seekers, are facing up to compassion fatigue, while countries like the UK, where the Conservative government faces persistent pressure from the anti-EU UKIP, continue to espouse a hard line on accepting a larger share.  

The pressure for a common migration policy may turn out to be the issue that splits the EU in the twenty-first century, in the way slavery did the United States in the nineteenth. It is tied into deep disagreements over economic policy and sovereignty; yet has the potential to spark broad popular movements concerned with basic principles of human dignity and greater equality of opportunity.  The path of history will depend, as it did then, on how effectively advocates for justice can expand the horizons of publics who have come to identify more closely with a border, than with the human beings trying to cross it.  

Keith Brown
Director of Postdoctoral and Undergraduate Policy Programs
Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs
Faculty Fellow


Divisions Across and Within European States

Europe is no stranger to refugee resettlement: in the mid-1990s, governments accepted nearly a million displaced individuals following the Balkan crisis. Nevertheless, the current crisis has created significant tensions within and across European states.  Across the European Union, efforts to apportion Syrian refugees have found little traction. Despite humanitarian and economic incentives to act, few governments seem willing to foot the bill and risk potential backlash from anti-immigrant parties and voters. These concerns have precipitated temporary moves away from the Schengen Agreement, with Denmark, Austria, and Germany recently re-establishing internal border controls to stem the tide of “unmanaged” migration. 

The crisis has also opened up cleavages within states. In Germany, for instance, Chancellor Angela Merkel surprised many in her coalition — including the leader of the Christian Social Union — when her government initially announced that it would welcome migrants with open arms. Despite popular support, the decision promises to strain the relationship between the federal government and the Länder (states). Although refugee applications are processed at the federal level, the majority of accompanying costs are allocated downward to states and municipalities. Given that these subnational governments must accept refugees on a non-voluntary basis, this has introduced significant financial and demographic pressure on local governments. Indeed, many municipalities lack the basic accommodation, staffing, or funds necessary to handle refugee resettlement. Although private charities and donations are currently stepping in to fill the gap, it remains to be seen whether this dynamic will be sustainable over the long run.

Jeremy Ferwerda
Postdoctoral Fellow in International and Public Affairs


How to Help Solve a Crisis We Helped Caused

The heart-rending refugee crisis now shaking Western consciences is almost entirely self-inflicted. Regimes in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan deserve their share of blame for failing to build more stable and inclusive societies. Much of the blame for the collapse of those countries, however, lies with blundering outsiders.

During the 1990s the United States spent billions of dollars to wage war against the Soviet-backed government of Afghanistan. That produced the repressive Taliban regime.  Unhappy with the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks, we bombed it out of power. Since then, we have been trying in vain to reassemble a country that we helped tear apart.

The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the next step toward the refugee crisis we see today. American leaders believed we would be able to impose our will on a distant people with a culture, history, and religious tradition we barely understand. Instead we cast it into a maelstrom of violence.

Chastened by those experiences, the US wisely decided not to invade Syria when trouble started there in 2011. Instead of adopting a self-destructive military policy, we adopted self-destructive diplomacy. We insist that we want a negotiated solution, but steadfastly refuse to negotiate with groups and factions we dislike. No conflict has ever been solved this way.

We should open our hearts to the refugees whose suffering we helped cause. Ideally, we would also open our minds and consider the long-term effects of our overseas interventions before we launch them.

Stephen Kinzer
Journalist in Residence


Humanitarian Aid Is Not the Key, But It Is Crucial

Sadako Ogata, former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, famously stated, “there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems.” This is clearly true of the Syrian crisis, where four years of relentless and bloody war has left 7.6 million people internally displaced and caused over 4 million to flee as refugees, the vast majority of which are currently being hosted not by European nations but by the surrounding countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. No amount of humanitarian aid will fix the underlying problem of war and destruction in Syria; only an international political solution can truly stop the crisis.

However, this does not mean that humanitarian aid is not a vital component of the response to this crisis. More than just a Band-Aid, appropriate humanitarian intervention can function as a tourniquet to stop the hemorrhage caused by ongoing conflict while waiting for a long-term political solution to develop. Though humanitarian intervention has not prevented the deaths of the 200,000 Syrians killed in the conflict so far, it has prevented the secondary deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of others that would surely have occurred due to the breakdown in health, agriculture, and sanitation systems within the region.

Quietly and without great fanfare, numerous humanitarian organizations have been providing assistance to Syrians both inside and outside of the country since the conflict began in 2011. For International Medical Corps, a US-based humanitarian organization that I have worked with for many years, this has included sustained intervention in the neighboring countries where displaced Syrians reside as well as an expanded response to meet the escalating needs of refugees in the Mediterranean and Europe. In Syria itself, the organization has continued to operate out of its office in Damascus despite increasing instability, providing as much health, psychosocial, and water, sanitation, and hygiene support as they safely can to civilians affected by conflict. International Medical Corps is also doing important work in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq. Not only have its services saved many lives, but they have also prevented what could have been an even larger and earlier mass migration to Europe.

However, despite these efforts, it is clear that many thousands of Syrian refugees, seeing little hope of a political solution to the conflict in the near future, will continue to pour into Europe in the coming months and years, seeking a better life for themselves and their children. While the primary obligation for addressing this refugee crisis lies with European nations themselves, the international humanitarian community, given its expertise and logistical capacity, still has an important role to play. International Medical Corps has already launched a response in Serbia, to help support the thousands of refugees passing through the country on their way to European Union nations, and is currently working to set up support services on several Greek islands that have been overwhelmed by refugee arrivals.

Though the international humanitarian response to the conflict in Syria has not garnered nearly as much attention as the international humanitarian response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa did this past year, it has consumed a far larger portion of the budget of most humanitarian organizations, including International Medical Corps. While the Syrian refugee crisis may be in the news this month due to the large influx currently arriving in Europe, it’s important to remember that international and local humanitarian organizations, working alongside host nations such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, have been struggling for years to address the basic human needs of those affected by the conflict in Syria, and will continue to do so long after the humanitarian crisis again fades from the headlines.

Adam C. Levine, MD, MPH, FACEP
Director, Global Emergency Medicine Fellowship, Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University
Primary Investigator, International Medical Corps Ebola Research Team


Finding the Right Humanitarian, Development, and Political Approaches

The Syrian refugee crisis has transcended national and regional boundaries and has truly become a global refugee crisis. These events also bring to the fore an alarming fact: more than 60 million people, half of whom are children, are displaced by conflict and violence worldwide. This is more than at any time since World War II. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, one in every 122 people worldwide is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum. Syria is irrefutably the world’s largest driver of displacement, with 7.6 million people displaced (often more than once) within Syria and more than 4 million people seeking refuge abroad, mostly in the overburdened neighboring countries of Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, and now in Europe.

As the 70th UN General Assembly gets under way in New York this week, many discussions will focus on the human suffering caused by war, natural disasters, and poverty and inequality. A critical aspect of the current challenge relates to providing enough money for acute short-term humanitarian needs and funding sustainable medium- and long-term solutions for people suffering in their own countries and fleeing across international borders and perilous seas. But what is the “optimal mix” and who is going to pay for it?

Despite billions of dollars in international assistance for Syria and neighboring countries since 2011, the appeals for funding have been underfunded in proportion to need (as in most other protracted humanitarian crises). On the humanitarian side, the existing international financing architecture is inadequate and fragmented, and there are many emergencies competing for limited resources. On the development side, long-term development approaches can’t fully meet the immediate needs of those displaced and living under siege conditions within Syria, or struggling in camps and urban areas in overstretched neighboring countries. Without getting mired in the long-standing humanitarian vs. development debate, this complex challenge – including the financial one – must be tackled in a determined and transparent way.

The Syria crisis will continue to push donors and the aid community to take a deep, hard look at their finances and how they work. Sufficient funding – humanitarian and development – is a first step, but it must go hand in hand with unhindered humanitarian access and protection, respect for civilian infrastructure, and political solutions.

Julie Thompson
Visiting Fellow in International and Public Affairs


Discrepancies Abound among the Views of European States – and Their Citizens

Few events illuminate the tensions between formal political institutions and human aspirations as starkly as wartime migration flows.

For Europe, where the protection of refugees is an important part of European Union law, these tensions are acute. They are most apparent in the different positions taken by different EU member countries. 

With some exceptions, Germany has shown a marked generational shift from a cautious, almost fearful view to a demonstrably more open and sympathetic view toward newcomers from the Middle East. The Hungarian government of Victor Orbán has, by contrast, taken every opportunity to demonstrate its hostility toward those seeking refuge. The contrast is not strictly one between Western and Eastern Europe. Denmark, which was ironically the first country to sign the Refugee Convention in 1951, has erected numerous obstacles to refugees who seek stability and protection in Western Europe.  

Since large refugee movements occur in emergency conditions, political leaders have unusual discretion in responding. But elected leaders are not philosopher kings. They have to balance their commitment to international norms and human rights against domestic political pressures and imperatives.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has shown striking leadership in telling her citizens that Germany cannot stand aside from the civil war that is sending so many Syrians toward Europe. Indeed, Germany will consider up to 800,000 applicants for asylum this year, with priority given to those from Iraq and Eritrea as well as Syria. Yet even Merkel was obliged to close German borders for a time when her coalition partners in Munich said the numbers of migrants arriving on trains from Austria had overwhelmed their logistical resources.  

Elected leaders in Poland and Slovakia have meanwhile argued that they lack the wherewithal to accommodate large numbers of newcomers. And they are trying to manage the considerable anxiety among their mostly Catholic populations about large numbers of Muslims trying to enter the EU.  

There is also great variation at the person-to-person level within receiving countries. The fate of individuals and families will depend on the particular municipalities and law enforcement personnel they encounter. In the medium term, however, elected leaders will play the critical role in allocating resources and establishing the expectations for treatment of the waves of people displaced by civil war in the Middle East.

J. Nicholas Ziegler
Visiting Associate Professor