A couple of weeks ago, I organized a speak-out on campus that we called “#refugeeswelcome?” Here is an excerpt from the announcement:
“The Hashtag #refugeeswelcome was created in Europe last year to promote a climate of acceptance and support for refugees from the Middle East and Africa. It came to stand for an open attitude and a volunteer movement. Since then, however, support for an open-door policy has fallen dramatically and parties with anti-migrant and anti-Islam stances have gained in popularity, both in Europe and in the United States. Terrorist attacks over the past year have increased the anxiety on both sides of the debate and it is precisely this anxiety that this speak-out takes as its basis for dialogue. We invite students, faculty and the wider community to participate in a dialogue to answer such questions as: Why do we homogenize a group of people into one collective that should be feared? What perspectives do political parties and the media communicate and what consequences does this have? How does it feel to be on either side of this situation – as a Muslim (American) who fears discrimination, stereotyping, and violence, and as an American who fears terrorism? This event will also create a space for personal stories that can help us to stop generalizing and to engage in conversations with, rather than about, each other.”
Our campus newspaper, The South End published an excellent preview article of the event. Read it here for more information about the set-up.
I do not want to summarize the different contributions here, but rather write a response to one of the questions that was raised multiple times: why do we need to take in refugees? Why do we have to welcome refugees? Since I conceptualized the speak-out as an open forum and a student-centered debate, I held back with my own opinion. I prefaced the debate saying that while all of us have opinions, we were not there to push any kind of agenda, that the professors in the circle were there to answer questions and correct misconceptions, but not to judge or convince anyone. I still believe that this approach worked well and it was wonderful to see how well-spoken the students pushed back against anti-refugee rhetoric and how open-minded the dialogue turned out. However, being a teacher, it was quite difficult to hold back, to refrain from “teaching,” and I am glad that I have this blog to respond here.
So, why do I think, we should welcome refugees? I have three answers: humanity/human rights, responsibility, and security.
The first one is the most idealistic one, but also the one that I find the most important. We are speaking about humans, individuals with personal stories of suffering, children who are dying, women who are being raped, men who are being tortured. All metaphors of skittles or bad apples do not get to the gist of that. Refugees are not apples, they are humans. If there is one bad apple in a bushel, we might feel like it is a waste to throw away the whole bushel, but it is not more than that. If we think about humans, such a comparison is a catastrophe. It basically means that we can live with the prospect of thousands of people dying because we are afraid of some diffuse threat of terrorism. This should really be enough to say that we would do everything we can to help but it certainly isn’t enough for AfD and Co. So in addition to humanity, there are actual human rights laws, the refugee convention of 1951 and each country’s asylum laws, that guarantee protection for those who are persecuted in their own country and have to fear for their life. UNHCR writes: “Since, by definition, refugees are not protected by their own governments, the international community steps in to ensure they are safe and protected” (document). Sure, Lebanon and Turkey also belong to the international community, Greece and Italy may be first points of entry into the European Union and therefore the place where refugees have to apply for asylum (Dublin Regulation), but taken together with the appeal to empathy that my first point implies and the more practical reasons 2 and 3, I believe that bringing refugees into our countries is not only the right thing to do but something we in fact need to do.
Reason #2, responsibility, is a quick one. It can be broken down to this: we messed it up, we need to live up to that responsibility and help at least those most in danger if not help fix it. The latter is difficult and implies a long-term strategy and we cannot wait for politicians to actually work together to achieve that, so we have to alleviate as much of the suffering as we can and that means at this point to welcome refugees, provide safety and, thinking of the children, education. I am not saying here, that “we” (whoever that we is) created the Islamic State or other terrorist networks. What I do intend to say is that without Western intervention, these networks may not exist. I highly recommend listening to the LSE lecture “ISIS – a history” in which Fawaz A. Gerges (professor of international relations at LSE) lays out several key reasons for the emergence of the Islamic State. Spoiler: the war in Iraq looms rather large. Here is the link to video and audio of the lecture (also available through the LSE podcast).
The last reason, I want to mention, may seem counterintuitive at first. One of the discussants at the speak-out in fact mentioned “lethal ignorance” as the first words that came to his mind when he thought of refugees. My last point is security. How does that go together with the fears of terrorism that we encounter? It may be simplified but I believe that Germany has not experienced a large terrorist attack yet because, rather than despite, of the German refugee policy. I am aware of the police work that has been done to prevent attacks (and also of the role Syrian refugees played in apprehending a potential terrorist). I know that suspects are under surveillance right now and that there is well-founded fear that terrorists are planning hits on Germany as well. I do not mean to be naive and say that no terrorist has come to Germany in recent years. What I do believe, however, is that recruitment and propaganda are a lot easier in the context of hostility and fear and a lot harder when a country’s government as well as its people welcome refugees. The attacks in France and Belgium were carried out by people who had lived in these countries long before the Syrian war and the European crisis (solidarity crisis rather than refugee crisis) began. When we think of different approaches to immigration, separation and marginalization can generate resentment, discontent, the feeling of non-belonging and of being unwanted which recruiters can use to radicalize young people (not just immigrants by the way but also citizens). Integration on the other hand, and by integration I do not mean assimilation, means involvement in society, should mean intercultural exchange, connections on equal footing, and is thereby a better way of preventing terrorism than a policy or rhetoric of division ever could be.