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Confronting the refugee crisis

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Syrian and Iraqi refugees wear life vests as they are rescued from a broken boat in the sea and arrive in Greece.

Every day, when Professor Tazreena Sajjad leaves campus at the end of her workday, she knows exactly where she will go—home. As the instructor of SIS’s Refugees, Migration, and Trafficking course and Migration and Development course, Sajjad understands that having somewhere to leave and return to is a privilege; a privilege that many of the over 65 million forcibly displaced persons around the world do not have.

65.6 million is the largest number of forcibly displaced persons ever recorded. The number includes refugees, internally displaced persons, stateless persons, and others for whom the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expresses concern. As that number continues to climb, Sajjad faces her own uphill battle researching and teaching the topic.

There are many factors that contribute to this record-high number, and Sajjad cites a variety of conflicts currently forcing people to flee: the ongoing war in Syria; conflicts and high levels of political instability in Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and overall destabilization in the Middle East, particularly since the invasive wars in Iraq and Libya and the Arab uprisings; famine in the Horn of Africa; failed states; oppressive governments; and climate change to name a few. She also notes that advancements in research, and a more complex understanding of displacement, enable organizations like the UNHCR to better count, measure, and track those who are currently at risk of becoming displaced.

However, Sajjad says another “push factor” that doesn’t often come up in discussions about why forced migration occurs is severe economic deprivation combined with other political and social factors: “It’s something we don’t like to talk about, because we when we talk about forced displacement, we prioritize political prosecution and don’t talk about systemic ways in which people are deprived of basic necessities. But if you have nothing to eat, that’s a death sentence for you.”

Illuminating a crisis

Sajjad points out that forced displacement is an ongoing crisis, and migration and refugee situations do not always make it into headlines or news cycles except in specific contexts, like major wars.

“Why? Because generally, these are the stories of black and brown bodies. These are people largely considered to be ‘disposable’—their struggles and their experiences are not generally newsworthy.”

However, when one million refugees fled to European shores in 2015, the scope of the current refugee crisis was illuminated: “If large numbers of people had not shown up in 2015 on Western Europe’s doorstep, most people would not have thought that we have a global refugee crisis. Generations of Palestinians, Afghans, Somalis, Rohingya, Sudanese, and others live and die in [refugee camps] and in conditions of forced displacement on an everyday basis, but because we don’t see them, we don’t think of it is a humanitarian crisis. But it is an everyday crisis for refugees, the internally displaced, the stateless—their challenges to survive have always been there.”

What troubles Sajjad, who is currently researching how refugees are labeled and defined, as well as how countries fortify security measures in response to refugees, is the phrase “Europe’s refugee crisis.” Because most of the world’s displaced are forced to travel by boat, by foot, or by other unsafe means of transport, refugees typically flee to neighboring countries. With the exception of Turkey, which is hosting the world’s largest number of refugees as a consequence of the Syrian war, the vast majority of countries currently hosting refugees are far away from Europe and North America. Countries that have long faced refugee crises are low- and middle-income countries in Africa and Asia—Kenya, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Uganda, Jordan, and Ethiopia, to name a few.

“The ‘European refugee crisis,’ therefore, is a crisis that has been manufactured as a consequence of failed political will. It could have been managed differently, since Europe has greater economic, institutional, and infrastructural capacities than countries that generally bear the brunt of forced displacement. The continent’s ‘crisis’ is primarily a crisis of the people who are stuck in Greece, in the Balkans, and in desperate conditions within Europe—yet that is not what people think about when reading or talking about the situation.”

“Simultaneously, it is a crisis of European leadership and a crisis of identity,” she adds. “Ultimately, it is a question of how Europe writ large and the European Union defines itself. It is important to ask: What are Europe’s demographic anxieties?” Sajjad notes that the influx of refugees complicates other Europe developments that existed prior to 2015, such as a rise in right-wing populism, xenophobia, the global economic crisis, and complex issues of internal security.

Conversations in Classroom

In the classroom, Sajjad strives to facilitate tough discussions about migration that break down misperceptions of refugees and people on the move. The undergraduate and graduate courses bring together students from various fields, ranging from security and terrorism to development and human rights, with the goal of getting them to “speak the same language” about the topic.

She’s taught the courses since 2011, but “when the world woke up to the refugee crisis” in 2015, teaching these courses became more difficult. “Everyone has an opinion about migration—about migrants and refugees and, in many contexts, the opinions are not based on empirical evidence. But teaching about such a topic is even more challenging in a political climate that is extremely toxic and is very much based on fear-mongering.”

“My students have to constantly interrogate their own biases, their own prejudices, and their own understanding of issues in the process,” she adds.

Throughout her years teaching the courses, Sajjad has learned to roll with the punches and incorporate rapid developments in forced displacement into her lessons. There have been times when she’s relinquished discussions on course materials to focus on breaking news and the immediate reactions of students to devastating events.

As a result, each semester Sajjad significantly revises the courses with feedback from students and gauging what topics they gravitate toward. However, irrespective of the changes to the syllabi, Sajjad impresses upon her students that migration is as old as human civilization and it will continue to happen no matter what the international system and its challenges look like. “When the students start to realize that [migration] is not a story about people ‘out there,’ but is a story about themselves—if that light is turned on, it becomes a very different kind of class.”

Hope and help

While learning and researching about the plight of 65.6 million forcibly displaced persons can be admittedly overwhelming at times, Sajjad says that there is one common thread woven through the history of migrants, refugees, and displaced persons that we can learn from: hope.

“The basic formula of the human experience is that we hope. That is the force that drives us—even in the face of the most devastating realities we dare to hope. That is why people flee,” Sajjad says.

At the start of their journeys to cross international borders, refugees and many economic migrants face dangerous obstacles and risks, including illness, death, exploitation, family separation, smugglers, and human traffickers. If they are able to make it to a different country, they face other challenges in refugee camps and urban centers, and they often find that they are subjected to deep suspicion. These realities have become worse since migration has become increasingly criminalized and securitized.

Sajjad challenges her students and the international community to see the potential of migrants and refugees as assets to their new nations and to become more informed about the issues surrounding forcible displacement: “We live in a world that is extremely connected. Every issue you talk about—climate change, conflict, poverty, economics—these issues don’t stop at a nation state’s borders. Under those circumstances, we have to be more knowledgeable, empathetic, and more strategic about how to respond and engage.”