Dartmouth Panelists Discuss Refugee Crisis

Tuesday, October 13, 2015
Hanover — Panelists at Dartmouth College on Monday sketched a sobering view of the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, which they said is larger in scale and reaches further than many might imagine.

Though the issue has commanded the world’s attention in recent months, it comes as a result of longstanding problems across the Middle East and Africa, ones that “the western world has failed to bring to a halt,” said Bob Kitchen, director of the International Rescue Committee’s Emergency Preparedness and Response Unit .

“It’s a crisis that has filled our newspapers and television screens over the last few weeks and months,” he said, “but ... it’s not a new conflict.”

Kitchen works on the ground as the head of the IRC’s crisis operations. Days ago, he was administering aid to refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos, where he saw firsthand how their struggles are beginning to touch Europe.

The waterfronts of Mediterranean cities, where tourists once sat in cafes and sipped cappuccinos, are now staging grounds for unscrupulous smugglers who price gouge desperate refugees, crowd them onto unsafe boats and often leave them alone to navigate across the sea to Europe, he said.

When — and if — they arrive at the most common entry point, the shores of Greece, it’s “one of the most happy and sad things I’ve seen,” Kitchen said. “They think they’re in Europe and safe, and I know they have a very long, really massively expensive and dangerous journey ahead of them.”

That journey takes them through a chain of Balkan countries — usually to central Europe — where countries such as Germany and Switzerland are popular destinations for people to seek asylum. European countries have squabbled over how best to share the burden, and so far have agreed to resettle 160,000 refugees — a fraction of the total number.

Of the roughly 450,000 who arrived in Greece so far this year, about 70 percent are fleeing Syria, though another 18 percent are Afghans, Kitchen said.

“This really is the largest war the world has at the moment, the most serious crisis,” Kitchen said of Syria’s conflict, which has displaced at least half of the nation’s population from their homes and has driven about 4.1 million people from the country.

And even though Europe is seeing more displaced people on its shores than ever before, the bulk are in camps in Syria’s neighboring countries: there are roughly 700,000 Syrians in Jordan, more than 1 million in Lebanon and nearly 2 million in Turkey, Kitchen said. Those countries’ generosity has come at a “severe cost” to their social services and economies, he said, and international resources have been scarce.

Kitchen and two other experts appeared Monday at the Tuck School of Business for a forum sponsored by several Dartmouth College offices, including the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding.

Panelist Michael Leigh, the European Commission’s former director-general for enlargement, helped some of the same Balkan countries that are now transit zones for refugees join the European Union.

Leigh compared the scale of the crisis to the great post-Soviet migrations, and said it only adds to the strain on the continent from the ailing Eurozone, the conflict in Ukraine and the potential exit of the United Kingdom.

“This is by far the most serious existential crisis facing the EU today,” he said.

The interlocking pressures of these problems are reinforcing “euro-skeptical claims” in many countries, Leigh said, referring to the growing view that the European Union simply is not working.

Leigh said the refugee crisis in particular was driving wedges between various members of the EU. The United Kingdom’s restrictions on refugees are souring relations with Germany, he said, while Germany’s differences with other central European countries on migration make it harder to adopt a unified position on Ukraine and Russia.

And the feeling among Germans that the country is not receiving enough support in hosting refugees — even from France, a close ally — may decrease their willingness to continue to shore up the Euro, according to Leigh.

Panelist Graziella Parati, a professor of Italian who has studied the effects of the crisis in that country, said there was a growing “normalization” in the public eye of fatalities in the Mediterranean.

“Now we are getting used, unfortunately, to the fact that there are these large numbers of people who will not make the crossing,” she said.

Parati, who teaches at Dartmouth, also mentioned that the college had plans to welcome some refugee scholars — hopefully, she said, starting in January. She said she also wanted the college to accept refugee students who wish to complete their studies at the school.

Residents in attendance, such as Helen Skeist, of Canaan, asked the panelists what the Upper Valley could do to help.

“I feel that with all the churches and synagogues and other associations, I think that there’s a lot of kind people in the Upper Valley,” she said, and proposed that groups such as the United Valley Interfaith Project help place refugees with area families.

“I haven’t heard anything about how people in the Upper Valley can actually help host people,” Skeist said.

Parati advised Skeist to contact Our Savior Lutheran Church in Hanover, whose congregation, she said, had been working to address the crisis.

Kitchen had some simple advice for Upper Valley residents on how to help.

“Money and pressure,” he said after the event.

Donating to refugee resettlement programs and contacting one’s legislators are the best ways to effect change from far-away Vermont and New Hampshire, he said.

Kathleen Agena, a recent transplant from New York who has served with several United Nations agencies, said that though well-intentioned, the idea of hosting refugees here may not be as effective as hoped. The numbers will be small, she said, and those people will still be competing for a limited number of visas from the federal government.

Agena said that efforts to help displaced people should focus on giving them the resources to apply their skills, rather than provide temporary aid that makes them feel as if they are merely being “warehoused” in camps.

“We’ve got to start empowering the people inside the refugee camps,” she said. “They’re no longer temporary residences.”

Words themselves are a battleground in this crisis, as panelists and audience members pointed out Monday evening.

“Migrant” and “refugee,” though sometimes used interchangeably, have significantly different meanings. A migrant, by most definitions, makes a conscious choice to leave his or her homeland in search of better opportunities; a refugee has no choice and is fleeing persecution at 

Parati objected to the way politicians and the media now are using the terms.

“We are at the point in the public discourse at which refugee is good, migrant is bad,” she said, “which is a very problematic dichotomy.”

Parati said she preferred not to draw a line between the two terms, given that many migrants are not necessarily able to survive in their own 

Speaking during the question-and-answer session, Agena contended that the terms should be clearly defined, as some players in the crisis are using the blending of the ideas to deny refugees rights that they hold under international law. Among other rights, the 1951 Refugee Convention established the principle of “non-refoulement,” which holds that refugees may not be returned to the borders of countries in which they face 

“They can’t be treated the way they are being treated by, for example, Hungary,” she said afterward, referring to the heavy-handed efforts that country has made to stem the flow of foreign visitors. “That’s why the terminology is so important.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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