The Center for the Study of Democracy has done it again, and put on another incredibly intriguing lecture, this time discussing the migration crisis in Europe and America’s role in the issue.

Though the title seemed to suggest that the majority of the conversation would be focused on America’s role in the migration crisis, it did not turn out this way. Most of the conversation seemed to focus more on the respective countries the speakers came from or are now located in, and did not very thoroughly discuss the question posed in the advertising of the program. Some people in the audience seemed less than thrilled by this possibly false advertising, but during the question and answer section, this was brought up and somewhat discussed. Though the conversation centered around the topic of the migration crisis in Europe, and less to do with America’s response, the information from such qualified speakers was essential to a better and more comprehensive understanding of the issue at hand.

The international forum consisted of four speakers, Dr. Martin Geiger, Dr. Ioannis N. Grigoriadis, Dr. Polly Pallister-Wilkins, and Esra Dilek. Dr. Martin Geiger was unfortunately unable to speak in person, and instead appeared via Skype, citing his concerns over president Trump’s executive order on people coming and going from the U.S.  

The conversation began with remarks from Dr. Polly Pallister-Wilkins, from the University of Amsterdam, where she specializes in what she calls “humanitarian border work.” Dr. Pallister-Wilkins gave us background information, explaining that the world is currently facing one of the largest refugee crises in history. She made it clear that she likes the term “people on the move” as a term for talking about people without just applying labels or compartmentalizing them, something that is essential when we examine the reasons that people flee their place of origin: conflict, instability, systematic discrimination, natural disasters, economic deprivation, and external threats, many of which often overlap.

She was quick to mention that these people leave in search of a better future with prospects and security, yet often they encounter the opposite of this due to countries’s less than welcoming reactions and policy. Dr. Pallister-Wilkins also points out that though we speak about how the refugee crisis is a crisis for the places receiving them, the real crisis is the one happening to the people, which is what we should focus on. She spoke passionately on the shameful response from many European Union member states, saying that it was a failure of politics, resulting in deliberate action to deter people from coming, and ended by explaining that this was allowing the message of “Your life will be so terrible, just stay in Aleppo and die.”

Next Dr. Ioannis N. Grigoriadis from Bilkent University in Ankara Turkey spoke, and gave us a more policy-based analysis of the issue of migration. Dr. Grigoriadis made the point that some places will prioritize migrants that they share a certain trait with; something that he seemed to think was a questionable way of handling the crisis. He spoke mostly about Turkey, and their response, because they are in fact at the heart of the refugee crisis.

One of the most interesting points he made was the idea of the refugee crisis as a bargaining chip between Turkey and the European Union. He explained this as the instrumentalization of refugees, meaning that they were only being helped if they served a purpose for those doing the helping and in some way the government was being provided money, jokingly saying “keep on sending money.” Dr. Grigoriadis also spoke about the issue of bargaining between political actors and how an added level of difficulty arises from the current anti-refugee political backlash. He ended by saying that we should follow the upcoming elections and their results in major European countries, and that from this new stances could be produced or continuations of old ones, stating, “everything can change with a new administration.”

Esra Dilek, a Ph.D. student from the University of Bilkent in Ankara, Turkey spoke next, scrutinizing migration in the European Union, this time looking more in depth by discussing Greece and the Evros fence. The Evros fence is a barbwire fence running along the Greek-Turkish border, installed to prevent illegal immigration between these two places. She spoke about the securitization of migration, which she explains as the process of approaching the issue of migration in security terms; framing migration as a security threat. Dilek also spoke about the discursive approach, where the securitization occurs through ‘speech acts’, and focuses on rhetoric calling for exceptional or extreme measures. She cited president Trump’s rhetoric as an example, and how he made generalizations about people and the threat they supposedly posed to America.

She also posed the question of why Greece would choose to build a border fence when their economy was collapsing, and answered it by explaining the symbolic value it had and its ability to disseminate the message of people not being wanted there. Dilek explained that though land border migration dropped by 95%, sea border migration which is often more dangerous increased by 231% leading to the tragic news stories we watch where people are being rescued from drowning after their boats capsize, or when children’s lifeless bodies are being pulled from the sea. She concluded her time by explaining how certain European countries view the issue as their country being on the verge of destruction, framing the issue of migration in highly securitized terms, thereby legitimizing extreme measures like the Evros fence.

Dr. Martin Geiger concluded the forum, via Skype call. His remarks were centered on Germany’s more pragmatic response to the migration crisis. Dr. Geiger discussed how Angela Merkel, the current Chancellor of Germany, was portrayed in two very different ways by the media and the public; to some she was a mother, full of compassion, and to other she was naïve and risking more lives with her ‘open door’ policy, leading some to accuse her of trying to destroy the European Union. He brought up the issue of sexual assaults in the German city of Cologne, where migrants were supposedly responsible, something the media instantly played on in the dialogue of the migration crisis. He spoke how this may have been the tipping point for public opinion on policy regarding migrants, and the amount that the government should be allowing in.

While discussing the response of world leaders, Geiger also pulled Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau into the mix, citing his more welcoming response. He referred to this as positive politics, and cited the ability of citizens to privately sponsor refugee families, and the public pressure from Canadian citizens to follow through with promises to help those in need.

Dr. Geiger then swung back to the discussion of Germany, and how the country has shifted their response as of late, and began a more extreme response to the issue of migration. He explained that this change was most likely linked to the fear of political backlash from supporting more compassionate policies, like Merkel’s ‘open door’ policy, and worry about reelection and loss of political traction. He more openly voiced his frustration with this change of response, and explained the disappointing numbers of people being resettled, the lack of commitment and cohesion from the government, the deportation of migrants back to Afghanistan, and the idea that the people’s opinions and the government’s formal actions do not match up. Dr. Geiger concluded by saying that Canada and Germany may become leaders in this time of uncertainty, also citing that president Trump’s response will be important as well, and ending by stating that the migration crisis is a global one, not just a European one.

The forum was concluded with a brief question and answer portion. One of the main questions was asked by a community member, who seemed displeased at the lack of focus on America, and what our role in the migration crisis is, citing the event being advertised as discussing this more fully. He was answered, and the consensus seemed to be that the international community expects America to “pull its weight”, especially since America has the capacity to act, and is in fact at least partly responsible for the instability in areas that some refugees are coming from. One speaker, Dr. Pallister-Wilkins ended by saying, “America could do more, but so could everywhere else.”

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