“The Wolf is Back”, ran the title of the story in the New York Times on April 23, 2019. Wolves, few hundred of them, have been sneaking from the Polish borders into Germany. The packs, apparently, started creeping into the quiet hinterland of Forstgen in East Germany to prey on its sheep. The story, presumably of interest to zoologists and livestock farmers, became a national piece of news, debated in parliament with polarizing views on how to tackle those beasts. Things flared when parallels were made between the “invasion” of wolves and the flow of refugees and migrants. Right-wing politicians made a clear analogy of the wolf, as one violating the serenity and stability of rural landscapes, with the migrants and refugees who have come to transgress the peaceful landscape, suck blood from the economy, and assault the innocents. This is how polarizing the subject of refugees has become in our time. Refugees are portrayed as leeches who could bring societies into a breaking point. Granting asylum and helping refugees, sadly, have shifted from being a matter of civilized pride and a noble cause of compassion to becoming derided as a matter of naivety and irresponsibility, and portrayed by xenophobes as an unpatriotic act. The toxic rhetoric, sadly, is being played to polarize society into “nationals who care for their country from the risks of aliens”, and the “pro-refugees and pro-migrants of self-loathing citizens”.
This is happening West and East: The same anti-refugee (and anti-immigrant) narrative is being used. It is largely woven on fallacies and on twisting facts to either exaggerate or generalize the impact of hosting refugees and receiving immigrants on host societies and economies. From increasing crime to the sluggishness’ of the economy, refugees and immigrants are falsely blamed for the ills of society and failures in governance. Data and studies show a different story. The idea that refugees tend to increase crime is a huge misconception, albeit powerfully used by many populist politicians. In Germany, for example, crime rates dropped 10 percent in 2017 even with the influx of refugees. Another case in Italy, based on data collected over the period of 2007-2016, showed a decline in crime rate across all regions against the fallacy created by politicians that immigrants increased crime. As for the economy, studies debunk the myth that refugees burden host countries’ economies. Research shows that refugees can bring assets and have agency to contribute to their host economies. A study published in Science Advances in June 2018, which analyzed 30 years of datasets in 15 European countries, showed that countries’ economies receiving refugees and migrants got stronger, and unemployment rates dropped.
But the anti-refugee sentiments are powerful and are being translated into action on the streets: demonstrations against businesses run by refugees, restrictions of their movement, clamping on NGOs that support them and narrowing the space for civil society dissent. Attempting to save refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean has now been criminalized as an illegal act.
What could be the role of academics in such polarized context?
We need to continue, as engaged academics, to work on what we do best: show hard, contextualized and nuanced evidence of the impact of refugees on their host societies, as well as undertake more research to reflect their contribution. We also need to educate students and engage the wider public to counter the myths and fallacies around refugees.
We need, as well, to come together in loose or structured networks, locally, regionally, and globally. Academics need to work closely and frequently with civil society actors (associations or informal grassroots) as well as faith-based groups, the media (especially the progressive among them), the private sector, and international organizations. A case in point is the Alliance of Leading Universities on Migration (ALUM), a policy-focused network across disciplines currently encompassing 20 universities in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa as well as America, boosting academic knowledge across regions.
Around 165 of the ALUM members and partners from civil society and international organizations met in November 2017 in Beirut at the American University of Beirut to engage and reflect on the same question raised above on the role of the academy in the refugee crisis. Driven by a firm belief that academics need to engage and make an impact, we worked together and issued the Beirut Declaration on Human Mobility which strongly and expressively shows the role of academics in the current refugee crisis and their commitment to:
Make evidence more readily available and accessible to the media and the public;
Disseminate evidence and best practices on migrant protection, integration and return in the framework of improved legal pathways;
Support the access of migrants and refugees to higher education;
Assess and promote the adoption of good practices for migrant and refugee access to physical and mental health services;
Work with responders to evaluate the quality and access to humanitarian assistance that people-on-the move have today;
Monitor governments’ and other stakeholders’ commitment to global burden sharing arrangements in order to ensure accountability.
In an age flaunted by some as post-truth, we should adhere to showing the facts and evidence and more importantly fight for our shared universal values. If our universal values are compromised on refugee protection, there is no end to their violations. Continuously crying an “imaginary wolf” this time might make people believe it and turn against each other to save their own skin.
*Introduction of "101 Facts & Figures on the Syrian Refugee Crisis - Volume 2"
Nasser Yassin, Director of research at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, and associate professor of policy and planning at the Health Management and Policy Department at the Faculty of Health Sciences at the American University of Beirut (AUB), Lebanon. He co-chairs the AUB4Refugees Initiative.
In line with its commitment to furthering knowledge production, the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs publishes a series of weekly opinion editorials relevant to public policies.
These articles seek to examine current affairs and build upon the analysis by way of introducing a set of pragmatic recommendations to the year 2019. They also seek to encourage policy and decision makers as well as those concerned, to find solutions to prevalent issues and advance research in a myriad of fields.