Conference on forced migration discusses refugee issues

April 12, 2015, 9:52 p.m.

Stanford Association for International Development (SAID) hosted a conference on forced migration last Saturday, inviting top scholars and experts in the field to speak of the troubles facing refugees today, such as violations of inherent refugee rights, the inhuman conditions of refugee camps and the lack of assistance from developed countries.

(ARNAV MARIWALA/The Stanford Daily)
(ARNAV MARIWALA/The Stanford Daily)

“I think most people understand the plight of the people that were forced to flee Syria, but I think very few people understand what’s happening in the Central African Republic, or in South Sudan, or recognize that there are ten thousands kids in a Kenyan camp, which is the third largest city in Kenya, who have lived their entire lives there, and their parents have too,” said Alex Aleinikoff, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Deputy, in the opening keynote address.

When deciding on the topic of forced migration for a conference, SAID wanted to choose an issue that most Stanford and Bay Area residents were aware of but have not necessarily thought about. What resulted was a day of impassioned keynote addresses and panels on an issue that affects a large number of communities and families today.

 Crossing The Border

“Today in the world there are 51 million people who have been forced to flee their homes, about a third of them are refugees, people who cross international borders, and about two-thirds have been displaced within their home countries,” said Aleinikoff. “This is more than in any time since World War II.”

With the recent conflict in Syria, more than 3.5 million people have fled the country and are seeking refuge in Turkey and Lebanon. While the international community has contributed billions in the past years to send tents, mattresses, clothing and food to refugees in need, James Hathaway, Law Professor at the University of Michigan, retorted that developed countries are not properly contributing to the effort.

“It always astounds me how few Americans recognize that the entire developed world almost hosts less than 15% of the world’s refugees,” said Hathaway. “The world’s poorest states carry the overwhelming share of the responsibility for refugee protection.”

Taking in refugees is not merely an act of grace, Aleinkoff notes, but international law. Refugees have the right to seek and to enjoy other countries’ asylum from persecution, as stated in Article 14 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Even so, states are not required to take in refugees.

“This reflects a fundamental tension between individuals’ right to seek asylum but the state’s inherent authority as a sovereign state to control its borders,” said Aleinkoff. “So it’s produced a legal regime founded not so much on the right to enter, but on the right to not be returned to a place where you can be persecuted.”

Because of the sheer number of refugees, faltering economies, growing security concerns and a lack of international support, several of Syria’s neighbors are beginning to take measures to stop the flow of refugees. Turkey has closed its borders. Lebanon is requiring visas to enter the country and has restricted these visas for those in special need. Other countries, like Australia, are turning away boats filled with refugees.

Hathaway responded that the seemingly inhumane action of turning away refugees is not quite as selfish as it seems.

“So if you were a country on the frontline of refugee protection, would you keep your doors open, knowing that others would rarely, if ever, share in your responsibilities?” said Hathaway. “Or would you do, as Turkey has now done, shut your doors when the numbers become too high? Quite frankly, closing the doors may be legally wrong—it is legally wrong—but it may be the only politically and economically sensible response to the abject failure of states outside the main refugee-producing regions of the world to do anything remotely approaching carrying their fair share of what is in theory a global responsibility to protect refugees.” 

Refugee Camps

Even when refugees are allowed into these countries, they are often put in refugee camps, which are often in horrid, inhospitable and unproductive borderlands that are far away from the nearest town.

“Refugee camps, in effect, place the hopes and the futures of entire generations on hold,” said Aleinkoff. “They cut refugees off from communities, from economies. They prevent the refugees from providing for themselves and can rend them for years or decades of dependency and deprivation.”

Hathaway cites a story in which, in 2012, the UNHCR worked with IKEA to create refugee housing units for Lebanon refugees. The government of Lebanon initially banned these units because these structures were so decent that the the Lebanese thought the refugees would never go home. Only after immense pressure did the Lebanese allow a limited trial of housing units.

Even so, this still leaves the majority of refugees in awful conditions.

“I want to see every refugee out of the mud,” said Hathaway. “I want to see every refugee with the ability to move freely, to work, to raise their children, to live in dignity, until they go home.“

Creating Change

In the various panels, issues such as the causes of forced migration, case studies on North Koreans migrating to China and how the rising sea levels caused by global warming may lead to a forced migration off of small islands were discussed. While the speakers disagreed on many controversial issues, they were united in their resolve to create change and asked the audience to do their part.

“We’re in Palo Alto, there’s a lot of high-tech solutions to a problem, but often some of the best solutions are the old solutions: go to ground, talk to the community, get your work grounded in their realities and then do some proper measuring,” said Courtland Robinson, Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“People on the ground have to start demanding,” said Dawn Chatty, Professor of Anthropology and Forced Migration at University of Oxford. “If Americans start saying ‘hey guys, why don’t we allow more Syrians to resettle in these areas’, something might happen. People have to voice this concern. People have to stand up and ask their congressman, ask their senators to vote differently.”

“We need to have the conversations,” said Hathaway. “We need to have the research. We need to have the triumphs. But for God’s sake, we need to begin the conversation and the trials now. Not next time there is a Syria, with four million people sleeping in the mud or banging at the doors. We cannot any longer wait. It is time to get rid of the lip service… we cannot continue to limp along the way we have been. It is simply wrong to do that.”


Contact Jeremy Quach at jquach ‘at’

Jeremy Quach is a sophomore Desk Editor for the Student Groups beat and is from Kansas City, Kansas. He can often be found smiling, stuffing his face full of french fries, and mumbling Beatles lyrics to himself. He can be contacted at jquach ‘at’

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