A Tide of Humanity: Discussing the Migrant Crisis

On 27 November 2015, LCSS has successfully organised a roundtable at SOAS to discuss the recent Migrant Crisis

On Friday 27th November a small crowd gathered at SOAS to take part in LCSS’s event ‘A Tide of Humanity: Discussing the Migrant Crisis’. Chaired by Dr Burak Bilgehan Özpek, Associate Professor in the Department of International Relations at TOBB University of Economics and Technology, Ankara, and post-doc researcher at the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, the evening began with a short exhibition of photographs. Kindly provided by Selahattin Sevi – who journeyed from Kos to the Hungarian border – and Anna Pantelia – who visited Lesbos and Calais – they gave an authentic insight into the stories behind the statistics. The photos showed humans from many parts of the Middle East and Africa’s emotional arrival on the Greek coast in dinghies, sleeping on pavements, trekking through cornfields at dawn, and finally being met by border guards and barbed wire fences in Hungary and Calais.

In the first speech, Mervyn Frost, Professor of International Relations at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, took up this theme by discussing the ethical dimension of migration. The reason Hungary, and indeed many other central and northern European states, are putting up border fences is because they are seeking to protect the rights of their citizens. If there is a huge influx of migrants, surely this would compromise a state’s duty to protect its own citizens? At the same time, however, we all speak the language of human rights; of having certain rights simply because we are human. When migrants arrive at European borders, therefore, we have a clash: which set of rights trumps which? Professor Frost argued that to overcome this issue we have to rethink our conception of ourselves. We must understand ourselves as being members of two practices in which we are recognised as rights holders – the society of sovereign states and global civil society. Once we see this, we have to acknowledge that the rights a state owes to its citizens and the rights we hold as humans are mutually constitutive, that is, if a state does not recognise the rights of its citizens and they are forced to leave, it is unethical to deny them access to another state.

Dr Sarah Singer, lecturer at the Refugee Law Initiative and lecturer in Human Rights Law at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, mapped out the technical, legal aspects of the migrant crisis in terms of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS). She argued that a big problem with CEAS is that it is still being applied asymmetrically throughout Europe, while the Dublin System – which is an agreement stipulating that asylum seekers must apply for asylum in the country in which they initially entered, ostensibly to prevent ‘asylum shopping’ – is now placing a huge burden on a few border states such as Italy and Greece. She acknowledged that the Dublin System is a historical artifact, agreed to by border states because it was originally implemented during the Balkan War where Germany and other central and northern European states were the main destinations for asylum seekers. She also addressed the claim that the current migrant crisis poses a security issue since terrorists could enter Europe posing as asylum seekers. After the Paris attacks, Dr Singer argued, it is clear that the main threat is from homegrown terrorism, not asylum seekers. She concluded that the European approach to asylum focuses too much on security and not enough on burden-sharing or solidarity.

Finally, Professor Carol Bohmer, teaching fellow at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and Visiting Associate Professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire covered some more legal issues and also did some myth-busting. She argued that though the people coming into Europe are not all fleeing war or persecution, refugees and economic migrants are not necessarily two different things but are rather on a continuum. While there is a legal distinction between refugees and asylum seekers, contrary to popular belief, many less people who have arrived in Europe receive actual refugee status than are granted lesser statuses such as subsidiary protection – where a person is still viewed to be in danger but does not meet the criteria of the 1951 Refugee Convention – which can be constituted by temporary leave to remain. She also argued that American paranoia about refugees being terrorists is unfounded since all refugees to America are thoroughly vetted within the country. She compared attitudes to the current crisis with attitudes to Jews during World War Two and argued that we must do more to change this.

During the discussion session many interesting points were raised. It was argued that cultures and states have always been in flux, so excluding migrants and refugees on cultural grounds does not make sense and appeals to a nostalgic view of a past which never actually existed. Professor Frost was challenged to explain why anyone should care about people beyond their own borders, and explained in more depth his ethical position. On the question of where it is ethical to draw the line on a number of points where migrants and refugees are concerned, Professor Frost argued that on his theory there is never a line. Dr Singer added that when you look at the figures, even to allow in all Syrians would not make a huge difference to the overall European population. On the issue of sustainability with regard to the huge numbers of migrants arriving, the speakers acknowledged that such a technical question had no easy solutions, though it was agreed in the concluding remarks by Dr Özpek that piecemeal changes in attitudes and approaches is the best way forward.

A broad conclusion from the evening was that Europe needs strong leadership to positively manage the migrant crisis, though at the moment this is not forthcoming. Another was that the language used to discuss the migrant crisis must be opened up beyond the academic bubble to mainstream society in order that Europeans can have serious and reasoned discussions about the issue. 

The round-table was convened and organised by LCSS intern, Liam Mclaughlin.


Liam Mclaughlin

Intern & Project Assistant, LCSS

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