Erin C. McGrath, Karsten Donnay, and Kelsey P. Norman
Governments must support citizen-led efforts to provide a welcoming face to refugees or risk letting xenophobia and racism escalate into more violence.
In 2015, the world has witnessed a crisis of displaced persons larger than anytime since World War II. The refugee crisis that has now left over 60 million people displaced by conflict worldwide has drawn considerable international attention. At the same time, the attacks of Daesh and its ideological followers are threatening our relationships with Muslim refugees and strengthening the political far-right in Europe and the U.S. Some countries have already tightened borders, built walls, heightened screening, and toughened criteria for the reunification of refugee families.
A Global Crisis
While the Syrian crisis is unique by proportions, there are 65 other major displacement crises occurring worldwide. The numbers from Syria are staggering. As of late December 2015, 4,390,439 refugees from Syria had registered with UNHCR.
The surge in refugees arriving in Europe in the second half of 2015 propelled the refugee issue to the forefront of the global debate. Yet Western countries have not been hosting the vast majority of Syrian refugees since the outbreak of the civil war four years ago. Turkey and much poorer countries in the Middle East and North Africa host approximately four times the number of refugees than the West. From Syria alone, there are 2.1 million in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, and 1.9 million in Turkey. Turkey became the country with the most registered refugees in the world in 2015.
The forcibly displaced – those who do not formally qualify as refugees – in these countries do not have rights under the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees. They end up trapped with no right to work and no right to move. “Warehousing,” according to experts like Christine Mahoney, leaves the forcibly displaced without a future, vulnerable to drug addiction, sexual exploitation, recruitment by militia, and dependent on aid. Regardless of the dangers on the road ahead, warehousing drives refugees to continue moving, with the promise of a better, safer life somewhere else.
While they no longer face life-threatening conflict, the status of refugees in Turkey does not allow them a real future or give the possibility of integration into society. Many then risk their lives on the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean. Refugees are also subject to violence or human rights abuses along their journey, both in the Middle East and North Africa, but also in Eastern and Southern Europe.
Shifting Public Opinion in Europe
Public opinion on the refugee problem has already begun to shift in Europe. Public support has moved toward right-wing political parties, like the Alternative for Germany (AFD), Poland’s Law and Justice party, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Hungary’s Fidesz party, and France’s National Front. Europe’s largest democracy, Germany, has experienced the largest inflow of refugees and worrisome changes in its political climate.
The influential Spiegel columnist Jakob Augstein recently warned of a new völkische revolution, a term referring to the nationalistic, anti-Semitic movement in the late 19th and early 20th century that swept across Austria and Germany and brought the Nazis to power. Today’s right wing parties may refrain from anti-Semitic statements, but as Augstein notes, ethnic categories are becoming salient again, and one in two Germans now fears the impact of immigration.
Augstein’s stern warning rings terrifyingly true: in the end we may find that fascism is not a problem of the past. Already, the composition of political party support in Germany is changing. Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Christian Democratic Union initially saw a significant loss of public support because of refugee-friendly policies. CDU has now only recovered slightly in opinion polls. Even within her own party, Chancellor Merkel is facing increased resistance to her policies along with new, significant challenges from the right. One weekly poll of German citizens showed the AFD, a far-right party that is only two years old, reaching 10% popularity in the last 3 months.
A rising tide of politically motivated crime against refugees is sweeping across the region. This is the most visible and troublesome shift in Europe’s political climate. In Germany, multiple attempts of arson in refugee shelters, crowd violence and mass protests have accompanied the immigration surge. Arson attacks have increased ten-fold in the past year. Right wing grassroots movements hardly more than a year old, for example the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident (PEGIDA), are radicalizing with calls for more restrictive immigration rules—and they are targeting Muslims.
A Beacon of Hope: Civil Society
The main effort to deal with the refugee crisis has and continues to be shouldered by the scores of volunteers who help refugees to register and settle in, provide medical assistance, and offer other aid. Community-level, citizen-driven initiatives by and for refugees often fulfill the duties of states that lack local capacity. An abundance of creative, innovative policy solutions for employment and integration have also emerged. In Germany these include apps like Waslchiraa, a service that links donations to refugees, the Workeer job portal designed for refugees, and other online services that provide refugees access to higher education without formal documentation. German universities are even trying to find new ways to admit refugees as students without bureaucratic hurdles.
Western societies are in danger of polarizing, with humanitarian initiatives to accommodate refugees on the community-level on one side, and a rise of ethnocentric nationalism on the other. Citizen initiatives create pathways to improving refugees’ lives, and this is part of the answer. But for these efforts to be sustainable, governments must support these actions and in doing so, they must address the concerns of their citizens. Excluded and marginalized in the decision process, they could otherwise turn to those who offer simple answers like exclusion. Incidents such as those in Cologne, Germany, on New Year’s Eve only further escalate existing tensions, especially if we are judging all refugees by the despicable actions of a few.
In 2016 we face a crisis of historic dimensions in which we will be presented with a choice. Chancellor Merkel of Germany equated it with defining moments of recent world history, like the fall of the Berlin wall. This remarkable comparison is as daring as it is fitting: how we face this challenge will shape all of our futures in the years to come. We are at a critical juncture in which public opinion in the West could swing either way with fundamentally different outcomes in the years to come: isolationism or pluralism. Accepting refugees will change host nations and new identities will have to be forged. But change as such is not the problem as long as we all - refugees, citizens and the state - are able to shape that change together.
It remains our responsibility as individual citizens to actively decide for humanity and against fear. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the time is always ripe to do right.
This article expresses the authors' views only and not the institutions they are affiliated with.
Erin C. McGrath
Erin McGrath is NSF Postdoctoral Research Associate in Computational Social Science at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland College Park. Her research combines complexity theory, social scientific research design, and computational methods. Currently, she focuses on subnational grievances and conflict, and semi-authoritarian resilience, with a particular focus on Turkey.
Karsten Donnay is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Political Science at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. His research studies civil conflict dynamics with a particular emphasis on their relationship with domestic and regional contexts.
Kelsey P. Norman
Kelsey P. Norman is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the University of California, Irvine where she researches migration to Middle Eastern and North African host states. She has spent the last three years conducting interviews with migrants, refugees, NGOs and policy-makers in Egypt, Morocco and Turkey.
I owe a great debt to Jessica Rivinius and the rest of the Communications team at START for weaving this tale on my path to becoming a START Researcher. See the original article and all the other great work being done by the organization here.
How did your start in business school lead you to your current field of study?
I went to business school with the intention of gaining skills to make nonprofit organizations more efficient. During my studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison, I worked at several non-profits, and the labor rights organization I was involved with promptly needed to establish a headquarters in Washington, D.C. Once I finished my degree, I relocated to D.C. and began serving as the Business Manager for the Worker Rights Consortium.
It was a great learning experience, building an NGO from the ground up. I was fascinated with global, systemic interrelationships that create phenomena like the “race to the bottom.” Once we got the organization up and running, I completed a course at Cornell on strategic organizational research, and was hooked.
But it was a world event that pushed me to go further. Like most offices in D.C., our WRC office was evacuated on September 11, 2001. Before I joined the exodus of everyone walking home that day, I walked into my boss’ office, in tears, dumbfounded, completely in shock. He didn’t know what to say either, but encouraged me to read about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and he recommended a few authors. And thus my foray into international affairs began.
What steps did you take to further your studies?
I completed my master’s in International Public Policy in Budapest at Central European University (CEU), where I arguably learned more about international affairs from the students than I did from the curriculum itself. The curriculum was great, but we had the Cold War and its end, international development, humanitarian disasters, and some aggrieved parties of U.S.-led regime change sitting around the classroom table. My classmates hailed from post-Soviet and Eastern European countries (Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Romania, Hungary), Ethiopia and Iraq.
I had just decided I also wanted to earn my doctorate at CEU and teach, when my uncle, a Night Stalker pilot, volunteered for a dangerous mission in Afghanistan. His helicopter was shot down by the Taliban on a rescue mission to recover Navy Seals lost on their mission in Afghanistan, but it took weeks from initially finding out that something happened, to confirmation he had died, to his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.
He was only 14 years older than I was and he was just about to adopt an infant daughter from China.
I could rationalize it. But it changed me, and my family. I decided to return to the States for my family, and pursue a doctoral degree in security and foreign policy.
With a proposal to study the Kurds’ self-governance in Turkey and Iraq, I received a State Department fellowship to learn Turkish in Ankara, Turkey, where I met my husband, in 2009. Life interceded, and in 2011, I found myself in Ankara, Turkey, as a new mom trying to write a dissertation on semi-authoritarianism in Turkish politics.
On the other hand, whenever going to the kirtasiye, the copy store for official purposes in Turkey, or to agencies to do expatriate paperwork or to apply for Turkish citizenship, I would also run into fellows who were clearly transiting to Syria for one purpose or another – they had Syrian passports. The Turkish government has a pretty hands-off approach to the fighters transiting through the country to Syria. I knew it was time to come back to America – my son and I have dual citizenship – when speaking out against the government felt more dangerous and newsworthy than fighting for Daesh in the Turkish press.
What drew you to want to incorporate the study of social media into your research?
I’ve been fascinated by computers and information technology since seeing a picture of a rotary phone hooked up to an old-school modem and reading that people could exchange the information they had on their computers that way. I remember the loud string of noises that meant your computer was getting on the Internet, and when my friend put up the first personal website in the state of Wisconsin.
But I didn’t decide to study social media until it became an issue for the research I was doing. The Turkish people take to Twitter when they want to say something they couldn’t in the media, or at least they used to – now the government has a pretty firm grip on prosecution. My dissertation chapter on debate over the constitution in Turkey, and how it was controlled, dealt with unstructured text in Turkish and used subnational levels of citizen conflict over issue areas to understand how citizens debated the issue and how that varied from the regime’s position on the issue in both what they said about it (sure, we like freedom of the press!) and what they did about it (criticize us and we’ll put you in jail!).
I showed that depending on the risk of collective action for an issue, the regime would let citizens debate about the issue publicly to “blow off some steam” but curtail it if it was likely to generate mobilization.
In Turkey, I was living in a society where I couldn’t use social media freely. My Turkish citizenship was pending. People get arrested in Turkey for liking insults against the President. Of course, I continued to speak freely anyway, but I had a growing sense of insecurity because of that, not only for myself, but also for my family.
Is social media a space where any and all can act and interact across countries?
I do not think that social media is a level-playing field, or a great equalizer. Our interactions take place within existing structures of power, but social media has given us a new kind of agency. The kind of interactions we have, and the people we have them with, on social media, were never before possible. They are unique and of a volume never before recorded. So, social media data are creating opportunities for understanding human behavior (we think) not before possible and also potential ways to influence human behavior (we think) not before possible. It’s kind of a double-edged sword and impossible, really, to tell which direction it will go in. What’s guaranteed though, is that it will be powerful, but we don’t know in what ways yet.
As we dive further into this NSF-funded project at START, I find myself even more engaged in social media. I’m also taking the time to revamp my skills in information science and programming. This project is fascinating and the people working on it are creative, and very interdisciplinary. We have a former physicist turned computational social scientist, computer scientists, geographic information scientists, a mathematician, criminologists, risk communication scholars, political scientists, and software engineers.
It’s the kind of team that I’ve worked with before in disaster management, but now the topic is one that I want to study even more. It also offers the opportunity to hone my skills in analyzing unstructured texts and to use those in application to social media data, in particular. I’m incredibly grateful to START for bringing me on to the team. I’ve worked at quite a few places in quite a few cultures; somehow START has managed to bring the best parts of those together. Now we just need to tweet about it – or do we? Stayed tuned to the NSF project to find out.
I write about contemporary events and my hope that persistence wins over intractability.