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Round table on the refugee crisis in Europe at UCL SSEES

By Kilian Thayaparan, on 22 September 2015

The refugee crisis has been a global issue for a long time, but never has it been more at the centre of the world’s attention than over the past month. The media has been saturated with shocking and often distressing images that highlight the challenges faced by refugees; there has been a flood of opinion and increased debate among influential figures and the general public alike; and political action has been taken on a national and global scale.

With such an overwhelming amount of information, and from so many sources, simply understanding the situation and the issues that underpin it is by no means an easy task.

That’s why I jumped at the opportunity to attend a roundtable panel discussion on the subject, held at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) on 15 September, featuring scholars and activists who looked to explore the various dimensions to the complex situation.

Chaired by Sherrill Stroschein (UCL Political Science) before a large, captivated and expectedly passionate audience, the event was kicked off by Rouba Mhaissen (SOAS), who addressed the key question of why Syrian refugees are trying to enter Europe. To do this, she asked the audience to put themselves in place of Najah – a happy, pregnant mother-of-two living in Syria in 2010.

Mhaissen explained that Najah and her family were first forced to relocate from their home in 2011, as nearby shelling left her fearing for the safety of her family. Walking 18 hours to Lebanon, they entered a country at maximum capacity, leaving them with no home, food, schooling and facing abuse from angry Lebanese nationals.

In 2012, they are forced to move again, this time to Turkey. However, with political unrest taking place there and their home in Syria still being shelled, they had to move further into Europe.

Mhaissen used “a personal story rather than statistics” to highlight two things. Firstly, that the refugee crisis isn’t something that has emerged overnight, instead describing it as “years of escalation ignored” and a failure of other countries to address the situation; and secondly, that refugees do not ‘choose’ to leave their homes for any kind of economic benefit – they are forced to do so for the safety of themselves and their families, often still risking their lives along the way.

The next speaker was Gezim Krasniqi (UCL SSEES). Focusing on the Balkan path and border management, he explained that a lot of the problem originates from how Greece dealt with the initial refugee situation, which led to many attempting to leave via the western Balkans.

He also drew attention to a lack of a desire to take responsibility by Western governments, who, between them, have treated refugees like “a ping pong ball”, basing their actions (or lack of) purely on money.

Following a detailed explanation of the routes that refugees have been taking by Eric Gordy (UCL SSEES), with a specific emphasis on their treatment and reception in Serbia (good and bad), UCL alumna Erin Saltman (Institute of Strategic Dialogue) spoke about a country now at the centre of the crisis – Hungary.

She described how an unprepared infrastructure and an extreme right-wing government has led to such an excessive response to the situation by those in power; wire fences have been erected to block refugees looking to enter and those found to have entered ‘illegally’ are criminalised.

Interestingly, she noted that a high number of Hungarian nationals have themselves migrated outside of the country, adding to “a common fear among Hungarians of the death of the nation”, which in turn has fuelled extreme attitudes to the crisis. And the refugee crisis, Erin says, “has played into a dangerous ‘us vs. them’ narrative”, which has the potential to cause further damage.

The final speaker, Zrinka Bralo (Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum) – herself a refugee from Bosnia 22 years ago – explained that the UK government’s obsession with immigration targets has meant that refugees in desperate need of help are being ignored, specifically those who area stranded in Calais. She added that agency in the situation must be taken away from politicians to truly make positive change.

The event finished with an insightful Q&A session, during which probably the most important issue was addressed: what can be done to overcome the crisis? Answers from the panel included educating yourself and others about the situation, better infrastructure, more positive conversation and the end of conflict in Syria.

As Saltman stated earlier in the evening, as it stands “it’s hard to see light at the end of the tunnel”. However, clear understanding and discussion is a vital and valuable first step in attempting to resolve any crisis – therefore demonstrating the importance and advantages of multidisciplinary events such as this.

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