01 Mar 2017
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The Realities of the Refugee Crisis

Professors Kristin Fabbe and Gunnar Trumbull on the current crisis—and the next one
by April White

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Illustration by Peter Arkle

Since the outbreak of civil war in 2011, 4.9 million Syrians have fled their country, and another 6.6 million are internally displaced, according to the UN Refugee Agency. To better understand the human, political, and economic impacts of this refugee crisis, Assistant Professor Kristin Fabbe conducted a large-scale survey of Syrian refugees in Turkey, and Professor Gunnar Trumbull coauthored a case on Europe’s response. “Refugee flows are going to be a growing issue as we see an increasing number of weakened states, in part driven by climate change,” Trumbull says.

How is the Syrian refugee crisis different from those we’ve seen in the past?

Kristin Fabbe: People just didn’t expect the Syrian refugee crisis to go on as long as it has and to have reached the magnitude of displacement that has occurred. When we asked Syrian refugees in Turkey [in early 2016] how long they thought they were going to be gone, most of them said three to six months. Now, most of them have actually been displaced for three years.

But if you ask the same people whether or not they would have stood behind the principles of the uprising against the Assad regime knowing all the suffering that they’d go through, over 62 percent say yes. They stand very firmly behind the desire to institute a more democratic and open system in Syria.

Gunnar Trumbull: Seen from the perspective of receiving countries in Europe, two things have been different. First is the scale: Europe hasn’t seen this scale of refugee crisis since the aftermath of World War II. Second, from the late 1990s, the EU has been putting in place common border policies and a common asylum system, but this new institutional infrastructure has not been tested before. People who manage refugee flows are watching very carefully how Europe responds, because they see it as setting a template for how to manage refugee flows in general.

What are the economic impacts of a large refugee flow?

GT: The economic research on this is not totally solid. Eventually, we think that in terms of tax burden and GDP output, accepting refugees is probably good for a country. That was part of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s message to Germany: We need these people to plan for future growth.

Economic migrants tend to be of the greatest benefit because they come with skills, and they’re mostly young men or young women who are ready to work. What’s unusual about flows that come out of war settings is the refugees are mostly there to get away from a war, not to find a job.

KF: In our survey, we asked about people’s professions in Syria. The number one was housewife. If these refugees are coming to Turkey without a breadwinner, so to speak, they’re going to be even more dependent on services.

GT: My conclusion about Europe—and especially the actions of Sweden and Germany—is that officials are looking for any argument they can make to sell the policies to their domestic constituencies. But in the end, they ended up accepting so many refugees just because it was the right thing to do. It was a humanitarian crisis they had to respond to, not some great economic opportunity.

If this refugee crisis is going to be instructive in the future, what lessons have we learned from what has happened thus far?

GT: The big threat and opportunity here is Afghanistan. Syria is a relatively small pool of migrants. In Afghanistan, you have a potentially enormous pool of refugees who could arrive at any moment in Europe.

One of the things that Europe is starting to understand is it has to have much more of a presence in North Africa and the Middle East, and to make deals with these countries that they hope will stabilize the region and stabilize refugee flows.

KF: One thing Turkey is coming to terms with is the fact that it can’t insulate itself from diversity as it has tried to do over the course of the 20th century. The state is going to have to do a better job of dealing with diversity, whether it happens to be with its own Kurdish population or with new Arab migrants or with refugees who plan to settle. Since the Syrian crisis you see a lot of debate going on, both in the media and in higher levels of government: How as a country should we deal with diversity? And I think this is actually a really good conversation for Turkey to be having. Hopefully it will be allowed to continue.

GT: In some ways, exactly the opposite is happening in Europe. Western Europe has long thought of itself as deeply multicultural and able to assimilate any degree of diversity. What European politicians are realizing is that the tools they had for assimilation and building a multicultural society are really under deep stress now, and so you see the rise of the political right in Europe as a pushback against greater diversity. Even if this refugee flow stops, I think that feature of European politics is not going to go away.

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