01 Dec 2017
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Examining the Magnitude of Syria’s Refugee Crisis


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The flow of refugees from Syria following years of civil war has been called the worst humanitarian crisis in modern times. Working in collaboration with HBS’s global research centers, two HBS professors have brought a better understanding of the crisis into the MBA classroom.

“People did not expect the magnitude of displacement that has occurred,” explains Assistant Professor Kristin Fabbe. “When we asked Syrian refugees living in Turkey how long they thought they were going to be gone, most said three-to-six months. Now the majority have been displaced for three years.”

Fabbe visited hospitals treating civilians wounded in the war as well as schools and social service providers supporting the refugees. “Only 9 percent of refugees in Turkey live in refugee camps,” says Fabbe, who has long studied migration in Turkey. “Ninety-one percent live among the urban population.” Locating these Syrian communities was phase one of a large-scale survey Fabbe conducted to gain insight into the effects of the war on those who had fled from the conflict at home.

Throughout 2016, Fabbe’s research team conducted interviews with more than 1,100 Syrian refugees. The survey revealed some surprising attitudes toward the Syrian conflict—such as the continuing desire of refugees to return to a unified Syria—which has helped to shape discussions about peace and reconciliation in the country.

Gunnar Trumbull, the Philip Caldwell Professor of Business Administration, began his own research on the Syrian refugee crisis in 2016 from another stop on the migration stream: in Europe, where some of the Syrian refugees who had fled to Turkey had settled. The crisis had strained the European Union’s open-border policies and fueled the rise of anti-immigration politicians. HBS’s Europe Research Center in Paris arranged Trumbull’s interviews with government officials and NGO leaders across the continent. “They were all exhausted,” Trumbull recalls of his interview subjects. “The human weight of the situation was taking a toll on them.”

Trumbull’s research became a case, “Managing the European Refugee Crisis,” which both he and Fabbe taught in May 2016 during the required first-year Business, Government, and the International Economy course. The case asks students to consider the issue from the point of view of European leaders who are struggling to control the flow of refugees. The professors’ firsthand observations of the crisis helped inform the classroom conversations. “We discussed what it actually means to be a refugee,” says Fabbe. Trumbull adds, “Really understanding the political and social turmoil surrounding this issue made the case quite an emotional experience for our students.”

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