By Rose Miller, Staff Reporter
Several UMF professors, students, and community members gathered in Roberts 101 earlier this month to participate in a round table discussion regarding the European Migration crisis. Throughout the hour long discussion, conversation shifted between specific circumstances and causes pertaining to the current crisis and a larger discourse concerning the ideology of US foreign policy in relation to the Middle East.
Professors of Political Science, History and other disciplines each brought their own expertise to share with students and other attendees, who were welcomed to participate. Professor Brad Deardon led the discussion although he only redirected conversation or posed questions to the twenty some odd participants three or four times.
Political Science Professor Scott Erb started the ball rolling by setting up the dynamics of the conflict. “I think it’s clearly a reaction to the Islamic State and the violence level in Syria,” said Erb. While he emphasized events in Syria he also noted that similar conflicts in roughly seven other countries in the region are also a factor. Of the millions being displaced from Syria and other areas, “They’d really like to make it to Europe because they see Europe as a place where there’s potential jobs, there’s a potential future,” said Erb.
With some refugees already having family connections on the continent the draw is even greater. “That’s bringing well over a million people into the EU area,” said Erb. Germany has stated it will accept 800,000 refugees, but many countries are taking far fewer. According to Erb, those seeking economic betterment in the EU can be sent back but those fleeing war must be given asylum. “So this is creating a real challenge both for them and also the humanitarian challenge with people fleeing a really brutal organization.”
Participants took turns chiming in to help define the problem and the root causes behind it. It was the concern of one professor that a lack of clear policy in the EU for accepting refugees was part of the problem. With the idea on the table several lent their views. Nicole Kellett of the Anthropology Department suggested that differing policies between European nations particularly newer states to the EU could pose confusion.
As the resistance to accepting asylum seekers was addressed, many were eager to express reasons to change this thinking. For instance, according to Political Science professor Linda Beck it’s a misconception that this population of migrants is uneducated. “They’re really well educated,” said Beck. “In western countries we often have a problem in nursing and the medical fields, a lot of these people are coming with skills that would be advantageous.”
Erb also touched on potential economic benefits to nations accepting asylum seekers, particularly in Germany. “There’s two workers for every person that’s retired,” said Erb, further explaining that several European nations are in a similar boat and are seeking a younger, broader workforce to support the aging population. At the same time however, he explained, Germany and other nations have a “nationalist response,” fearing that the influx of immigrants will in some way threaten their national identity. “We see that balance that’s really tricky and fascinating at the same time.”
The concept of national identity that Erb alluded to was one of several broader ideological themes that guided conversation. In addition to potential issues of xenophobia, questioning past American foreign policy and scrutinizing what its purported results demand of present action was a prevailing element of this wider discourse as well.
Some indicated that US actions in Iraq in the early 2000’s were responsible for destabilizing the region. By extension some drew the conclusion that America holds a moral obligation to participate in providing aid to migrants fleeing ISIS, the Assad regime, or other violence in the Middle East.
While the varying degrees of support for this sentiment were expressed, a vein of thought seemed to emerge towards the end of the discussion suggesting that the US behaves like any rational state in pursuing self-interest, but bears the responsibility of evaluating past policies and learning from their failings to inform the present. The culmination of several statements by professors seemed to suggest this angle although it was not as plainly stated as the aforementioned viewpoint.
Among the other more philosophical points was a discussion of democracy and the role the media has played in shaping public perception of foreign affairs. There was also some back and forth on the idea that public perception of Islam is being framed today as the ideological enemy of the West much the same way that Communism was throughout the Cold War.
The scope of this conversation was broad and many of the thoughtful nuances faculty and students brought to the table cannot be captured in the space of a page. Fortunately, these roundtables are open to the public and are typically held at common time, so students who are curious about current issues or eager to share their opinions should keep their eyes peeled for future opportunities to attend.