Anne Berg, a University of Michigan lecturer of History, and Rackham student Andrea Gillespie discussed the facts and stigmas of the current refugee crisis at a dinner and lecture Saturday evening at Rackham Assembly Hall. The Michigan Refugee Assistance Program hosted the event, which illustrated the details of the refugee resettlement process and the impacts of the Trump administration on the crisis.
Gillespie, the vice president of external affairs of MRAP, works with many refugee resettlement organizations and currently focuses on refugee and forced displacement studies. Gillespie stated there are 22.5 million refugees currently registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and 20 people are displaced every minute.
According to Gillespie, most refugees leave the top “source” countries of Syria and Afghanistan with the goal of fleeing to host countries, including Turkey and Pakistan. Lebanon is also a major host country — she stated one in four people in Lebanon are refugees.
Gillespie offered three solutions to the refugee crisis: Voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement. She focused on the resettlement aspect, which consists of 11 or 12 checkpoints, depending on the refugee’s status. Checkpoint completion and subsequent resettlement can take up to five years, leaving many who are stuck in their home country or refugee camps struggling. Gillespie referred to the challenges faced during the transition to the new Trump administration.
“With the Trump administration, there have been a series of new risk-based assessments placed on countries of concern,” she said. “I don’t know what (that) means, I don’t know if they know what that means. I think it is for countries that were identified in the travel ban, they will be having a risk-based assessment. Again, I am not entirely sure what that will look like.
Gillespie also discussed the challenges faced by refugees during the first weeks of resettlement in the United States. During the first seven days, refugees must sign up for a social security card, food stamps, Medicaid and $925 cash assistance per person, according to the resettlement program. They also must begin looking for jobs, adjust to the culture and find housing.
“Another concerning thing is just rhetoric around our refugee program itself — the word refugee is continually used in the same sentence as the word terrorist or criminal and national security,” Gillespie said. “This is concerning, and I would like to reiterate that there has not been a single terrorist attack committed on U.S. soil by a refugee through the U.S. resettlement program.”
Berg also touched on the dangers of this rhetoric. Berg specializes in European history, socialism and fascism and discussed the stakes, structures, stigmas and stories of refugees. She drew historical parallels to the current refugee crisis, referencing World War II and the Holocaust as an early instance of a world refugee crisis.
“In order to understand this massive crisis and the structures that are available to manage or deal with this crisis, we have to look back at history and see where these structures come from, where stigmas come from, and we can make sense of the kinds of discussions we are having here today,” Berg said. “In retrospect, this is a story of success and it is shorthand of the U.N. system that is quite reductive actually looking back at the Nazi genocide and the very successful integration of survivors.”
Berg identified another similarity between the refugees. For example, many nations were not thrilled to have Jewish refugees, Berg said.
“The label of the refugee usually does not evoke compassion, but rather people often stigmatized as lazy, helpless, in worst cases criminals, or terrorist, but this too is not new,” Berg said. “Usually refugees are seen as simply migrants who reach for a better life, who are running away because they aren’t doing so well in their own countries, who pose a threat from (for) the western way of life.”
LSA senior Alyiah Al-Bonijim discussed the need to destigmatize the word refugee and recognized potential stigmas within her own mind of which she hopes to become more aware.
“There is a huge stigma around the very term ‘refugee’ and to implement some type of change, we have to start at the base, which is us – college students – and really change that rhetoric around the word refugee in itself so that we can implement some hierarchy of change,” Al-Bonijim said.
At the conclusion of the lecture, Berg offered some ways students could make a difference, from speaking out to voting. However, she has little confidence in the personal ability to change.
“There are things we can do to make things a little bit better,” Berg said. “Speaking up every time someone says something is a really important part, speaking up not just in places where it is possible but also places that seems impossible. Other than that, I feel very much at a loss because bureaucratic process that individuals have to go through, we have no control over.”