Forum Fall 2015

Periodically CSRES invites notable scholars and newsmakers in the field of Religion, Ethics, and Society to reflect on a topic and contribute a piece to our forum.


In this issue:

"The Shameful Response to the Refugee Crisis in Europe- Maurizio Albahari, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Notre Dame

"Adrift, Permanently: When It Comes to Refugees, the Crisis is Normal" - Timothy William Waters, Professor of Law at Indiana University, Associate Director of its Center for Constitutional Democracy, and affiliated faculty at its Institute for European Studies

"[In]Visible Refugees" - Olga Kalentzidou, faculty member and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of International Studies, in the School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University

 Previous forum topics:
Summer 2015 - In the recent firestorm over a proposed Indiana RFRA law, how well did the media represent the moral complexity of the issues at stake and the positions of members of the public?
Spring 2015 - What is the role of religion scholars in discussing the Charlie Hebdo attack?
Fall 2014 - What does religion have to do with climate change?

The Shameful Response to the Refugee Crisis in Europe

Maurizio Albahari - Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Notre Dame

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Tearful observers imagined angelic wings would lift Alan Kurdi, from the sand of the Turkish shore all the way to paradise —for his life was already in limbo. The world stared at the graceful piety of the tall police officer and of Alan’s sleep in his arms. But this is not Michelangelo’s Pietà. It is the Bodrum Pietà, and there is no easy redemption. A crisis, especially when it is an epochal one, should foster critical reassessment and innovative provisions—or we risk losing the right to call it a crisis.

The United States, leading by example, has pledged to resettle additional refugees over the next few years. To curb refugee deaths, something else is feasible in the short term: an internationally coordinated moratorium on air carrier sanctions. In other words, refugees should be able to buy a plane ticket toward their safe haven, and air carriers should not be fined for selling those tickets. What is right does often prove feasible with effort and goodwill; but is feasible politically palatable?

Alan was to become somebody’s pupil, friend, and fiancé; a citizen of the world and of a country that will need to be reconstructed. He joins instead a lost Syrian generation, and the many Iraqis, Eritreans, Nigerians, Somalis, and others who are perishing in countless shipwrecks. Afghanis are leaving behind another “forgotten emergency.” Access to asylum applications is left to the exorbitant discretion of smugglers and of the elements, rather than to rule of law.

Families sell everything to pay for a smuggler. But this is not a new form of slavery, and people would be happy to purchase the cheap convenience of a ferry, or the reassuring safety of a flight. They leave behind harrowing stories, and in turn face the exploitation of being smuggled, and the chaos of Europe’s proliferating fences. It is not these refugees who are “desperate”—they have a vision, and much hope. What is desperate is the frantic, awkward attempt of passing the buck to a neighboring country—except that it is real persons being pushed around, often with much shortsightedness.

Concern with governmental inaction is partly misplaced then. European governments are rescuing thousands of people at sea. In the Aegean alone, at least 5,000 people arrive every day on the Greek islands close to Turkey. But governments, over the past two decades, have also made it impossible for people to safely apply for asylum without enriching smugglers, as I explain elsewhere. Considerable portions of the EU external borders have been fenced, including between Bulgaria and Turkey, Greece and Turkey, and Hungary and Serbia. Barriers are proliferating between EU countries and within European cities, railway stations, and ports. The ensuing crisis is tearing apart Europe, the trust of its citizens, and the lives of stranded people. A moratorium on carrier sanctions would make some of this unnecessary.

When somebody arrives at an international airport or seaport, in Turkey as elsewhere in the region, a valid visa is a prerequisite for their journey to an EU destination (and to other liberal democracies). With rare exceptions, non-compliant transportation carriers risk fines up to €500,000, confiscation of the means of transport, and suspension or even withdrawal of their operating license. We take all of this for granted. But as early as 1995, the UN Refugee Agency suggested that carrier sanctions, generally intended to prevent the arrival of unauthorized economic immigrants, would also interfere with the ability of persons at risk of persecution to gain access to safety and apply for asylum. A decade ago, the EU Parliament expressed similar concerns.

As Syria, northern Iraq, Eritrea, and Afghanistan are not a safe home to many of their own citizens, a moratorium on carrier sanctions is appropriate, until better policies take shape. Critics will argue that this is not enough, or conversely that it goes too far. At least half a million people could arrive in Europe each year; many more could be unable or unwilling to do so. Among the new arrivals, some would be granted temporary protection, rather than full refugee status—many do intend to return home anyway. Others would be repatriated.

The reality, of course, is that this massive unregulated mobility is already happening, but at an excruciating cost. We can act in more rational, humane, and proactive ways. Suspending carrier sanctions would contribute toward a more orderly arrival for those seeking a safe haven; a more dignified treatment; a more capillary effort at “debriefing” and fingerprinting people, as required by EU policies. And it would make a substantial dent in smugglers’ costly monopoly.

A moratorium on sanctions would remove an obstacle to refugees’ coordinated mobility, rather than constituting an active airlift. Nevertheless, historical examples of the latter serve as proof of humanitarian and geopolitical initiative at difficult times. One may recall Operation Safe Haven for Hungarian refugees (1956-57), and the Orderly Departure Program (1979-99) allowing Vietnamese refugees to settle in the United States and other Western countries. The geopolitical context is clearly different, and the proliferation of conflicts is resulting in the proliferation of displacement. But as Chancellor Merkel has aptly recognized, “the fundamental right to asylum … knows no upper limit.” And citizens in Europe are demonstrating they are willing to assist refugees.

A moratorium on carrier sanctions would require continued cooperation. Parties would include UN agencies, local governments, and aviation, police, asylum, and border authorities of Turkey, of other countries in the region, of the EU, and of every country intending to share responsibility for refugees. Legal experts, human rights actors, and intergovernmental organizations would need to discuss and deliberate. It could be laborious and far from perfect, with counterarguments, negotiations, and countries opting out. Indeed, we would not need politics if we always had a consensus. Still, there is the urgent need for leaders to be sincere with citizens and to acknowledge reality. Being more proactive is unlikely to make things worse: almost half a million people already arrived in Europe by sea this year; 2,962 people died at sea.

The whole world knows what Alan and his family left behind, and what they were looking for: freedom, security, justice. Do we have the political courage to follow up on that knowledge? Can we afford such an intimate knowledge of refugees, and act accordingly? The next shipwreck might just take from us the right to shed tears.

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Adrift, Permanently: When It Comes to Refugees, the Crisis is Normal

Timothy Waters - Professor of Law at Indiana University, Associate Director of its Center for Constitutional Democracy, and affiliated faculty at its Institute for European Studies

Waters image“If a man would lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren.” That is Adam Smith – one of the architects of our modern world – in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. It’s hard to conceive a bleaker or more profound truth about humanity, and anyone contemplating the running sore of the Syrian refugee crisis would do well to remember it.

The only thing Smith gets wrong is the seeing: You can google pictures of a Kurdish boy photogenically washed up on the Turkish coast – one of thousands in the Aegean and Mediterranean – but observing the suffering of others doesn’t ensure loss of sleep, or an effective response. In truth, it is not in our nature – our system – to do otherwise.

Not a message we like to hear. But even in today’s academy – more Sparta than Athens, and an increasingly self-funded Sparta at that – sometimes our purpose should be to see the world as it is, not propose remaking it. So, at the end of this essay, you won’t find a handy list of three things we can all do to fix the refugee problem. It’s not a problem we can fix, because the problem is the system. It is predicated on proximity, self-defined obligations, and self-interest; we are simply seeing it work.

Consider the contours of this crisis: Grinding war in Syria has displaced millions. Hundreds of thousands – together with Afghans, Eritreans, others – are making their way to Europe, across the Mediterranean, up the same Balkan valleys armies have traversed for millennia. Most head for the wealthy north. This migration and European states’ clumsy oscillations – opening borders, closing them, stringing barbed-wire, shooting teargas, throwing food – have triggered a political crisis in Europe.

But when did this become a crisis? While millions languished for four years in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey – or when they began arriving in Italy, Greece and Hungary? The current flow, though large, is a rich man’s problem: European Union leaders struggled to distribute 120,000 refugees, but even 500,000 or a million, in a wealthy continent of a half billion, is objectively manageable.

It is a crisis not because of refugees, but because of Europe. The EU is neither fish nor fowl: If it were a state, refugees would be a problem, not a crisis. But its present, interim position – with its so-called Schengen zone allowing borderless travel – is a design that, like the euro, cannot bear the weight of events. That is a flaw of EU governance, not the refugee system.

Under international law, countries have obligations to offer asylum, but in practice that means the place of first refuge; states regularly expel applicants who had a ‘realistic opportunity’ elsewhere. Refugees off the Libyan coast who destroy their documents understand this; migrants crying ‘Germany’ are not just fleeing danger but seeking the best possible life. They want something the system is not designed to give.

And not inclined, because states only have the obligations they choose – that’s the system too. Refugee law rests on the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Jordan and Lebanon aren’t even parties. Turkey is, but only accepts the original Convention’s obligation to receive refugees from Europe.

So the poor states ringing Syria have no obligations under the Convention – or obligations to waves of hypothetical European refugees – while wealthy Europe take a fraction of the burden; America, Asia, and the Gulf states take even fewer. And there are tens of millions more: The European flow is merely the spillover from a standing pool of human suffering, festering between the clashing plates of the state system.

That system is the creature of countries seeking to do something humanitarian without contradicting their own interests. It works this way because the governance of our globe works this way. The academic world, where I live, has become besotted with visions of a post-national world of hybridity, polycentrism, and decentralized networks. But a hybrid, polycentric network is not necessarily a pretty one, in the way a hydra is not pretty. The marks of multicephaly are auto-interpretation, self-dealing and ox-goring – ‘coordination’ but not ‘decision.’

Global governance is not global government. The more we chase the chimeras of shared society, the more we must acknowledge: In a real sense, there is no international legal order deserving of the name. Without centralized institutions of decision-making – without world government – this is the kind of regime we can expect.

One can imagine better systems. But implementing them is like the pacifist dream that ‘if every soldier laid down his arms, war would be over.’ A beautiful idea, full of pathos, but structurally implausible: It only happens at the end, when demoralized, dispirited, defeated forces mutiny, when there is chaos, collapse and desperate flight – rather like a refugee crisis.

This is the system we have; we are not likely to make a better one. 'Improvement,' if it comes, is likely to mean more effective border controls -- like the great ring forts circling Spain's enclaves on the African coast, or its highly effective shore patrols to keep boats away from the Canary Islands, or Australia’s high seas interdiction efforts that divert refugees to other countries for processing.

And as for the human beings, we can do some things: The impossibility of more than marginal reform means we should focus on the margins – granting asylum to a few more refugees, giving more funding for UNHCR. There’s your take-away. But it is a palliative, proffering a bandage, not providing real haven. The bandage is the system too, making life marginally less miserable in the permanent camps.

The crisis is real. Tonight, on the Aegean, men will put their wives and children into rubber rafts and push out from the Turkish shore, overloaded, motors failing, adrift. Some will make it; but others will sink, and those on board will die, tonight.

But, the crisis is also normal, and the ocean is wide: Sleep well tonight – you can see it all on the news tomorrow.

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[In]Visible Refugees

Olga Kalentzidou - faculty member and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of International Studies, in the School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University

Kalentzidou imageWith the backdrop of steady rain and encroaching winter temperatures, refugees continue to make their long and arduous journey through Europe’s many lands. The majority are families from SyriaAfghanistan and Eritrea who seek to escape ongoing conflicts that have devastated their countries and their lives. Almost all wish to reach northern European destinations. They come by land and sea, often losing loved ones during the journey. As political refugees they are temporarily housed and fed in crowded makeshift camps. Queues at check points are long; paperwork needs to be verified and fingerprints need to be taken. All these painstakingly long procedures are legally necessary if one wishes to apply for asylum in the European Union.

The current number of refugees is staggering: almost 600,000 people have reached Europe’s shores in 2015. Most have landed in Mediterranean countries; Italy, Spain and Greece. This massive migration of people across the region has been aptly named a crisis. The “refugee crisis” has, thus far, been highly politicized. It certainly constitutes a humanitarian challenge; but it has also raised questions about sovereignty and state rights among EU’s member countries. Additionally, the “crisis” has strained the already fragile relationship between member states and Pan-European political institutions. Above all, it has shaken the very foundation of Europe’s identity and revealed its lack of mechanisms for religious and social integration.

The use of the word “crisis” is at best an inaccurate term. A crisis defines a time of intense difficulty or danger that necessitates a swift solution; despite continuous efforts, such solution is yet to be successfully articulated. Domestic political agendas have so far hindered efforts to create consensus. It is also noteworthy that discussion of the historical events that precipitated the humanitarian crisis within Europe’s borders has been absent. Whereas the number of potential asylum seekers has soared over the last 6 months, due primarily to the on-going civil war in Syria, the steady stream and continuous registration of people reaching southern European countries over the last two decades had been largely ignored by other EU member states. The latter has been especially evident in states such as Hungary and Slovakia that occupy the geographic middle of the union.

Since the mid-1990s, most migrants and asylum seekers were confined to detention centers and/or allowed to exist in an illegal status in Greece, Spain and Italy. In essence, such people became invisible to the EU’s bureaucratic apparatus, based in northern Europe. Cases of human rights violations were documented by UNCHRHuman Rights Watch and other EU agencies, in order to remind southern countries of their failure to adhere to the ideals of the EU, the dignity of human life, and the protection of refugees from religious and political persecution. Even though frontier member states argued that this illegal human migration should be understood as a European problem, their arguments were squelched in the official rhetoric of states’ responsibilities and inefficient border management. The processing and housing of the refugees was foisted on the poorest of the EU states, by the wealthier central countries. Europe decided to become a fortress.

Between 2008 and 2013, when economic depression deepened in Europe’s periphery and political apathy and inaction allowed neighboring conflicts to escalate, European policy-makers continued to place the burden of human migration solely on the shoulders of southern countries. Invoking Dublin II regulations, registration for asylum could only be granted at the country of first entry. Thus the “crisis” of registering, detaining, housing, and feeding immigrants has rested solely on countries lacking the infrastructure to deal with increasingly larger numbers. Simultaneously, the “crisis” was avoided by the most affluent of the EU countries. The invisibility of people on the move would have continued had it not been for the following: the almost total collapse of the Syrian state; the unwillingness of the European Union and other global powers to act preemptively in Syria; the mass exodus of the Syrian population; the creation of poorly managed refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan; the long-established and efficient smuggling networks in Turkey and Libya; the closing of the migration route in Evros, Greece due to the construction of a border fence; the resulting change to sea based smuggling routes in the Mediterranean, facilitated by the proximity of Greek islands to the Turkish coast; and the daily, often harrowing images of roughly1,000 people washing ashore on highly touristic Greek islands.

This is the point where historical contingency meets historical amnesia. Greece has not been a stranger to receiving refugees. In 1923 the Greek state, with a population of barely 2 million, had to accept almost 1.5 million Christian refugees from Asia Minor, Anatolia and Eastern Thrace as a result of the “Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations.” The “Exchange of Populations”, or uprooting, as it is commonly referred to among the descendants of those refugees in Greece, was imagined by the European Great Powers as the most efficient way to cleanse Greece and Turkey of their minorities, thus ensuring the religious and ethnic homogeneity of each state. If Greece was to belong in Europe it had to have a Christian population. Turkey would then be geographically and culturally confined in Asia.

During the Yugoslav ethnic conflict (1991-2001), the Rwandan genocide (1994), the “War on Terror” (2001-) and the break-up of the former USSR, especially the war in Abkhazia (Georgia), Greece received a surprising number of asylum seekers, repatriated ethnic Greeks, and economic migrants. Between 2007 and 2010, records put the number of migrants crossing the Evros border annually as low as 50,000 and as high as 145,000. Locals reported 100-200 people crossing the border daily with almost 800 people detained per month at the area’s centers. The construction of the fence between the Greek/Turkish borders in 2012 resulted in new immigration routes focused on the Aegean islands of Lesvos, Lemnos, Kos, Leros, Chios, Samos, and Samothrace.

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As record numbers of predominately Muslim migrants entered Greece illegally, European institutions turned a blind eye to the external factors exacerbating the migration and focused instead on the inadequacies of the receiving country’s asylum system. European institutions offered financial help in building detention centers and constructing an immigration fence; however, wide-spread anti-Muslim sentiment and security concerns by northern member states coupled with inconsistent Greek policies with regard to the granting of residence permits left economic migrants and refugees stranded in Greece for years. The increased numbers of asylum seekers and a damaged economy with a 30-50% unemployment rate have incapacitated Greece’s ability to process the flood of refugee applications.

The “refugee crisis” is now visible and televised. No longer confined to the borders of one country, it necessitates a reevaluation of the European ideal of “unity in diversity.” Unfortunately, because many EU countries still adhere to a nationalist ideology of ethnicity, based on ancestry and religion, integration is the thorniest subject – not relocation. Greece, Italy and Spain cannot shoulder the burden any longer.


Additional Resources:

Cabot, H. (2014). On the Door Step of Europe: Asylum and Citizenship in Greece. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Hirschon, R. (2003). Crossing the Aegean: an appraisal of the 1923 compulsory population exchange between Greece and Turkey. Berghahn Books.

Triandafyllidou, A. and T. Maroukis (2012). Migrant Smuggling. Irregular Migration from Asia and Africa to Europe. Palgrave MacMillan (also available as an ebook:,+diasporas+and+citizenship+ebook+citation&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CE8Q6AEwBmoVChMIlYSzprXqyAIVR0wmCh3DJgH9#v=onepage&q&f=false)

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