As you read this, millions of people have been displaced from their homes by violence. Millions more have been forced to leave their own countries in fear for their lives and the lives of their families. Although the refugee crisis coming out of Syria may top headlines now, it is only one part of a much larger picture.
The Knowledge is Power lecture planned from 1-2 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 4 at the Preston Ridge Campus Conference Center hopes to bring that picture into focus with a presentation titled The Human Cost of War: Global Responsibility and Refugees. History professor Jason Morgan and political science professor Rachel Bzostek will examine the phenomenon through their own disciplines and hope to provide some perspective about the world community’s reaction to refugees.
Refugees are not a new phenomenon. People have been forced out of their homes by war, famine or other factors since the formation of society.
“We know about refugee crises because of modern technology, but they are not new,” Dr. Bzostek said, referencing influxes of Irish and Eastern Europeans to America in the late 1800s and early 1900s. “This has been happening forever. We just know more about it today because people are coming with their phones, and we see news and Facebook and Twitter, which we never saw before.”
However, it isn’t only technology that makes these refugee flows different, according to Dr. Morgan. We also have to consider the way the world changed in the middle of the last century. Millions were displaced during World War II, and there were problems finding new places for them to live.
As a result, there were more in-depth discussions of human rights and refugees in the late 1940s on through the 1950s. The United Nations set up the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1951, and President Dwight Eisenhower led a charge to bring European refugees to the United States with the 1953 Refugee Relief Act, lest their plight lead to even more chaos in that continent.
“Refugees have existed since humanity began, but the idea of the international community having any responsibility for them is a development of the second world war … a result of the sheer destruction that happened,” Morgan said.
Agreements the United States, the European Union and other world powers have made among themselves and with the U.N. provide a framework for helping refugees from other nations. That does not mean that those nations always live up to the spirit of the agreements, though, even if they follow their letter.
Sometimes, according to Dr. Bzostek, host nations are reticent to take on refugees that don’t reflect the nation itself.
“I think that you see a pattern where the host countries respond differently depending on where the refugees are coming from,” she said. “People are much more willing to take in refugees that look like them and believe like them than they are refugees who come from a different place, are a different ethnicity and a different religion.”
Again, looking at the aftermath of World War II, the United States and some European countries were more willing to take refugees who weren’t Jewish. The pattern continues today, with some eastern European countries saying they are glad to take in any Christian Syrians who want to flee, but not Muslims.
“That is why you see such a burden being placed on countries like Turkey and Lebanon. They are having to take the brunt of this refugee flow,” Dr. Bzostek said.
Both she and Dr. Morgan said they would like the audience to leave the presentation with a better understanding of the place America finds itself when talking about taking in refugees. The conversation encompasses both legal and moral dimensions, as well as an important facet of United States history.
“I would like the audience to realize that many of our families ended up in the United States as a result of similar pressures that these people are feeling – to have some empathy for them,” Bzostek said. “People want to stay in their home. Nobody wants to flee. Nobody wants to wonder if they will be able to survive and to live somewhere else.”
This is the 20th lecture in the Knowledge is Power series. Free drinks and dessert will be provided for the audience.