The numbers are staggering. So far in 2015, more than half a million people have arrived on Europe’s southern shore, with an equivalent number being smuggled over the border by land. Most are escaping from Syria, which has produced four million refugees since the start of its civil war, but thousands are fleeing other crises in Afghanistan, Albania, Bangladesh, Egypt, Eritrea, Gambia, Iran, Iraq, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Senegal, Somalia, and Sudan.
They take the few things they can carry and travel on foot from one refugee camp to another, walking through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, and Slovenia. Almost all of them are headed toward northern Europe, western Europe, and Scandinavia, where thousands of people reach the border each week, hungry and destitute, with no clear legal status and nowhere else to go.
“There could not be a more timely topic, and there could not be a more appropriate place to host this conference than Cornell University and Cornell Law,” said Eduardo Peñalver, the Allan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law, opening “Beyond Survival: Livelihood Strategies for Refugees in the Middle East” at Myron Taylor Hall on November 6. “The international community is confronting a refugee crisis of historic proportions, with problems of unbelievable complexity involving issues that are simultaneously ethical, logistical, and legal.
“What are our obligations to people beyond our borders, or to people who come to our borders because of civil turmoil within their own countries?” asked Peñalver. “As human beings, are we morally obligated to help displaced persons, regardless of their nation of origin? And at what cost? Why should universities be involved?”
Over the next two days, that’s what attendees debated. There were discussions on historical perspectives and context, showing how refugee crises in the Middle East in part stem from actions undertaken in the West. There were also panels on legal and economic barriers to work, protections for health and human rights, and programs to provide refugees with education and job training. Leading the discussions were experts from the American University of Beirut, Binghamton University, Boston University, Cornell, Earlham College, George Mason University, Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Temple University, Tufts University, University of California Los Angeles, University of Nevada Las Vegas, University of Oxford, Weill Cornell Medical College, UNICEF, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“Mass movements of people seeking asylum in Europe have gained enormous momentum since the spring of 2014, shaking some of the founding principles and institutions of the European Union,” said Philippe Fargues, the Robert Schuman Chair and Director of the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute, delivering the keynote address. “The flows of refugees and migrants that are converging on Europe and then crossing the continent are unprecedented in magnitude, diversity, origin, and itineraries.”
For Fargues, a few facts stand out as most important. The number of refugees entering the European Union is rising, with almost as many arrivals in October 2015 as in all twelve months of 2014. Some nations have clearly been more welcoming than others, and as individual countries erect new barriers to passage, journeys are becoming increasingly perilous, making the Mediterranean Sea “the world’s most lethal migratory route.” Yet as daunting as these numbers are, they are dwarfed by refugee populations in the Middle East, with Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan each hosting between 1 and 2 million displaced persons.
Over time, the migration’s demographics are becoming more complex, both by country of origin and by the mix of political and economic factors affecting displacement. As refugees formally apply for asylum, there’s an expanding gap between countries of transit and countries of destination, and as the crisis spreads farther north and west, the need continues to grow for a working, coordinated response to bring refugees into the labor market.
“Population displacement through conflict and disorder is a problem of truly global proportions,” said Chantal Thomas, director of the Clarke Initiative for Law and Development in the Middle East and North Africa, and one of the conference organizers. “With this conference, we’re trying to understand the scale and scope of refugee crises in the Middle East, while also connecting the dots to a broader historical and geographical perspective.
“Ultimately, we want to enact and endorse an ethics of solidarity and collective responsibility,” she continued. “We want to consider what role university communities can play in contributing—not just ameliorating crises that affect refugee populations and host states, but in laying the groundwork for a shared and prosperous future.”
“Beyond Survival: Livelihood Strategies for Refugees in the Middle East” was cosponsored by the Clarke Initiative for Law and Development in the Middle East and North Africa, Cornell University Law School, Weill Cornell Global Emergency Medicine Division, and the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative.