Debate over refugees missing context of terrible human tragedy, VCU professor says

In the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks, there has been intense debate over whether or not to accept the refugees fleeing the war in Syria.

Yet that debate, said Virginia Commonwealth University expert Faedah Totah, Ph.D., is obscuring the important context of what led to this moment of international humanitarian crisis.

Totah, a professor of political science in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is the author of the 2014 book, “Preserving the Old City of Damascus.” She researches urban refugees, urban renewal, the nation-state and globalization, and is an expert on the Middle East, particularly Syria, where she has lived and traveled widely.

We have to remember that a vicious war has been waging on for almost five years now with no end in sight. 

“The Syrian refugee question did not materialize out of thin air or become an overnight issue,” she said. “Moreover, it is as though Syrian refugees are separate from U.S. foreign policy and role in the Middle East. Of course the United States is not the only country culpable in what is happening in Syria. However, there is cause and effect and I think it is important to initially know why there are Syrian refugees in the first place.

“This in turn means we have to look at the push factors that are forcing Syrians to flee their homes and country. We have to remember that a vicious war has been waging on for almost five years now with no end in sight. It is also a war that is not confined to the region but reverberates far beyond Syria and Iraq. Many Syrians are getting desperate and are fleeing the country to what they hope to be a safe haven in Europe and beyond. The plight of Syrian refugees is almost five years old and about 4 million of those that fled the war-torn country are staying in neighboring countries – Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. It also should be mentioned that these countries have taken in the bulk of Syrian refugees and the ones seeking to come to the U.S. is a mere fraction.

Women and children among Syrian refugees striking at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 4 September 2015.jpg
"Women and children among Syrian refugees striking at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 4 September 2015" by Mstyslav Chernov - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


“There is also a huge displaced population within Syria. Moreover, the United States and several European countries, including France, are heavily involved in this war and especially with the airstrikes conducted by the U.S. and its allies on ISIS/Daesh targets. These airstrikes have been going on for over a year. In the past two months, Russia joined in the airstrikes in Syria as well. However, the airstrikes in Syria and Iraq by these countries are also forcing more people to flee. Therefore, the Syrian refugees coming to Europe are best described as the result of the war in Syria, and in which the U.S. and European countries, including Russia, are involved.

“This brings me to the second issue. The question of whether the United States should accept Syrian refugees is probably getting more attention because of the Paris bombing. However, to use the Paris bombing to place the spotlight on Syrian refugees is once again misleading. Of the bombers identified, one is supposedly a Syrian due to a passport found near the body – which in itself raised many questions and for which the answers have been slow in coming. The rest of the bombers were European. So if anything, the fear should be from Europeans coming to the United States. Several of the terrorist acts in Europe over the past five years and that have been linked directly to the Syrian war were perpetuated by Europeans who traveled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS/Daesh. As far as I can tell, Syrian refugees have been absolved from any these events.

“This in turn should put the focus on the policy of European countries towards the war in Syria where they encouraged fighters to go to Syria and join the war against the Syrian regimes. Furthermore, and if one of the bombers is confirmed to be a Syrian refugee, then how is it fair to blame the actions of one individual on the whole group and deny them a safe haven?

“I guess this is why I find questions like whether the United States should accept Syrian refugees difficult to engage with because they do not put the situation into any context but tend to appeal to people’s fears, which are usually not based on facts or any real threat. I feel compelled as a scholar and academic to make sure we do not lose sight of the terrible human tragedy that is unfolding before our eyes – not only the issue of refugees from war-torn countries but victims of terrorist attacks that have much to do with how increasingly we are living in an interdependent and interconnected world.”

 

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Faedah M. Totah, Ph.D.
Faedah M. Totah, Ph.D.