Visiting Mellon Scholar Gives Insight Into Refugee Crisis

Maurice Stierl
Maurice Stierl

For months, the world has watched refugees move toward and into Europe from Syria, Eritrea, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, many fleeing wars and poverty. They have been welcomed in some places, but they have also been beaten, locked up, turned away or stuck in countries that don’t want them or believe they can’t afford them.

Although this surge of refugees – more than 500,000 this year – surprised many, it could have been predicted, according to Maurice Stierl, a visiting scholar in the new UC Davis Comparative Border Studies Initiative.

“For years, countries neighboring conflict zones have taken in millions of people and that some of them would seek to cross over to Europe was just a matter of time,” he said.

Supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the initiative will examine recent trends in migration, especially in light of those fleeing violence and poverty and the making and unmaking of borders.

For decades, European Union countries sought to deter the influx of refugees by having countries in North Africa and the Middle East as well as Turkey, serve as kind of border guards.

“Border control was increasingly outsourced to regimes with questionable human rights records that did the dirty work, against financial compensation from the EU and its member states,” said Stierl.

The situation changed with the Arab Spring, a wave of revolutions that swept through Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Egypt and other countries starting in late 2010. These uprisings undermined the military and police forces that had kept people from moving to Europe either directly from these countries or using these countries as transit points.

Central and northern Europe had also been buffered by regulations that required that refugees seek asylum in the country in which they first arrived – which was most likely to be in southern Europe. Those countries are among the worst hit by the global economic crisis and struggle to deal with the high number of incoming refugees.

“This is a European crisis rather than a migration crisis,” Stierl said. “The central European countries thought they could dump the responsibility on other areas. This system has collapsed in the light of this historic year and the EU can’t deny it anymore. Now we see how individual member states try to resurrect national border controls, clearly indicating the absence of any solidarity amongst this union of countries.”

Europe could have prepared, but didn’t, he added.

“The EU and its member states invested into border protection infrastructure aimed at the deterrence of people, at controlling and monitoring their mobility, rather than creating infrastructure to accommodate and care for those arriving,” Stierl said.

“That communities throughout Europe are overwhelmed and cannot accommodate people is the direct consequence of these disastrous political decisions.”

In many cases, refugees are being housed in isolated areas where they are not given the opportunity to integrate with the rest of the population and where they are often exposed to local resentment.

These developments show that the impact of the refugee crisis will not stop at the Atlantic Ocean. 

One of the most powerful images from the crisis was that of a Syrian toddler washed up on a Turkish beach. The boy’s family had recently been refused asylum in Canada and that became a topic in the recent race for prime minister. Many of the refugees are from Iraq and Afghanistan, countries destabilized by U.S. led wars.

“The current crisis over migration requires a global response,” Stierl said.

Stierl will give a talk, "Europe’s Failing Project: Migration Struggles, Border Violence and Solidarity Activism," at Nov. 4 at noon in 3201 Hart Hall as part of the African American and African Studies Brown Bag Lecture Series. African American and African Studies is serving as department host for Stierl. 

He will also participate in the initial border studies event "Border, Rights, and Resistance" Nov. 23 from noon to 2 p.m. in the Student Community Center. 

The initiative is co-led by Sunaina Maira, professor of Asian American Studies, and Robert Irwin, professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and chair of the graduate group in Cultural Studies, with faculty from Native American Studies, history, English, anthropology, religion, African and African American Studies and other areas. 

It is one of several initiatives taking places under the auspices of the UC Davis Humanities Insitute.

Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science