The current refugee crisis seems overwhelming. The enormity of the problem, the depth of human suffering, the inhumanity of some, the heroic actions of others, and the urgent and passionate debates all create an overpowering mixture of images, ideas and possibilities.
Overwhelming experiences push us beyond our usual comfort zones and, seeking some sense of familiarity and safety, we oversimplify issues in order to feel that we grasp them. Faced with complexity, we seek clarity – black and white.
Yet, the current refugee crisis is not a simple phenomenon. Its constituent dimensions include not only evident political, military, legal and economic considerations, but also a wide range of subtler factors including psychological, social, demographical, environmental, spiritual, to name but a few.
One of the most common forms of oversimplification is polarization. The current debate on Syrian refugees is a prime example of this.
On the one extreme, dominated by fear and suspicion, the argument emphasizes the catastrophic effects that the hordes of refugees will have on our settled societies, exposing us to security risks, destabilizing our communities, changing our cherished ‘way of life’, overstretching our economy and our resources, depriving our own people of employment and other opportunities. There are spectres of disease, crime and other threats – even terrorism.
On the other extreme, dominated by pity, the argument emphasizes the beneficial effects refugees will have on our societies, refreshing our work force, enriching our cultural diversity, and urging us to open up our borders to welcome all the suffering.
We need to find a balanced and a simultaneously compassionate but cautious stance, avoiding the extremes of both discourses and embracing complexity without sinking into endless hypothetical and idealistic solipsistic deliberations.
To begin with, it is important to distinguish between legitimate safety concerns and xenophobic attitudes. Obviously, not all refugees are dangerous terrorists.
We must jettison prejudices and face facts. The distinction between refugees and economic or environmental migrants is becoming less viable or useful. They all are forced to abandon their countries as untenable conditions make it impossible for them to live in a dignified way. They are pushed to flee in order to survive. The deterioration of living conditions in these countries needs to be addressed and we need to help the affected populations survive with dignity.
The over-emphasis on ‘trauma’ also doesn’t help. On the one hand, it appears reasonable to claim that because they were exposed to severe adversity, refugees are ‘traumatised’ and, therefore, we ought to accept them in our countries and provide them assistance. On the other hand, the emphasis on trauma contributes to solidifying the ‘victim identity’ and related syndromes, overlooks other crucial realities of the refugee phenomenon, and risks creating dependency. We must counter that potentially self-fulfilling prophecy. The fact that they survived adversity, skilfully escaped from conflict, and are now pursuing opportunities for a new beginning in safe environments is an obvious testimony to their resilience, resourcefulness and determination. These attributes need to be acknowledged, appreciated and nurtured. Those affected need to be empowered and normalized.
Our polarised discourses stop us from appreciating the evident complexity. In addition to being distressed by what they had endured, refugees and migrants are also people with remarkable strengths, abilities and firm motivation to succeed in life and contribute substantially to their new countries. There is plenty of evidence for this. For example, ‘Statistics Canada’ shows that refugees who went to Canada in 1993 earned significantly more that the median Canadian by 2013.
The fact is that no refugee experience is black or white. They are not simply either traumatised or heroic and resilient. They can be both. In reality, they can be distressed as well as resilient and resourceful. Certainly, they may need a helping hand or even two. If we understand better the complexities of their situations and experiences, we may help them better – better for them and for us.
It is important to use the current refugee crisis to re-evaluate prevalent discourse by avoiding polarisation and by examining the uniqueness of this phenomenon. Fear and suspicion need to be tempered by reason and attention to facts. Instead of panic about the present, we should develop wider vistas, engaging new arrivals in a fuller and more constructive way, appreciating their experiences, and helping them regain their feet through robust and dignified lives in their news homes.
It is imperative that we grasp the complexity of the refugee needs so that we do not fall blindly into polarised positions and avoid either extremes.
It is not only the lives of the afflicted refugees that are at stake, but also our own values, our own humanity and our shared future.
Professor Renos K Papadopoulos is a Clinical Psychologist, Psychoanalyst and Director of the Centre for Trauma, Asylum and Refugees at the University of Essex. firstname.lastname@example.org
by Renos K Papadopoulos