As any elementary school student learning about the first Thanksgiving this week can tell you, Massachusetts is a state founded and built on migration, particularly that of refugees. The standard lore goes that the Pilgrims, a group of English religious refugees who landed at Plymouth in 1620, were helped to survive in New England’s harsh climate by a Native American tribe, the Wampanoag. Thanksgiving itself is modeled on a storied feast where the two communities, refugees and their hosts, came together to celebrate the harvest. This history, though contentious in its own right, is rife with symbolism for the current debate over accepting more Syrian refugees in Massachusetts.
Horrific terrorist attacks on November 13th in Paris shook people across the globe, and in Boston many of us were reminded of the 2013 Marathon attacks as we proclaimed our solidarity with the French people. Yet as reports surfaced that one of the eight attackers in Paris may have disguised himself as a Syrian refugee to gain access to Europe, another reaction gained prominence: fear. While the exact origin and implications of the Syrian passport found near the body of one of the attackers remain in question, some in the United States have recoiled at the proposition, so popular just a few months ago, of accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next year.
At the time of writing, 31 governors have said they would not consider accepting more Syrian refugees in their states, including Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker. Many Massachusetts residents reacted to the November 16 statement with vocal opposition, and hundreds gathered at the State House on November 20 to protest the policy. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh signed a letter with 17 other US mayors expressing his support for accepting more Syrian refugees in this city. Gov. Baker has since declined to sign a letter with other governors asking Pres. Obama to halt all Syrian refugee resettlement, indicating that the policy has not yet been set in stone.
Stopping Syrian refugee resettlement in Massachusetts would not only be contrary to our state’s founding values and history, it would also be poor policymaking. In the face of the fear and vulnerability raised by the attacks in Paris, we must not allow our decisions to be ruled by knee-jerk reactions or political posturing. The refugee crisis is a reality, it is global, and it is likely to become much, much larger in the coming decades. Accepting this reality, and crafting policies to help address it, will be crucial to the maintenance of global stability in our lifetimes. Implementing sound migration policies begins with three crucial elements: Research, Education, and Advocacy.
The Pardee Initiative on Forced Migration and Human Trafficking (FMHT) was founded in March 2015 to bring together students, scholars, practitioners, and policymakers to create better ways of responding to two of the central problematic trends in migration today. We seek to engage in research, education, and advocacy to help address these issues in an interdisciplinary manner, with an emphasis on developing long-term sustainable solutions that do not neatly fit into national jurisdictions. Already, there are an unprecedented number of forced migrants worldwide – 60 million refugees and internally displaced persons according to UNHCR – and the numbers show no sign of abating. Human trafficking is a key facet of this period of migration, in which lines between human smuggling and trafficking have become blurred as desperate refugees and other migrants seek more peaceful homes at any cost. Climate refugees, thus far undefined and unprotected in international refugee law, will pose a mounting challenge as tens of millions of people are forced from their homes by extreme weather and natural disasters. Refugees and other migrants are also contributing significantly to global trends of rapid urbanization and creating new pressures on infrastructure, especially in cities in the global south.
Laws and policies have struggled to keep pace with these fast-moving shifts in migration trends. This is largely due to a consistent deficit of resources and political will: the UNHCR’s 2015 response to the Syrian refugee crisis in the neighboring states is still only 45 percent funded, despite intensified global attention on the crisis. The lack of resources has created a space for academics, students, and practitioners to help reassess humanitarian responses, however, and it is in this space that the Pardee Initiative on Forced Migration and Human Trafficking operates.
In addition to its rich history as a migrant and refugee host city, Boston has an academic community that is unparalleled in the United States. The dozens of colleges and universities in the area have created a rare confluence of individuals who study, research, and work on different aspects of migration from a vast array of fields. The local NGO community also offers a wide variety of practitioners with vital applied expertise in migration and trafficking. FMHT was founded to bring together these scholars and practitioners at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, in order to create policies and resources that have an impact beyond the classroom.
Our members include political scientists, sociologists, lawyers, doctors, economists, public health professionals, anthropologists, and religious figures; academics, practitioners, policymakers, and students. By pulling in specialists from such a broad range of fields, we are able to discuss and craft more comprehensive policies to propose to various stakeholders in humanitarian assistance. Our partnership with the Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies allows us to include academics and students from the entire Boston area and further develop our ability to cultivate multiple approaches to migration and trafficking
Through research, FMHT aims to expand education on these issues, beginning with a graduate course on forced migration and human trafficking taught at the Pardee School in the spring by our Director, Prof. Noora Lori. Through education, we aim to create policies, tools, and resources to help practitioners and policymakers to address the major challenges posed by rapidly changing migration trends. Through advocacy, we seek not to implement policies based in emotion or politics, but rather in rigorous multidisciplinary analyses of issues both large and small. Advocacy ensures that the products of our research and educational endeavors do not stop at the classroom door.
Though the FMHT Initiative is still young, we believe that groups of individuals working across disciplines can make major contributions to sound migration and trafficking policies. In the context of the current political controversy surrounding refugees, only through objective policy reassessments can appropriate responses be identified. Legal scholars have amply explained that the refugee visa process already includes the most rigorous vetting process in our immigration system, particularly for Syrian refugees, and that policies to bar their entry to Massachusetts would do nothing to enhance our security. Rather than reacting to the Paris attacks by closing our doors, American citizens and policymakers alike should look to other avenues for improving the way the country is responding to this global crisis. Policy innovation and interdisciplinarity can contribute to alleviating challenges created by forced migration and human trafficking. Reactions based in fear and prejudice can at best do nothing to address these problems, and at worst will exacerbate them.
The United States (and Massachusetts in particular) has long been a beacon for migration in all of its forms, but we have thus far remained remote from the Syrian refugee crisis, separated by oceans not easily crossed in a rubber dinghy. Nonetheless, taking in refugees has a long and proud history in Massachusetts. On Thursday, most of us celebrated Thanksgiving with our families in remembrance of the first refugee arrivals to Massachusetts. We are celebrating not only the Pilgrims’ survival, but the generosity of the Wampanoag, the first Massachusetts refugee host community. Their story should remind all of us that somewhere in our past, a migrant or a refugee was welcomed to the United States in order for us to be here. Shutting the door now would be a violation of our deepest values, and would do nothing to actually address the global migration crisis that will only grow in the years to come. Continuing to welcome refugees while seeking to improve humanitarian policies isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do, and I hope it will continue to be one of the proudest traditions in Massachusetts.
To learn more about the Pardee Initiative on Forced Migration and Human Trafficking, please email [email protected].
Vicky Kelberer is an MA candidate in International Affairs at the Pardee School of Global Studies, and conducted research with Syrian refugees in Jordan in June 2015 with the support of the Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies.