An Introduction to the 2016 St Andrews Foreign Affairs Conference: How Will Migration Change the European Union?

One year ago, I wrote an article for this publication about refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa paying thousands to human smugglers to charter rickety boats in Libya with hopes of reaching the shores of Europe. I wrote about the shipwrecks, the overcrowded asylum centers, and the chronic lack of effective European Union asylum policy. One year later, what seemed tragic to me then now seems tragically ordinary.

Image courtesy of United Nations Photos, © 1999, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of United Nations Photos, © 1999, some rights reserved.

The reasons why so many refugees and migrants have pushed toward Europe in recent years have remained constant. The Syrian civil war rages on, with 200,000 dead, 11 million others displaced, and President Bashar al-Assad still in power. Libya remains largely ungoverned, allowing smuggling rings to continue unabated. Recent figures from the UNHCR calculate 59.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. In 2015 alone, nearly half a million refugees have arrived in Europe by sea, according to the International Organization on Migration. Many still use the central Mediterranean route, though the course from Turkey to various Greek islands has become more popular since last year. Forty percent of those who have migrated to Europe are refugees of the Syrian civil war. At least 2,812 have perished at sea.

This refugee crisis is occurring at a time when Europe is dealing with debt, unemployment, terrorism, and the rise of right-wing populist politics. European response has been marred by each states’ domestic politics, creating mismatched, haphazard, and hasty responses. Many EU member states are taking legislative, executive, and judicial actions to ignore or defy EU-level agreements, such as the Dublin Regulation and the Schengen Agreement; they are enforcing border controls, failing to register or provide decent conditions for those seeking asylum, and encouraging refugees to move on to other EU countries to claim asylum. As many northern EU member states voluntarily accept small fractions of refugee populations, the burden remains with the southern EU member states, whose governments are generally less equipped to deal with such an influx of people. This is creating conflict and division within the EU’s governing body, and many EU officials see this conflict as having the potential to be the final straw on the path toward disunion.

The refugee crisis is not only a political issue, but a humanitarian one as well. We must mind the hundreds camped on tourist beaches in Greece and Italy and in makeshift tent cities in the French port of Calais. We must mourn those lost at sea, suffocated in smuggler vans, and crushed attempting to jump onto trains headed for the United Kingdom. We must mourn the small child washed up on a Turkish beach, whose heart-wrenching image was seen by millions worldwide.

In subsequent Foreign Affairs Review pieces and in discussions elsewhere in the St Andrews community, I heartily discourage the oppression of the human element of this crisis. The distilling of this crisis into statistics, like lives uprooted or money spent, often does the exact opposite of what the originator intended. Instead of showing the immensity of this crisis, it reduces those represented to something impersonal, something quantified. In policy discussions, the human is often marginalized in favor of politics as usual. We must resist such a rendering in favor of one that explores the personal narratives, the dreams, and the perils migrants and refugees face on their way to a life in Europe.

Discussion of the migration crisis is not necessarily limited to a particular region or academic discipline. From Venezuela, to Myanmar, to Eritrea and Ukraine, people are on the move. Their presence (or lack thereof) will affect the demographics, economies, politics, and society where they finally settle, for better or worse. A variety of perspectives are crucial to decide how to handle such change in a just and mutually beneficial way.

With this in mind, I am pleased to announce the 2016 St Andrews Foreign Affairs Conference focus: Migration and the European Union. This article is the first in a series meant to inform and inspire in anticipation for the conference in February. This series was created as a way to recognize and give merit to the countless narratives of the EU migration crisis and as a quasi-supplement to the content of the Conference. At the St Andrews Foreign Affairs Conference on 6 February 2016, we plan to take the subject of Migration and the European Union even further and critically explore the role of different actors in shaping this crisis, the possible avenues of practical response, and the implications of this refugee crisis on European politics, society, economics, ideology, and unity.

Over the course of this academic year, SAFAC hopes to bring much more than just a conference. In addition to this series, we are running a Martinmas lecture series with Christian Boswell on 23 October and Odmaln Pontus on 16 November. We also welcome upcoming discussions of the migration crisis at the Foreign Affairs Society socials and debates.

This topic hits close to home for many St Andrews students and faculty. The international student and teaching body in particular knows what it is like to live and work in a foreign land. The domestic student body, conversely, knows what it is like to live and work with people from around the world. Every St Andrews student and faculty member has a unique perspective on this migration crisis, whether they like to acknowledge it or not.

One year on, I often find myself repeating myself. This year, however, I have a new reason to hope. I hope that the St Andrews Foreign Affairs Conference will bring a much-needed dialogue about this crisis to the students and faculty of St Andrews, a community which often finds itself at a loss for sympathy and activism unless champagne and black tie is involved. Finally, I hope the ideas voiced in subsequent FAR pieces and at SAFAC events will spur thought and action and bring a positive change to the way we think about and resolve this crisis.

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