On September 18th, the Jeanne Sauvé Forum Series on Social Connectedness and International Development kicked off the fall 2017 season with an event entitled, Compounding Factors Within the Global Refugee Crisis.
The Sauvé Series, created by Professor Kim Samuel in collaboration with the Jeanne Sauvé Foundation, explores the root causes of social isolation, along with strategies for building social connectedness through international policy and program development. It began last fall with weekly discussions at the historic Jeanne Sauvé House in Montreal covering a variety of topics, from the UN Sustainable Development Goals to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. The Series is also closely linked with Professor Samuel’s fourth-year seminar course on social connectedness at McGill University, the first of its kind.
The September 18th event focused on an important and timely issue affecting millions of people around the world and increasingly in the greater Montreal area: the ongoing struggle for security and belonging of over 65 million refugees and displaced people. Convened were leading experts in the field, including Human Rights Watch researcher Emina Ćerimović and Rachel Kiddell-Monroe, Professor of Practice at McGill’s Institute for the Study of International Development and International Board Member of Médecins Sans Frontières. Joining them were two McGill students, Gabrielle Kacha and Céline de Richoufftz, who have extensive experience volunteering in refugee camps.
As moderator for the event, Professor Samuel opened the evening with a stark reminder of the urgency of the situation. “In just the time we will have gathered here this evening, nearly 3,000 more individuals will have been forced out of their homes. They will suffer unimaginable trauma as they are torn from the lives they once enjoyed, their futures left in a cloud of uncertainty. Their security is no guarantee. And a return to some small shred of normalcy is a dream that they cannot realize on their own,” she said.
Compounding matters, Professor Samuel noted how refugees must then turn to strangers and foreign nations —who often view them with indifference, suspicion and outright discrimination — for protection. “[Refugees] need us to open our arms and our hearts. But instead, the lucky few who reached asylum are greeted by thunderous calls for closing doors and erecting walls, real and symbolic, across the West,” she stated.
Having once been a refugee herself, Emina Ćerimović offered a first-hand account of what this traumatic experience is like. She recalled fleeing war-torn Bosnia in the 1990s as a young child together with family members and the difficult journey that followed. She explained that oftentimes she felt she had to appear helpless so that people would pity her and grant her protection. To this day, she still has nightmares and can’t stand sudden noises, even a knock on a door or a fork and knife hitting a dinner plate.
Since October 2016, Ms. Ćerimović has been researching the treatment of refugees with disabilities, including a field study in Greece where more than 60,000 refugees remain in camps. She said that everyone she interviewed expressed feelings of depression related to the harsh camp conditions and constant delays in the asylum claims process. Further, she stated that people with disabilities in camps often don’t get equal access to the most basic services such as toilettes.
One woman Ms. Ćerimović spoke with had witnessed all kinds of horrors in her home country of Syria, “but never a prison until they arrived in Greece.” Another man, Jalal, from Iraq, told her he’s sick of people who come, document their stories, write reports and nothing changes. However, Ms. Ćerimović recalled fondly the resilience and positive spirit of the children she met, who often offered her something small, whatever they had, such as an apple.
Rachel Kiddell-Monroe began her remarks by explaining why she would be avoiding terms like ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’ — because they are human beings like any of the audience members. She described her visits to camps in the town of Calais, France, and the Greek Island of Lesbos. In Lesbos, she met a family of 9 from Congo who were living all together in one tent after no one had greeted them on arrival. The insecurity she described was palpable: gangs roamed the camps, women were subject to sexual violence, and people there had often just come through Libyan detention centres where conditions were awful.
Professor Kiddell-Monroe also described her recent visit to the Mexican border with Central America. As she explained, people from countries such as Honduras and Guatemala are often forced from their homes due to gang violence. Many head to Mexico because technically they can seek asylum there, but implementation is sorely lacking. Tragically, she pointed out, women are attacked and raped along the way and people are extorted and subject to violence.
Professor Kiddell-Monroe argued three actions are needed. First, countries must be deterred from pushing out their borders in the way that, for example, the EU has done by funding and training the Libyan Coast Guard to return people crossing to Europe over the Mediterranean. Second, countries must stop deflecting blame onto humanitarian organizations by accusing them of being human traffickers. And third, countries must ensure safe and legal passage for people seeking protection, as current policies force people to to use illegal means and crossings.
Following Professor Kiddell-Monroe, McGill students Gabrielle Kacha and Céline de Richoufftz shared their experience volunteering in refugee camps in Greece and Lebanon. In Greece, they helped provide hundreds of meals to refugees, developed a scholastic program for teenagers whose education was disrupted, and worked on a micro-business project supporting women. In Lebanon, they supported a clean water initiative through an online fundraising campaign.
During the open discussion, members of the audience asked about the issue of safe third country agreements, such as that between Canada and the US. Professor Kiddell-Monroe argued that the Canada-US agreement is forcing people to seek asylum illegally, which “makes no sense.” Ms. Ćerimović mentioned the EU-Turkey agreement as another problematic example given Turkey’s reservations to the UN Refugee Convention.
Another audience member asked about the issue of mental health among refugees in camps. Professor Kiddell-Monroe called it a “big black hole” and wished that more organizations were focusing on it. Ms. de Richoufftz argued that mental health should be considered a basic need, and yet treatment is very difficult to get in transit countries such as Greece.
The next Sauvé Series event will look at today’s media landscape and our guest speakers, Mary Jordan, Kevin Sullivan, and Caro Loutfi will offer perspectives on how traditional and new media is informing, and misinforming, populations about shared global challenges. To register for this and future Sauvé Series events, please visit socialconnectedness.org/sauve.