From the Front Lines: The Global Refugee Crisis

October 25, 2017

Three Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grantees brought stories from the front lines of the global refugee crisis to Georgetown University on October 18, discussing the human impact of refugee resettlement and the economic and political factors that drive human smuggling.

The event, titled “From the Front Lines: The Global Refugee Crisis,” is part of a new partnership between the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and the Pulitzer Center, made possible with support from the Henry Luce Foundation. 

We’re All Human

Freelance journalist Robin Shulman’s reporting led her to Toronto, Canada, where she observed Canada’s refugee resettlement program that allows private citizens to sponsor Syrian refugees. 

The involvement of private citizens in refugee resettlement humanized the migration crisis, Shulman said. As communities got in touch with the newly arrived refugees, it led to a snowball effect in which large numbers of Canadians became invested in the well-being of the sponsored families. 

The involvement of Canadians in refugee resettlement also had an emotional impact on the Syrians. “It restored my belief in humanity,” Shulman quoted one of the Syrians she profiled as saying to her. “After everything we’d seen, it made me believe in humanity again.” 

Freelance journalist Alice Su traveled to Europe for her reporting, where she explored the relationship between immigrant and refugee communities in Germany. 

She found that at the core, religion is a powerful force that aids and hinders acclamation of refugees, especially when mistrust of refugees’ religion leads to alienation. 

“I think that’s something we forget a lot when we talk about Muslims or ‘scary people’ coming and trying to ‘change’ our societies, is that people don’t have a choice,” Su said. “People don’t choose to become refugees. Nobody wants to become stateless.” 

In talking to refugees, Su found that many of them often want to stop being talked about solely as Muslims and refugees. 

“People are not all good and people are not all bad,” Su said. “And refugees are the same. If we allow the narrative to be polarized in this way, I think it’s going to be very harmful in terms of whether they can really integrate.” 

Investigating the Complexities of the Crisis

New Yorker staff writer Ben Taub spoke about his interactions with human smugglers in Africa that complicate the narratives of the refugee crisis. For many communities in Niger, Taub found that the local economy depends on smuggling migrants across the country to Libya. 

Many smugglers must choose whether to smuggle, join an extremist terrorist movement, or starve. Taub visited Niger in November 2016, just as the country was beginning to crack down on smuggling operations following pressure from European government officials. 

The crackdown was putting a squeeze on local economies and even threatened to destabilize U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the region. With prohibitions on human smuggling being enforced, smugglers told Taub that they were no longer willing to tip off the government if they saw armed militias in the desert.

“If I’m smuggling migrants, and I see 100 armed men in the desert, would I warn the state? I won’t because I’ll be afraid that they’ll arrest me,” one smuggler told Taub. “Insecurity will reign. There will be no more relationship between the population and the state, and the state doesn’t know the desert.” 

Opportunities for Aspiring Journalists

Prior to the public event, the three journalists met with a group of Georgetown students to discuss the paths that led them to journalism. The reporters also talked about the details of how they reported and pitched their stories. 

Michele Dale (SFS’19) said the student-led discussion brought context to the refugee crisis.

“For someone like me who is interested in journalism and telling people's stories, it was such a great opportunity to talk to three distinguished journalists who are doing so much to share the experiences of these refugees,” Dale said. “You can see how much they care about the refugees and the people they've met just from talking to them.”

The Pulitzer Center grantee journalists also shared the unpleasant realities of reporting in dangerous regions. “Listening to Alice’s and Ben's stories about the physical danger they put themselves in so that they could report on events in war torn countries was eye-opening. They do it because they feel like they need to give a voice to these people's experiences, which I thought was really impressive,” commented Dale.

In addition to exposing students to journalists like Taub, Su, and Shulman, the Berkley-Pulitzer partnership is also providing an international journalism travel grant available to one Georgetown student for the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 academic years. The selected student will receive a $3,000 summer grant to pursue deep reporting on an overlooked global issue related to religion. 

The event is part of a larger initiative by Georgetown University to focus on refugees and migration, following Pope Francis’ call to “Share the Journey” in September. Events will continue throughout the academic year.

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