Who is the refugee? Who do I recognize myself to be when confronted with the refugee? How does the politicization of refugees hurt and help them? What responsibility do faith communities have to respond to this crisis? What concretely can we do to respond? These are a few of the burning questions tackled earlier this month at an international gathering of scholars, students, and representatives from the US State Department, the United Nations, and various charities, human rights groups, and faith communities convened by the Princeton University Office of Religious Life and the Community of Sant’Egidio.
The gathering’s panels and roundtable discussions ranged from topics including gender and migration, global citizenship in an era of nationalism, the religious experiences of refugees, the media and migration, and many more. In contrast with popular media coverage of immigration issues, which can often be sensationalist and fleeting, these conversations probed deeply into the history, causes, and long-term implications of the present refugee crisis. Some participants, like Jane Bloom of the International Catholic Migration Commission, pointed out that migration was a fraught issue long before Donald Trump issued his bombshell executive order. How will these new arrivals impact US security, economics, and culture? How does accepting refugees affect relations with their nations of origin? These are the questions that every administration has to navigate in the course of fulfilling its duty to protect American interests and sovereignty.
In another sense, however, the current crisis reflects an even older problem—as old as human society itself. Recent efforts to label refugees as a threat to national security or an economic burden are just one manifestation of humans’ psychological impulse to project internal conflict outward onto others and to “otherize” fellow human beings in response to the experience of fear and anxiety. At its roots, the current resistance to refugees is not just about terrorist attacks and tax dollars. More fundamentally it is a test of our ability to respond reasonably and compassionately in the face of our inner fears and anxieties.
While conference participants clearly recognized the staggering challenges and complexity of the refugee crisis, their conversations did not devolve into despairing or unproductive hand wringing. Far from it, this well-informed and highly motivated group of people reported how their institutions have sprung into action to meet the crisis head-on and identified additional steps that need to be taken. One basic measure that numerous presenters emphasized is educating the public about refugees in order to combat the stereotypes, misconceptions, and “alternative facts” that perpetuate fears about this vulnerable and diverse group of people. For example, contrary to many Americans’ belief that accepting refugees exposes the country to greater risks of violence, studies show that immigrants are no more likely to commit crimes than the general US population (and probably less so). Read More