Academia and the refugee crisis: crisis what crisis?

Academia and the refugee crisis: crisis what crisis?

Gayle Munro

Global events since 2015 have been the catalyst for what has been described as ‘unprecedented’ levels of migration. The extent to which current levels of people on the move is indeed unprecedented is the subject of much debate. Images of the plight of those fleeing chaos and destruction in the country of origin and looking to seek refuge across Europe have certainly become more familiar in broadcast, print and social media leading to the coining of terms ‘refugee crisis’, ‘migration crisis’ or ‘migrant crisis’.

In reducing the debate to quantifications of the migration process, much of the public discourse has placed states within Europe as the ‘victim’ of the crisis, as opposed to individual migrants seeking refuge. The emphasis is on the burden that the increasing numbers of newcomers will generate, posing a threat to pretty much everything the average citizen holds dear: jobs, school places, housing, health services, the welfare state, religion, ‘our’ culture and security. Running concurrently with the ‘burden crisis’ narrative are references to the migration crisis which place the individual fleeing chaos and destruction in the country of origin at the heart of the narrative. In this crisis perspective, it is not the receiving state which is in trouble but rather the migrating individual or family, forced to flee their home, facing a difficult journey, often insurmountable hardships, physical and mental health stressors, possible trauma, an unknown battle with immigration authorities, hostility from the receiving population and possible destitution.

If the presentation of the migration crisis is understood through the lens of the two different framings presented above, i.e. the anti-migrant ‘burden crisis’ narrative vs ‘individualised migrant in crisis’ position, it is the first of these which tends to be much of the media’s default position. Whilst the mainstream media generate headline after headline with metaphors evoking overwhelmingly large numbers of migrants descending on our shores to rob us of all we hold dear, the second more individualistic crisis narrative is more present via social media commentary and NGO advocacy.

The high-profile nature of the migration crisis since 2015 has afforded for many, for want of a better word, an ‘opportunity’. Somewhat ironically, as government measures to control (any type of) immigration and the hostile environment in terms of policy and legislation intensifies, the public appetite for creative expressions of migration and migrant-related matters similarly strengthens. For the time-pressured, deadline-focussed academic who has the added burden of the need to evidence ‘impact’, the field of migration has (suddenly) offered an opportunity to have his/her voice heard in a more public way than may have been possible before. For those working on migration from the European Union, Brexit has afforded an even more intensified socio-political-legislative context in which to add to the framing of any debate (and more opportunity for commentary).

And what the academic community has had to say on the migration crisis, almost with one voice, has been to refute the existence of a crisis altogether. It is rare to read or hear an academic talk about the refugee crisis without the preface of the words ‘so-called’, the insertion of written or air quotation marks and frequently, if delivered in person, the addition of a measured eye-roll for reinforcement, sometimes accompanied by knowing murmurs of agreement from their equally-well-informed audience. The implication is that ‘other people’ may talk of a ‘crisis’ – those ‘other people’ being right-wing hysterics, Daily Mail journalists and government anti-migration Brexiteer isolationists. But, the liberal academic, the voice of reason with the ‘true’ facts and figures on his/her side is here to refute the crisis hysteria. However, in being keen to refute the quantitative-based hysteria of which some right-wing media is so fond, the academic crisis naysayer also risks unintentionally subsuming other possible considerations of the crisis narrative into their vociferous assertions that ‘there is no refugee crisis’. Whilst the argument about numbers of migrants rolls on and the media/academic handwringing continues over how many people constitutes a ‘crisis’, the qualitative and increasingly-desperate position of those whose destitution is a direct result of their immigration status is intensifying. For an academic delivering his/her latest conference paper, there may be ‘no refugee crisis’ but the living circumstances of migrants in destitution or of refugees languishing in camps trying to make a life for their families certainly feel ‘crisis’ like.

Statements therefore made by academics refuting the existence of a migration crisis might resonate with those whose roles it is to engage with the numbers debate, those who define the crisis (or lack of) on a gradient of quantitative data. But for those whose are either experiencing or witnessing the qualitative human suffering of migration-induced destitution, such statements ring hollow. Some have argued that the terms refugee/migrant/migration crisis represent a false analogy and that a ‘better’ way to capture such levels of human suffering would be to employ the terms ‘humanitarian crisis’. However, especially in the British context, the enforced destitution of migrants forms part of intentional government policies around the development of a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants. To negate the connection between migration (status) and such levels of destitution, to argue for a reframing of the crisis as one which does not take into account the crucial migration element of the phenomenon risks shifting the focus from the humanly corrosive and destructive results of such restrictive immigration policies into a more generalised discussion. In attempting to neutralise the debate on migration and to counteract some of the more hysterical rhetoric, the crisis narrative refuters risk simultaneously (and no doubt unintentionally) minimising the impact which such deliberately hostile immigration-related policy has had on those who are trying to make a life for themselves and their families in a new and frequently highly-politicised environment.

NGOs and support agencies both in the UK and overseas have come under criticism by some members of the academic community who have implied that refugee support organisations have exploited the crisis to maximise their public relations activity, to gain brand exposure and to justify both their existence and further funding. It is indeed irrefutable that within the culture of competitive tendering and contracts for support services, the need to demonstrate ‘impact’ for NGOs and agencies within the voluntary sector is also paramount. This is not however dissimilar to the pressures placed upon those working in the academic sector to also evidence their ‘worth’. The crisis narrative is dominated – as are so many other narratives – by those voices which shout the loudest: the mainstream media which have the largest distribution figures, government policy makers and the most active social media commentators. Such voices can often be encouraged by the expectation to demonstrate their influence. Amongst all the rhetoric, the noise, the clamour to prove ‘impact’, the desire to get one’s point across in what can often be a toxic political context, the challenge is to create a space in which those voices who often go unheard – of individual migrants and those who work with them in support on a daily basis – are also given the opportunity to be heard.


Gayle Munro works in the research team at The Salvation Army, London, and is a First Responder for the anti-trafficking team. Gayle is the author of Transnationalism, Diaspora and Migrants from the former Yugoslavia in Britain (Routledge, 2017) based on her doctoral work in Geography at University College London.