Refugee crisis requires more knowledge, say academics

Research and policy communities need to work together to address the “complex, politically charged and emotive issue” of the refugee crisis, academic experts agreed at a meeting in Amsterdam last month. The sense of urgency has since been underlined by the linking of mass sexual assaults and gang rapes in Cologne on New Year’s Eve to the refugee influx.

The academics met in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, to discuss the current refugee crisis that Europe is facing, referred to by the United Nations as the biggest since the Second World War.

The workshop “Fresh Eyes on the Refugee Crisis: An interdisciplinary approach” sought to gain an “innovative perspective” on the situation in response to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s call for a “bold, determined and concerted action" by the European Union to take in “significantly more refugees from Syria and Iraq” last September.

The meeting was hosted by the Dutch Young Academy, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Global Young Academy, and supported by Germany’s Ministry of Education and Research.

The participants, 20 academic experts and practitioners representing different disciplines and coming from 10 countries across three continents, discussed the refugee issue with a wider community of young scientists as well as academics who themselves were refugees.

The aim of the meeting was to come up with a vision document based on the latest evidence that could provide policy-makers and committed citizens with information as well as potential approaches to handle the crisis.

The workshop identified gaps in the current understanding of the crisis and explored opportunities for the research and policy communities to work together to address what it referred to as a “complex, politically charged and emotive issue”.

It noted that a “palpable tension” existed between being able to integrate an increasing number of refugees ethically and efficiently and satisfying the interests of refugees and residents of host countries.

Participants concluded that models of integration that respect diversity, democracy and the fundamental values of human dignity, freedom, equality, solidarity and human rights remained a challenge for the EU and international partners. They also identified specific policy areas where research could better serve the needs of European and international policy-makers grappling with the crisis.

Spate of gang rapes

Just how vital accurate information and debate is, was demonstrated on New Year’s Eve when a spate of organised assaults and gang rapes rocked the city of Cologne, North Rhine-Westphalia, in western Germany.

While police were obviously overwhelmed by what politicians have since referred to as an “entirely unprecedented phenomenon”, the far right-wing was quick to pounce on events and condemn Chancellor Angela Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis.

Leaked police reports suggest that officers were in fact facing around a thousand “heavily intoxicated men” who bombarded them with fireworks. The police were completely understaffed and were not provided with reinforcements. In many cases, they were unable to get through to the assault and rape victims.

Witness descriptions of the perpetrators referred to “males of an immigrant background”. Some of the rioters tore up temporary resident permits issued by the immigration authorities dealing with asylum-seekers in front of the police, claiming that they could easily get new documents. One of them said “I’m a Syrian. You must treat me kindly! Merkel invited me!”

Also, it appears that the Cologne police authorities were initially reluctant to reveal information on perpetrators, some of whom had been arrested and had their identity verified, for fear of rousing further controversy in the already heated debate on immigration. Now there is speculation on whether the gangs of young men were using fake IDs and had taken advantage of the refugee crisis to commit crimes.

North Rhine-Westphalia’s Interior Minister Ralf Jäger faces the embarrassing question of why he completely misjudged the situation and failed to authorise police reinforcements.

Referring to the New Year’s Eve debacle, European studies expert Lázló Marácz of the University of Amsterdam claims that the situation is not under control.

“It shows me that we are very far from solving integration puzzles, from building a society where more cultures could be accommodated or adopted. It shows that there is a lot of panic among city and regional governors,” Marácz says.

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