Before an audience of roughly 40 students and professors at the Morse College Master’s house, Thomas Alexander Aleinikoff LAW ’77 — former United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees — addressed a wide range of issues associated with the Syrian refugee crisis, expressing particular disappointment in the American response.
Aleinikoff was appointed to the position in 2010 and held the job for five years. At the Master’s Tea Tuesday afternoon, he discussed national responsibility, development’s relationship with humanitarian aid and political motivations towards refugees. He repeatedly spoke critically of the United States’ response to the crisis. While there are over four million Syrian refugees, Aleinikoff said, as of last November, the United States had only taken in 1,800. In contrast, Germany has accepted over one million refugees. He called on students to speak out on refugees’ behalf and urge the government to accept more.
“The U.S. usually takes half of all resettled refugees in the world,” Aleinikoff said. “It’s in our tradition to be generous, but our response [to the Syrian refugee crisis] has been miniscule.”
He added that although America has a long history of welcoming refugees, dating back to the Pilgrims, contemporary hateful attitudes towards refugees put the U.S. in danger of losing that history. In order to change American attitudes, Aleinikoff said, the narrative has to be framed in a way that highlights how solving the crisis would benefit the U.S. In particular, he said, solving the crisis could enhance national security.
Before opening up the talk for questions, Morse College Master Catherine Panter-Brick asked if efforts by European countries to secure jobs for refugees in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan are simply a veiled attempt to keep refugees out of Europe. Aleinikoff said yes, adding that political motivations were rampant, especially in Turkey, which he pointed out has the added incentive of appeasing European countries in order to gain admission to the European Union.
James Leckman, a professor in the Yale Child Study Center, asked Aleinikoff what role universities could play in the greater relief effort. Aleinikoff pointed to the current political climate, urging students to protest the xenophobic voices that “polarize national debate” and to view themselves, not just states, as active agents in providing aid. He also suggested offering scholarships to displaced students and developing educational platforms on the internet to reach remote audiences.
Leckman told the News that he agreed with Aleinikoff’s assertion that multiple groups in civil society, not just governments, need to play a role in solving the crisis.
“I think that as a community we need to be better informed — the media frightens us, it’s us versus them — and in this interconnected world that we live in, we need guidance in terms of how to create multi-sectorial partnerships that could actually make this a more peaceful world,” he said.
Several students referred to their personal experiences living in South Sudan, Turkey and Jordan while asking questions of Aleinikoff. One asked how civilians could contribute to peace efforts, a question to which Aleinikoff did not have an answer. An architecture student asked about efforts to create accessible housing for refugees.
“The IKEA Foundation worked on that actually, making these flat packs that you build just like you’d build something from IKEA,” Aleinikoff said, to laughter from the audience. “But only 10,000 to 15,000 of them have been deployed.”
At the end of the tea, Panter-Brick informed students of a planned grassroots initiative for humanitarian intervention that she is leading, which she hopes will bring internship placements for Yale students who want to work with refugees, as well as scholarships for Syrian students looking to study in the United States. She also said that she appreciated the human perspective Aleinikoff took toward refugees.
“He said that he was a refugee person, and I think that means that at his heart he’s got advocacy for the people who are in distressing situations, whose lives are in danger and [who] have fear of persecution,” Panter-Brick said. “I liked that comment in particular because he’s not wedded to a system, he’s wedded to people, which is a very interesting distinction. By his remark, he signaled that he was accountable to people themselves, and I really value that. It was an off-the-cuff remark, but for me it was the best moment of his talk.”
Aleinikoff, a visiting professor at Columbia, also delivered the Yale Law School’s Gruber Distinguished Lecture in Global Justice on Monday.