How Should Refugees Be Treated?

GSEHD professor Bernhard Streitwieser says they should be welcomed and educated.

April 27, 2022

Bernhard Streitwieser

By Greg Varner

With today’s news media spotlighting the millions of people fleeing Ukraine, the question again arises: How should governments respond to refugees?

To Bernhard Streitwieser, associate professor of international education and international affairs, the threefold answer is clear.

“First of all,” Streitwieser said, “open your doors. It’s really that simple. Refugees, by definition, are in imminent danger.”

According to the U.N.’s 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

“In other words,” Streitwieser said, “if these folks don’t leave, they’re very likely to end up dead. They have to leave to survive. The first order of business for countries with refugees knocking on their doors is to open the doors, because otherwise people will die.”

The second policy prong he recommends is for governments to work with domestic and international relief agencies to meet the needs of refugees, from food and shelter to education and integration into the work force.

“Refugees do not want to depend on handouts,” Streitwieser said. “They want to become self-sufficient.”

Figures vary, but the average length of exile for refugees is five years, and in many cases much longer. Their children should be given schooling, Streitwieser said, while parents and other adults should be given opportunities to find work and housing outside of refugee camps—perhaps inevitably leading to opposition from people worried that refugees will somehow deprive native citizens of the opportunities they view as rightfully theirs.

Unfortunately, human nature being what it sometimes can be, refugees tend to meet with friendlier receptions from people they resemble. If they worship differently or diverge in other ways, they often elicit unmerited suspicion. The tone is set at the top, filtering down from the government to the populace. This is part of what leads Streitwieser to the last of his three policy recommendations.

“The third thing I would say is really critical,” he said, “is that governments and leaders need to be very careful to consider rights that they give to refugees in light of the rights extended to the domestic population, so that tensions don’t needlessly arise and refugees aren’t scapegoated and viewed as the enemy when they are anything but. They don’t want to take advantage of someone else’s generosity; they want to find their own way and, ideally, return home.”

He enjoys all of the courses he teaches at GW, Streitwieser said, but his favorite is Refugees, Migrants, and Education: Addressing a Global Challenge, in which he invites speakers from around the world to talk with his class about refugee issues in their homeland.

“I like to tell students in that course that we’re on a flight together,” Streitwieser said, “and we’re touching down in different parts of the world to hear about these issues from people who are experiencing them and researching them right there. It’s not me as an academic in an ivory tower lecturing them on these things, but people reporting what is happening in their part of the world right now.”

He has traveled with GW students to Germany (he holds dual citizenship in Germany and the United States) to show how it is managing the large population of refugees it has taken in from Syria. Last fall, he founded Refugee Educational Advancement Lab (REAL) to give students a way to learn about and support refugees and at-risk migrants. He also works with the University Alliance for Refugees and At-Risk Migrants (UARRM) and supports the work of the GW chapter of No Lost Generation, an organization spearheading a “Welcoming Campus Initiative” to make education more accessible for migrants.

“We have it within our capabilities to do something along the lines that the No Lost Generation group is proposing,” Streitwieser said.

With chaotic climate conditions, the future will inevitably bring more refugees. In the United States, we see wildfires raging in Western states, and in the South, we see frequent flooding.

“Climate disasters are increasingly displacing people in all different parts of the world,” Streitwieser said. “It is absolutely a factor that is going to cause increased displacement, and I don’t think there is sufficient attention being paid to what that means. Displacement or disaster can happen to literally anyone. Everything can change overnight.”