By Natali Rahimzadeh
Pulitzer prize winning journalist Dexter Filkins spoke recently at Corwin Pavilion about the modern refugee crisis and why he calls it “the great apocalypse of our time.” The talk was sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center’s Crossings + Boundaries series.
The New Yorker staff writer drew attention to the dire situations of 200 million migrants, coming mainly from South Sudan, Syria, and Afghanistan, who are living in refugee camps for an average stay of 10 years or internally displaced within their home countries.
Filkins said the largest category within this massive population are those who have no legal status or rights, simply migrants who have left their homes in search of a better life. Filkins recounted that even after the Arab Spring uprising in Libya and ongoing bombings of Syria, many migrants from these “black holes” still have hope they will return to their homes.
“Camps in places like Uganda and Pakistan that are meant to hold 10,000 people, you have 30,000 people coming in on trucks when there are children playing in open sewers,” Filkins said of the condition of many refugee camps.
With nearly a decade of experience reporting from the Middle East, Filkins cited war, famine, and climate change as the three interlocking catalysts for this crisis. The term “environmental refugees” was first used to describe refugees fleeing the Darfur region of Sudan in 2003 over what began as a series of land and water disputes. Climate change has caused sharp increases in temperatures in regions where only a small percentage of the land is arable, devastating crops and natural food sources for native inhabitants. “When people go hungry, they move,” said Filkins, “Afghanistan is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but everyone is always fighting over resources because there aren’t any.” Hungry refugees are thus left with no choice but to move in huge numbers towards countries that have excess resources like Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.
While this mass migration of people has proved to be socially and politically complicated, Filkins called German Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s unpopular decision to take in one million refugees “crucial and courageous” in the face of growing nationalistic sentiment in many European countries.
While the United States historically kept relatively open borders for asylum seekers after World War II and the Vietnam war, Filkins spoke on the current administration’s “pulling back from the world” by significantly tightening borders and taking in a “paltry number” of refugees in the most dire need of humanitarian assistance. Female refugees are “particularly vulnerable” said Filkins, adding that the female experience in places like Syria and Afghanistan is already difficult enough and aid is even lower.
But Filkins reiterated his sentiment that he doesn’t believe the situation is entirely hopeless or bleak. “America has always belonged to the newcomer - immigrants start businesses at twice the rate of people who were born here, have fewer children out of wedlock, and commit fewer crimes,” he said, “I personally hope that immigration continues, it’s kind of in play right now but we can keep fighting and hope for the best.”
Natali Rahimzadeh is a Senior graduating this spring in Communication. She is currently completing an internship with the Division of Humanities and Fine Arts.