Why the Western Reaction to Refugees is “Somewhat Hysterical”

What happens to a country when the neighbour state is at war and a wave of refugees cross the borders? And how do host states deal with the consequences of the migration?

These are the questions Filippo Dionigi, Visiting Researcher at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute, aims to answer. Dionigi works as lecturer of politics and international relations at University of Bristol but came to RWI to do his research on how Syrian refugees affect the policies of the neighbour states receiving them.

As a lecturer specialised in the Middle East, and former volunteer in a Jordanian human rights organisation, Dionigi has insight in forced displacement in the region.

He started his research project because he was curious about the different reactions to refugees in the Middle East compared to the West.

“I was surprised by the fact that Western countries – especially EU member states – were reacting to the movement of people in a somewhat hysterical way that was also based on a complete misrepresentation of the reality. I found that shocking. Twenty-eight of the world’s richest countries basically didn’t have a way to deal with this situation satisfactorily,” he says, adding:

Countries we usually define as ‘failed’ or ’fragile states’ were under much greater pressure from refugees. Yet, their reactions were completely different. Their borders remained open for a long time, letting refugees relocate within their territory. This situation subsequently created tensions in each host country, but my question was ‘how is it possible that we face this situation in the Middle East and when we look to the West their reaction is completely different?’ That’s how it started.

Challenging the Idea of Space

Dionigi’s interest in the Middle East dates back to his early studies. Originally Italian, he studied International Relations at the University in Pavia, a school with a tradition of Afro-Asian studies that go back to the times when Italy had colonies in the North and Horn of Africa.

Migration caught his attention when he did his PhD at the LSE on Hezbollah and Lebanon, the country that has received most refugees relative to its size. In his current research, he focuses on Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq as his three main case studies:

The Middle East is a very interesting place when it comes to the question of refugees. More than half of the population of refugees is from the Middle East, in particular Syria, Palestine and Afghanistan. The Middle East is also a crucial area of transit for millions of refugees trying to reach further destinations. So, it’s a crossroad for this phenomenon. It’s a place where most refugees either go through or come from, which makes it especially important for research as well as politics.

Human rights were also part of Diogini’s education but he considers this topic part of a broader set of international norms.

“I’m generally interested in international norms as institutions that regulate global politics. Human rights is one of these of course, but other concepts I focus on include sovereignty, territoriality, borders etc.,” he says.

Diogini hopes that his research will contribute to a more complex understanding of space and borders.

“One thing I want to do is create more awareness of the ways in which interactions between refugees and host governments create a space of its own, which goes beyond the old-fashioned distinction between domestic and international. Refugees’ space is neither within nor outside the state. It’s a space that, conveniently, we don’t represent on our political maps,” he says, adding:

I hope my research will challenge conventional ideas of space in international relations. When we try to study phenomena of displacement in the Middle East, as in the rest of the world, there is more complexity than simply belonging to a state or a nation to take into account.

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