‘Need of the hour is to challenge and transform the anti-refugee wave’

As the negotiations are set to begin at the United States headquarters in Geneva on Thursday to end the long standing war in Syria, repeated talks on ceasefire have fallen apart, raising serious doubts on the outcome of this dialogue. The six-year-old war has completely ravaged the country, killed half a million people and displaced over 12 million. The situation in Syria escalated in December when Syrian army took full control of Aleppo, reducing the city to rubble and leaving the civilians completely helpless. This war has given rise to the biggest humanitarian emergency that the world ever faced, ‘Refugee Crisis’. As countries grapple to accommodate the ever rising refugees from different war-torn countries, the question arises that even if we accommodate, can we rehabilitate them and accept refugees as one of our own?

Speaking on the crisis on The Dialogue to Senior Deputy Editor Deepanwita De, we have Kenneth E. Miller, PHD, Clinical and Community Psychologist. He is also a writer based in Amsterdam, who has written extensively on refugees. He is a regular contributor at Psychology Today under the column of ‘The Refugee Experience’.

Excerpts from the interview.

You recently released your book, War Torn – Stories of courage, love and resilience, and it has been well received. What was the biggest challenge that you faced in finishing the book?

Writing the book was a labor of love. It wasn’t difficult; in fact, I lost track of time as I immersed myself in the research and writing. There were some sad moments—people I was close to or whom I’d only known briefly but respected a great deal, who had been killed or died of one cause or another. But mostly, writing the book was a joy.  Getting it published, on the other hand, was not a particularly joyful experience.  Rejections by literary agents or their assistants really awakened me to just how tough the world of publishing is outside of academia.  As a professor of psychology, I’ve published numerous articles and book chapters, and co-edited a book on refugees; all of that was comparatively easy when seen against the experience of publishing War Torn.

On a daily basis, we are seeing a spike in humanitarian crisis and no set of laws or conventions seems to put an end to it. Infact with Donald Trump’s executive order on refugees, the situation might soon escalate for the worse. And this fear of refugees is not something personal to Trump, many other nations also have this similar fear. Do you think, it is more than just fear that is making one of the biggest economy in the world to take such a drastic decision? Will others follow the league?

Sadly, as I’ve written about in a post entitled “Toy Soliders and the Agony of Aleppo: The Failure of Humanitarian Law” my blog (http://bit.ly/2jigqpb), it really does seem to be the case that the laws of war are routinely disregarded in contemporary conflicts. I don’t have a compelling answer to how we might change this. Non-state actors like ISIS and al Qaeda routinely publicize their atrocities, while government leaders either deny or justify the mass killing of civilians, as we saw most recently in Aleppo.

I do think, fear is driving support for anti-refugee policies in the US and similar movements in Europe, Australia, and elsewhere. But if you look at actual crime rates, refugees generally engage in lower rates of crime than non-refugees in their host society. That statement angers some people, but it’s not an opinion piece, it’s the findings of studies done in Germany, which has taken in the most refugees of any Eurpean country, and in the US. When powerful emotions such as fear are in play, unfortunately, there’s often little space left for facts to register.

I think it’s important to look at why there’s so much widespread fear, and for this, we need to look at multiple factors: the generation and fanning of fear by politicians who see it as means of gaining political support; and a lack of awareness of data regarding actual crime statistics. But there’s also what psychologists call the “salience effect”: we tend to be struck by strking events, like the Cologne attacks, and remember them as more common than they actually are. Sex-related crimes by Syrian refugees account for about 1% of the crimes they commit, but I’d bet you most Germans and other folks assume the number is much higher. However, when we already have stereotypes about people (e.g., Muslim men), and an event occurs that fits with our stereotype, it tends to cement our beliefs even further.

The biggest issue of Western society is that it talks down at refugees. The sense of loss is so deep that it cannot be helped with just psychology. How can we make our societies more compassionate towards such people?

I agree, psychology alone can’t change societal attitudes towards refugees, though perhaps psychology can inform strategies for changing social attitudes and values. One of the biggest challenges we face is that people tend to look for confirmation of the values and beliefs they already hold—we call it the “confirmation bias”, the tendency to disregard information that conflicts with what we feel and believe, and to prioritize data that support our positions. We need somehow to be exposed to multiple and diverse sources of information, and to have people with widespread levels of popularity, or key actors in different communities, convey information that runs counter to popular beliefs—in this case, challenging widely shared but inaccurate beliefs about refugees and asylum seekers. We also need the media take more seriously its role as defenders of truth and dispellers of lies and distortions shared by politicians. Too often, the media have become spokesmen for particular political narratives, and truth is often the greatest casualty.

Refugee crisis has created a set of other problem, one of them being ‘children of war’. They are being subjected to such nightmares that many believe that refugee kids have become numb to loss and pain. One such poignant image was of the Syrian kid, Omran Daqnees, sitting shell-shocked in an ambulance, covered in blood. Do you think, after the war is over, children can go back to their normal life? What can be done to erase the war trauma?

First, let’s be clear that the refugee crisis hasn’t created children of war. War has exposed children to horrible violence and loss, and this had contributed to the refugee crisis.  Omran wasn’t numb; he was in shock, and terrified, and completely overwhelmed. It’s true that traumatized people often try to numb themselves, overwhelmed by terrifying, powerful memories and feelings. People sometimes experience, and continue re-experiencing, traumatic events long after the evens are over. This is the hallmark of psychological trauma.  There are a variety of trauma-focused treatments, but there is a scarcity of mental health professionals to implement them. For that reason, there’s a growing interest in training local folks who aren’t mental health specialists to conduct modified version of such interventions. Preliminary data are encouraging.

We also tend to underestimate people’s capacity to heal from potentially traumatic experiences. If we can create conditions of safety and support, a lot of kids will gradually recover from whatever they’ve been through. The great challenge is right there: how do you create such conditions in refugee camps, and among internally displaced families living in desperate conditions? We should be able to do a better job in stable countries where refugees permanently resettle, and sometimes we do. Sometimes, however, we fail refugees and asylum seekers, either imprisoning them in detention centers like criminals, or treating them as unwanted guests. Not so good from a mental health perspective, let alone a moral one.

But let’s be clear: if you want to prevent war trauma among children, you have got to keep children from being exposed to war.

How difficult will it be to integrate children in a new social structure, given the fact that they have literally grown up in camps, where hardship is the way of life?

Really not so hard at all, if the host society genuinely welcomes refugee kids and families, provides them with material and social support to make a new start, and sensitizes teachers and other actors to their their particular needs and challenges.

What kind of social pressure does it create when a refugee understands that there is a need to change to a new culture?

That really depends on how different the host culture is from the refugee’s culture and community of origin. For rural Cambodians resettled in urban Los Angeles, the struggle was quite powerful, especially coupled with the extreme trauma many had endured under the Khmer Rouge. Iranian refugees in the same general area, in contrast, have generally fared much better, though that depends somewhat on what they lived through in Iran.

Why aren’t more countries opening their doors or offering help for psycho-social assistance to refugees?

That’s a complicated question that goes beyond my expertise as a psychologist, though I’d suggest that the fear I spoke of earlier plays a powerful role, along with the racism and xenophobia of powerful politicians in particular countries.

What kind of rehabilitation programme should states formulate?

Holistic services are needed to address ongoing stressors and needs (poverty, employment, language skills, housing, eduction, social support, health care, child care) as well as programmes that address the lingering effects of war-related violence and loss. That could be through culturally sensitive mental health services, community outreach programs, peer support programs, etc.

Can educational institutions become spaces for trans-cultural interactions and finding appropriate solutions to deconstruct the popular narratives about migration and refugee ‘crisis’? Can we learn to unlearn and relearn?

Educational institutions can be powerful sources of meeting “the other”, and seeing the connections and commonalities that exist, while learning to respect the differences that also exist. This doesn’t happen automatically though—it has to be carefully and intentionally implemented. And this can happen from primary school through university.

Lastly, what do you think is the need of the hour? Except for the fact that we need to end the war in the first place.

Well, yes, we need to end the war first, certainly…but beyond that, we dearly need to challenge and transform the anti-refugee wave that is sweeping across the planet. It’s the sort of wave that can set in motion some very dangerous changes.