On our last evening in Vienna, we got together at a Viennese Heurige to reflect on the trip and say our goodbyes. During dinner, each student went around and shared one poignant moment for them throughout the trip. For the most part, these were stories of newfound understanding of and excitement for the work we had done. Specific meetings with specific people or events that brought to light an aspect of the refugee crisis in Vienna that changed the way someone thought.
My moment, however, was not one of understanding. It was also not one of excitement. Instead, I shared that I felt frustrated. I was frustrated by the reverberations of a meeting that we had nearly a week earlier with Drs. Deckard and Heslin on identity. I’m still frustrated today.
During that meeting, we discussed what constitutes citizenship, how citizenship is obtained and what validates it in the eyes of international law. Who guarantees citizenship if the state ceases to exist? If we are all endowed with certain unalienable rights, who maintains that they are in fact unalienable and protects us when they are violated? We also touched on definitional issues – what does it mean to be a migrant? An ex-pat? A refugee? Most importantly, through this lens, what is our (or anyone’s) moral obligation to help people both within these categories and independent of them?
The second half of our trip threw into sharp relief these seemingly arbitrary definitions and the ways in which different individuals and groups justify their actions through the lens of a more limited sense of morality. On Monday morning, we met with Eric Frey, a Managing Editor at Der Standard, the leading, left-leaning newspaper in Austria. While left-leaning, Mr. Frey emphasized the degree to which he felt the paper sought out diverse opinions. In the context of the refugee crisis, Frey noted the sheer number of migrants that had arrived.
Migrants, he said, because many were “economic migrants” and not “refugees.”
Within this framework, individuals left their home countries for economic opportunities, not because they feared for their lives. For example, if a man owns a bakery that is no longer financially viable because of organized state violence but his family does not live in a part of the country that is being hit hardest, he and his family could qualify not as refugees but as economic migrants. As I discussed in my previous post, being categorized an “economic migrant” instead of a “refugee” can dramatically limit the amount of protection given to an individual by the state.
To be fair, almost all Syrian refugees are still granted asylum status, according to Ruth Schäffe at UN High Commission on Refugees in Vienna. Where the nitpicking happens is instead with Afghan and North African migrants. Regardless, when people are seen not as fleeing persecution but instead for their own potential economic gain, it becomes easier to rationalize more limited protections for them. It also becomes easier to make sweeping claims about the degree to which European societies are “not well suited” to absorb large numbers of migrants. In Mr. Frey’s perspective, the chance for these migrants to be successful is tremendously small.
That afternoon, we met with two individuals who work on the ground with Refugees Welcome in Vienna. Refugees Welcome is an international organization that seeks to match refugees in different communities with homes – whether in a spare bedroom in a family’s home, or a flat share with peers. They described the volatility of space offerings in Vienna. In 2015, they said, it was “fashionable” to welcome a refugee into your home. But only if he or she was the “right kind” of refugee. For example, in some instances they would have individuals balk at welcoming refugees into their homes if the refugee had an iPhone. If the refugee had an iPhone, a status symbol for wealth, why would they need a family’s empty bedroom?
Over time, as the refugee crisis became less at the forefront of national media campaigns and the national rhetoric changed, the offerings for space for refugees also dropped precipitously. The business model had to shift – instead of having people offer spaces for refugees, now they had to find a way to pay for a space. The organization helps refugees come up with rent or even go through the process of trying to find flat mates to offer them the spot in the first place.
The rhetoric at Refugees Welcome was strikingly different than that at Der Standard. There was no mincing of terminology – no distinctions drawn between people who had come to the country. First, they referred to everyone as a refugee, regardless of their state classification. The only distinction, they said, was the amount of money that individuals received from the state to go towards what they could pay in rent.
Nonetheless, I left our meeting with Refugees Welcome feeling empty. This is a group that has taken the definition of moral obligation to its logical conclusion – someone needs help and we’re going to help them, regardless of how the state classifies them. But, their capacity to cause change and the scope within which they’re able to help is tremendously limited.
In three months, I will be starting my Master’s in Development Management at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Development Management seeks to explain the administrative processes of fueling economic development in localities, regions, and countries. But one of the main limitations facing governments with certain development goals are prejudices rooted in arbitrary, exclusivist definitions of nationhood.
Economic literature has long found that the free movement of people and goods between countries facilitates growth. When tariff barriers on a good are decreased, countries can invest in producing those goods for which they have a worldwide comparative advantage. With lower production costs, consumers pay less for the goods and thus their limited budgets can go farther and more people can benefit from their expenditures.
From this perspective, asylum seekers and migrants can be productive members of society and contribute to this feedback loop. However, country hierarchies such as that embedded in World-Systems Theory perpetuate the idea that certain immigrants are welcome, while others are a burden on the state.
At the end of our conversation with Eric Frey, we spoke about existing international and EU law that puts the onus on EU member states to take in refugees. Mr. Frey noted that these laws – put into place in the middle of the 20th century – were not written with the scope of the present-day refugee crisis in mind. So, while nations had signed onto the laws at the time, the implication is they would not be willing to do so today. So what about moral obligation? Regardless of the scope of the crisis, aren’t we morally obligated to help?
“Moral obligation is also a product of political will.”
If moral obligation is nothing more than a construction of political motives, how does individual morality develop? Is it easier to hold lofty ideals of moral obligation if the person we view as incumbent to act is not ourselves, but the government?
I am tremendously thankful to have been able to participate in this study trip through Davidson. The program’s interdisciplinary nature encouraged me to think about issues of political saliency outside the lens of my Political Science coursework. I’ve explored artistic renditions of otherness – and togetherness – at the Kuntshalle Wien and learned about teaching tolerance through film. I’ve struggled with ideas of personhood and citizenship and definitions of migrant and refugee. I’ve sought to integrate these nuanced, colorful perspectives into my own – at times black and white – political and economic analyses.
Additionally, the opportunities provided for personal and group reflection helped to crystalize the conversations and topics we explored together.
That’s not to say that I’m done thinking about them – much to the contrary, I find myself overcome with a desire to understand the development of a sense of collective morality. This trip has opened my eyes to the gaps between the transactional nature of politics and the humanity of real life people just trying to go about their lives. After studying the former for four years at Davidson, I now feel as though I have a glimpse at the latter.