Europe's Refugee Debate

Students learn about the debate in Europe over how to handle the current influx of refugees, consider the difference between refugees and migrants, and reflect on a poem by one former refugee.  


Standing on Liberty Island in New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty welcomes visitors, immigrants, and returning Americans.  Ask students to read and then respond to the last few lines of Emma Lazarus’s sonnet "The New Colossus" which is inscribed on a bronze plaque mounted on the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!


Ask students some or all of the following questions:

  • What does this poem on the Statue of Liberty say about the U.S.?  What does it say about the U.S.’s relation to immigration?
  • Do you know whether the U.S. lives up to Emma Lazarus’s famous words?
  • How about Europe?  Do students know Europe’s stance on immigration? 
  • What are some of the different reasons people leave their homes and home countries to come to the U.S. or Europe?

Elicit and discuss how some people leave their homes to seek out opportunities in the U.S. or Europe, like an education, work, a better life for themselves and their families.  Other people flee their home countries because of war, violence, discrimination, or other kinds of oppression.  We often refer to the first group as immigrants; the second group as refugees.  It is a distinction we’ll explore further later in this lesson.
Ask the students to raise their hands if they know their families were immigrants at some point.  Ask the students to raise their hands if they know their families were refugees at some point.  Ask a few volunteers to share their family’s story. 

Europe faces a crisis

Project a map of Europe onto the board or print out a map for students to look at as you explore today’s theme of migration into Europe. Consider one of these maps.

Ask students to share what they know about what’s happening in Europe these days. Have they heard about the waves of people who have been washing up on Europe’s southern Mediterranean shores?  Ask students:

  • Who are these people? 
  • What is causing them to travel to Europe? 
  • What are they leaving behind? 
  • How are different European countries responding to the influx of migrants and refugees looking to resettle across the continent? 
  • How is this migration affecting the European Union? 

Elicit and explain that the number of people seeking safety and a better life in Europe has been steadily increasing for about a decade now.  During the summer of 2015, at least a quarter of a million made the journey.  This has brought to the surface tensions in a European Union (EU) that has been struggling through an economic crisis and is looking less and less united.   
Most migrants and refugees entering Europe have done so by crossing the Mediterranean Sea, arriving in the southern nations of Greece and Italy. The Mediterranean has been named the world’s most dangerous border crossing. And yet the people keep on coming, paying smugglers thousands of dollars to be allowed on board overcrowded, rickety vessels that are rarely equipped for the journey.
Hungary, a country on the EU’s southeastern edge, has emerged as a key transit point for people seeking to reach wealthier nations in the north, where they are hoping to rebuild their lives.  Hungary has been in the news recently for its unwelcoming attitude and harsh treatment of people entering by foot from Greece, via Macedonia and Serbia. 
And as the pressure of the humanitarian crisis mounts, the European Union’s treasured policy of free travel across borders may well be at risk.  Barbed wire fences are going up between countries, and military and police are being deployed to manage - and in some cases stem - the flow of migrants and refugees. Public finger-pointing at the highest levels of the Union have gotten ugly, with some issuing slurs against immigrants that harken back to an earlier era of Nazi racial policies. 
In June, European leaders came together to come up with a plan to address the flow of migrants and refugees, but to no avail.  A mandatory "migrant" quota system was rejected and instead member states were called upon to voluntarily resettle 40,000 "migrants" over a two-year period. 
Although some countries have pledged to take in more than 40,000 people, the political climate in Europe is increasingly polarized, with nationalist, anti-immigrant and anti-Islam parties gaining traction. Some politicians that have been reluctant to help migrants and refugees resettle cite their country’s dire economic situation, others cite security concerns. Arriving immigrants and refugees are often labeled as "problems" - an umbrella term stretched to include fears of terrorism, international drug trafficking and other cross-border crimes. 
Then, on September 2, 2015, the body of a three-year-old Syrian boy was found washed up on a beach in Turkey. The boy, Aylan Kurdi, his 5-year-old brother and his mother had all drowned after their dinghy capsized. The image went viral and this may have shamed EU leaders into coming back together to address the humanitarian crisis unfolding across the continent.  As EU officials prepared to meet in Brussels on September 13 to hash out an emergency plan, there is a growing concern among some migrant groups and aid organizations that the new policies may end up creating two distinct classes of migrants, with two distinct kinds of welcome.  

What Is the Difference Between a Migrant and Refugee?

Ask a student to read the following tweet out loud:

Based on what we’ve been talking about so far, ask students if they know why there has been a debate in the media over wording used to describe the influx of people crossing into Europe without visas.  Many news outlets have considered the word "migrant" to have been a traditionally neutral term and so have used it in their coverage of the situation in Europe. 
A refugee is a person who flees a country to avoid death or persecution as a result of his or her religion, race, opinions or nationality. A migrant leaves a country in search of a job, an education, or a better life.
Some news outlets say they use one word or the other based on their understanding of each person’s individual circumstances. Other news outlets use the two terms interchangeably. But critics say that often neither word fully captures the truth: Often people don’t neatly fit into either the "migrant" or "refugee" category, or they may belong in both.
The Al Jazeera news network objects to any use of the word "migrant" because they claim it "has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanizes and distances, a blunt pejorative."  For this reason Al Jazeera is moving away from using the word migrant and "instead, where appropriate [will use] refugee."
Ask students for their thoughts on this. Do they think politicians might have other reasons for using one term over another?  What might those reasons be?  Then ask them to read the following article by Ruud Lubbers, the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which puts the difference between migrants and refugees into historical context.

After students have read the piece, ask them to discuss some or all of the following questions: 

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about the article?
  • How does it relate to our discussion so far today?
  • How does the media play into this story?
  • After reading the article, what do you think now about why politicians might use one term (migrant or refugee) over the other?


Refugees and Migrants: Defining the Difference

By Ruud Lubbers, UN High Commissioner for Refugees
BBC News | Published 5 April 2004
References to it have been found in texts written 3,500 years ago, during the blossoming of the great early civilizations in the Middle East.  The Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians and ancient Egyptians all recognized the need to protect refugees. Migrations of people for non-refugee reasons have also been taking place since before the beginning of recorded time.  If we trace our ancestors back far enough, all of us would find that we originated somewhere else.
Preserving freedoms 
Migration has often been, and is likely to continue to be, an important catalyst of advancement.  But refugees and migrants are fundamentally different, and for that reason are treated very differently under modern international law.  Migrants, especially economic migrants, choose to move in order to improve the future prospects of themselves and their families. Refugees have to move if they are to save their lives or preserve their freedom.  It is this difference in motivation that led to their different status in law.  Refugees fleeing war or persecution are in the most vulnerable situation imaginable.  They have no protection from their own state - indeed it is usually their own state that is threatening to persecute them.  If other states do not let them in, and do not help them once they are in, then - to put it starkly - they may be condemning them to death, or an intolerable life in the shadows, without sustenance and without rights.
Mistrust and hatred 
Even people forced from their homes by floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters are not in the same position.  Their government is sympathetic towards them. It is not driving them away, and they still have rights.  They are not refugees. There is no such thing as an "environmental refugee" or an "economic refugee" [in international law].  Why do I dwell on these distinctions?  Because these two distinct groups of people on the move - refugees and migrants - are increasingly being confused, and increasingly being treated in the same way: with mistrust, even hatred and outright rejection.  The impressive body of international law designed to protect refugees is under intense pressure.  Border controls are constantly being strengthened and made stricter. The aim is to keep out illegal immigrants.  Fine.  Countries are perfectly entitled to decide how many migrants they wish to accept. ... But we must guard against indiscriminate rejection of foreigners. Refugees are already finding it increasingly difficult to access safety. ... The international refugee system, which came into its own after World War II, has saved countless lives because it obliged states to make an exception when it comes to [resettling] refugees.  ...
Global management 
... It is time for a shift away from a largely negative approach - closed borders, detention, interception at sea, cuts in benefits - to one which focuses on continuing the ancient tradition of welcoming refugees.  While also taking into account the interests of states and their populations in a fast-moving, interlinked modern world.  We definitely need better global management of asylum. And my agency, UNHCR, has made a number of ambitious suggestions about how we can achieve that.  We also need better management of other forms of migration. But to start with, we have to be clear about who is a refugee and who is a migrant, and not sacrifice one to keep out the other.  



A Personal Journey 

Explain to students that the following was written by Ammar Tabbab, a Syrian poet and lawyer in his early thirties. Tabbab fled Damascus two and a half years ago after being warned that the Assad regime was targeting him. In The Atlantic, where the poem was published, he is described as part of "the diaspora of Syrian poets now scattered throughout the Middle East." Tabbab was an activist in the early days of the Syrian revolution and is now part of a "vibrant scene of poets and writers whose work chronicles ... the [Syrian] conflict’s horrors while continuing to promote a vision of a democratic Syria—one that at this stage in the war is fading into oblivion."
Invite a volunteer to read the poem below out loud.  Next ask each student to pick a line that resonates with them, based on our discussion so far today. Ask them to turn to a partner and talk about why that line resonates with them.
Finally, bring the students back to the large group again and ask them to share what they discussed in their pairs. Touch on some or all of the following questions:

  • What about the poem resonated with you and why?
  • What does the poet say about Tabbab's journey?
  • He talks about his "way back."  Back where?  Why do you think he talks about his footsteps disappearing?
  • Why does he say: "Don’t ask me who I am"?
  • Why do you think identity is such an important theme to migrants and refugees?
  • How does this poem touch on the theme of identity?

The night became long and the dark increased,

but I didn’t find starlight to indicate the path.

The trip became long, and my footsteps began 

to disappear, without them how would I find a way back. ...

I doze off with a dream petting my eyeball.

At the same time I fear the daybreak will bury me.

Don’t ask about me.

Don’t ask who I am.



Ask students to share one thing they’ll take away from today’s lesson.



Note to parents: See this Parent 'Table Talk' activity for suggestions on discussing this topic with children.