The European Gaze and the EISA Asylum Seekers Campaign





A reply to Federica’s recent post on the asylum crisis by Zeynep Gülşah Çapan from Bilkent University and Ayşe Zarakol at the University of Cambridge. Gulsah is a Post-Doctoral researcher at Bilkent University. Her research focuses on Eurocentrism in international relations theory and postcolonial and decolonial thought. Ayşe is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on social hierarchies in world politics. Her first book After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West explored the responses of defeated non-Western powers to stigmatisation.

The increasing attention to the European refugee crisis in Western media has also galvanized the IR academic community into thinking about possible ways to address the issue. There have been blog posts and Twitter discussions (On Doing ‘Something’ as AcademicsWant to Help the Refugees? Teach Migration as part of IRHow to Speak Out As An Academic Community? Help Needed!) about possible actions, especially with respect to the EISA conference that will be held in Sicily in two weeks. On September 11th, EISA section chairs received an email urging them 1) to sign and circulate an open letter to EU policy makers penned in the name of “the academic community”, 2) to bring up the issue in EISA panels and 3) to wear black ribbons/armbands as a sign of mourning and protest.

We applaud the motivations that led to this effort and agree that EU countries could be doing much more to help refugees. We also concur that European scholars could do much more to raise awareness about the complicity of their own governments in various global political crises. Nevertheless, for the reasons detailed below, we have some reservations about both the desire to frame this effort as an EISA effort involving section chairs and the claim to speak in the name of the entire “academic community”. In the blog post Ivory Towers and Sleeping Beauties that discusses these efforts the author urges the “academic community” to do two things; to check their privilege and make themselves feel uncomfortable. These are suggestions that we completely agree with and this post is an effort to continue the dialogue on how we might think of issues in the international system in a way that checks our privileges and makes us feel uncomfortable.

To begin with, the refugee crisis is not new and it is not primarily a European problem that can be solved by some small gesture from the EU. Most refugees from the Syrian War, for instance, are hosted in non-European countries. According to Amnesty International, more than 95% of the refugees (4 million) are in five countries: Turkey (1.9 million), Lebanon (1.2 million), Jordan (650000), Egypt (249,463), Iraq (132,375). Another region hosting huge numbers of refugees is East Africa – based on UNHCR’s latest numbers, Chad hosts about 450000 refugees, Ethiopia hosts 650000 and Kenya has 550000. In fact, almost every world region except Europe is hosting hundreds of thousands to millions of refugees and has been doing so for far longer than Western newspapers have been covering “the refugee crisis”. By most estimates, there are sixty million refugees in the world at the moment.

We understand why European colleagues may want to pressure their own governments to change policy and we wholeheartedly support their individual and/or collective efforts to do so. But to organise a professional effort only now (and without providing any of the larger context) in the name of the entire “academic community”  may actually reinforce the Western public misperception that this is a recent or a uniquely European problem or that European countries that have agreed to take comparatively small numbers of refugees are doing something unusually selfless. Of course European countries that accept refugees should be commended (especially in comparison to other European countries that refuse to do so) but many refugee hosting countries around the world have neither the luxury of choice nor the resources to cope as well. Many such countries face very severe other political, economic and social problems in addition to the refugee crisis. To erase the burdens (as well as the many failings) of non-EU refugee hosting countries from the narrative “the academic community” chooses to emphasise about this issue once again robs non-Western communities of their agency.

We would also urge our European colleagues to consider that some scholars who attend EISA do in fact come from non-EU countries hosting high numbers of refugees. Many non-European scholars also have to routinely subject themselves to various indignities in European consulates and border-crossings (not to mention additional visa expenses) just to acquire the right of coming to a conference like EISA. Of course, the ability to attain a visa is a privilege itself that most refugees do not have, but we mention this nevertheless as a caution about making assumptions about attendee profiles. There may also be scholars at EISA who themselves come from conflict zones.

The above points should be read as an invitation to the reflexivity that European academia claims to be seeking. The theme of the EISA conference is violence. The conference will host numerous panels on conflict situations ranging from Yemen to Rojova to Myanmar to Pakistan to Ukraine to Mali to yet others. Why has the European refugee crisis become the issue around which “the academic community” could come together and demonstrate its activism? This is related to what becomes an “issue” worth discussing and who is deemed worthy to be “saved”. The conflicts that occupy spaces at different panels of the conference are taken as “objects of study” in far away lands to be discussed and written about, whereas the European refugee crisis is not taken as another object of study but rather as an issue that needs immediate engagement and action by “the academic community”. This division occurs because of the ways in which world events are being filtered through the European gaze. Engagement in political struggles and activism are important and should become even more integral parts of academia. Yet engagement in political struggles and invitation to “the academic community” at large to join in them should be cognizant of the obvious question: why this struggle and not the others? The answers to these questions will hopefully open up space that breaks through the European gaze rather than perpetuate it.

Postscript: For ways of helping refugees, please consider donating to an aid agency, especially local organisations on major routes and/or host countries who work on daily implementation with little publicity. ReliefWeb keeps a list that can be filtered by country, region and organization type: UNHCR’s website also has some information about its local NGO partners: The following articles also outline and discuss different ways to help refugees; How To Do Your Part to Help Refugees and The Status of Syrian Nationals Residing in Turkey.

5 thoughts on “The European Gaze and the EISA Asylum Seekers Campaign

  1. Gülşah and Ayşe

    Many thanks for this response and engagement with my post and the issues it brings up. You raise important points about Eurocentrism, that I completely endorse and support. And indeed this is a privilege that we have to check; so, thanks for doing this.

    However, I feel that something has been misread or pushed a bit too far – with good reasons possibly – but let me offer a rejoinder, if I may. First and foremost, I take issues with the expression ‘refugees crisis’ which I purposely avoided. What is happening in Europe is not a ‘refugee crisis’; as you say refugees have been coming to Europe for years. It is a humanitarian one caused by the policies that are in place in the EU, and therefore more specifically it is a political crisis. And this is why the petition. The ‘crisis’ can be stopped by changing mobility and entrance laws. It’s the politics and policies not the refugee that is causing a crisis. It is not about which life is worth saving and which one is not. By having laws that force people to be in the country to apply for refugee status, we unavoidably have the deaths at sea. A similar narrative goes for mobility within the EU. The expression ‘refugee crisis’ puts the burden on refugees, I happily put it on political institutions instead.

    The second point I would like to pick up is this sentence from your post:

    ‘The conflicts that occupy spaces at different panels of the conference are taken as “objects of study” in far away lands to be discussed and written about, whereas the European refugee crisis is not taken as another object of study but rather as an issue that needs immediate engagement and action by “the academic community”.’

    It is exactly the fact that academics take wars, conflicts, crises etc. as ‘object of study’ that has motivated me to start the petition. I find the idea that we treat these as object of study highly disturbing, as it is the idea that these situations give us ‘case studies’ and make up the lines of our CVs. I just do not feel comfortable analysing images of disasters, crises, wars etc. from the comfort of my office. My hands are already dirty by virtue of the fact that I write about these issues. There is no point to pretend they are not dirty. And by acting politically I am not cleaning my hands, but acknowledging that they are dirty. If I wanted to write about politics without doing politics, I would have enrolled in a creative writing course. I feel uncomfortable about the idea that I have traded off my political agency for an underpaid PhD position in the other side of the world. I rather do politics as much as I can.

    There are some personal concerns that motivated my political action in respect to the European situation that I am not willing to fully disclose here, but the following might work to express my point. I have started my PhD less than 3 months ago, after having chased funding for 3 years. During this gap period I have been lucky enough to formally and informally meet several migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. I was also privileged enough to meet some of them outside of Europe. And I am honoured to still receive their news from time to time, and have a good friendship with others. During these encounters, as miss-no-one I felt I was doing much more than I am doing now sitting in my office in Australia. For the first time after a three-years long battle for funding to start this PhD, I felt I wanted to drop academia and go back to Europe, because there I knew what I could have done. I felt powerless sitting in a comfortable office in Australia, while not long before I was making someone’s life a bit better with the smallest everyday acts. I am well aware that there is an asylum seeking issue here in Australia too, but I am not as familiar as I am with the European context. My knowledge is very situated. But is this a fault? And, by the way I am a migrant too, and the ‘irregular’ migrant, asylum seekers, and refugees I met in the past years did not miss the opportunity to make me reflect of my condition as a way of comparison. I can show my passport, pay some money for my flight, and suddenly I am an expat in another country. For many in Europe I am brave, strong, clever enough to take advantage of mobility opportunities etc. They, on the other hand, have to pay double price sometimes, take a boat, risk their life in a dangerous travel, and they are perceived by the same people who call me brave, as job thieves, welfare parasites, criminals etc. Is this fair? I do not think so.
    You can argue that I am mobilising the ‘academic community’ – because I believe there is an academic community – for my personal motivations, and I take it, wholly and unapologetically. And I wish to see more people doing the same, and taking responsibility for doing so. By writing in academic journals, academics speak only to academics about their ‘object of study’. This is not politics, it’s vanity. And to be sure, the ‘refugee crisis’ as you called it, is not my research topic or my object or research. I am a citizens – rather than an academic – calling on academics who claim to have expertise, who produce insightful research, who make career out of politics without wanting to get their hands dirty with politics, to speak up as an epistemic community. And I wish this is not limited to what is happening in Europe, and someone takes the lead to do similar and better in other contexts where their knowledge is situated.

    I find it sad that instead of discussing what is the role of academia in political activism we are reinforcing false boundaries of us/them, European/non-European, Western/non-Western, life that is worth saving/life that is not worth saving. I find sad that we are not discussing what the next action that we should take is. As I have said, I have my personal motivations for doing what I am doing, and if academics take crises, wars, conflicts, death as mere object of study, I think there is a fundamental problem with academia, and I am no longer sure I want to be part of it. Why are we not discussing what else can be done? How to make politics out of other ‘objects of study’? Why are we not discussing that politics departments do not and do not want to do politics? Why are we not discussing that academics are citizens? Why are we not discussing the political cynicism and apathy that surrounds political departments?

    I understand that universities as institutions have constrains on the politics they can advocate, and this is why we can organise events that fit within the institutional boundaries like reading and discussion groups on migration – we are planning to start one on gender and migration in our school – or cultural events like a film night to raise awareness and open debates. This would open venues for dialogue that fit within academic constrains. As you know, at EISA there will be a special session on political activism and academia, and I would encourage all of the participants to go beyond the situation in Europe, and explore the bigger questions including: to what extent can academics do political research without doing politics? What is the place of political activism in academia? To what extent is academia politicised? How do academics reconcile their dual identity as both and simultaneously objective analysts and citizens? What can academics do to effect political changes in light of our analyses? What are the practical, material, ideological constrains to political action in academia?

    Thank you very much and I look forward to further discussions. Federica


  2. An extremely important piece! Thank you!

    Just to correct a potential misconception re: the open letter itself. Whilst putting it up was motivated by the ongoing European “crisis” (which could also be called a status quo by now), and one platform for distirbuting info on the letter is EISA, the letter by now means claims to solve the world’s refugee problems for good. The truth is, as you say, that the European refugee regime is a very particular historical construction, an example of poor and inhumane and nonrealistic management of human mobility, I would say… And in various ways “the” Europeans (who are they/we?) would have a lot to learn from both scholars, activists and policy makers of the countries hosting the world’s biggest refugee populations. I personally have never learned as much of forced migration as during a two week coirse with the Calcutta research group some years back — and was I to teach about forced migration/was this still my research topic, the first lesson I’d teach my students still is to look beyond the Western refugee regimes.. Yet, it cannot be denied, the Open Letter we put up is a response to the continuing deaths at the Mediterranean. The deaths are not only to do with EU policies as you rightly emphasise, but those five policy corrections would do a lot reduce the number of drowned and suffocated. It is not a solution for the entire world, and one could be cynical these days whether any “academic community” (with or without “the”) can make a difference, but we still hope people would sign. I personally see the harms of such petition as being smaller than potential benefits, while I of course understand that many a critical scholar would disagree.

    Very much looking forward to discussing more….well, in EISA unfortunately. Even if provoking debate was not the primary aim of the letter, it is great if it opens up space for the whole complexity of perspectives as the recent debate in the European context has indeed been a strangely monotonous cacophony…


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