Last May, the newly elected St Andrews Foreign Affairs Conference (SAFAC) committee voted on a topic for the 2016 conference. Cybersecurity and the experiences of women involved in foreign affairs around the world were both in the running. Ultimately, however, committee members voted for a theme that seemed innocuous at the time: migration. Of course, since then a major migration crisis has erupted. In 2015, over one million migrants entered Europe, most of whom were fleeing conflict in Syria. Many more are expected in the months to come. (To put the European migration crisis into perspective, more than 200,000 Syrians have died as a result of the ongoing civil war and 11 million others have been displaced.) In any case, this year’s conference topic could not be more relevant. Erika Naegeli, a third-year student and director of the SAFAC committee, says: “We are really lucky in the respect that [the topic] is newsworthy and people are engaging with it.”
This year’s conference – Migration & Displaced Peoples – will take place on Saturday 6 February. Starting in the morning, invited speakers will give short presentations on either their experience working with refugees directly or their academic work on migration. Panel discussions will be conducted with various speakers in hopes of encouraging lively discussion among both the presenters and the audience members. During breaks, students are encouraged to network with the speakers and each other.
The goal of the conference is to begin a conversation that becomes a catalyst for action and to inspire solutions that benefit everyone. This is a tall order, but the committee is confident that the conference will be a success. The speakers include a U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, a policy officer for Syria at the European External Action Service, a consultant on migration from IOD PARC Edinburgh, and professors of international law and human geography from universities around the UK. The hope is that each will provide a different perspective on the current crisis, as well as speak to the endemic nature of migration crises around the world and throughout history. “It’s not just something that’s been going on this past year, with the crossing from Turkey and the Syrian civil war,” says Ms Naegeli. “It’s something that has been occurring for a long time.”
Another aim of the conference is to reframe the current crisis as not only a political issue, but also a humanitarian one. In an article in St Andrews Foreign Affairs Society’s journal, Foreign Affairs Review, Ms Naegeli writes of the conference’s aim: “We must mind the hundreds camped on tourist beaches in Greece and Italy and in makeshift tent cities in the French port of Calais. We must mourn those lost at sea, suffocated in smuggler vans and crushed attempted to jump onto trains headed for the United Kingdom.”
Sierra Leder, a fourth-year student and deputy director of the conference, adds: “I think another part of success for us is also going to be showing our speakers that students do care. I think there can often be a disjoint between people in academia and people who feel that they are actually trying to help in the world. So I think we can show these speakers who are working amongst the refugees or who are have worked for these commissions for such a long time, we can show them that the next generation is fully behind them and that we also want to do something.”
To this end, the SAFAC committee has invited students to speak at the conference for the first time. Tom Mhelchom, Bonnie Groves and Alice Rowsome all served as volunteer leaders at the refugee camp in Calais and will be speaking on Saturday about their experiences there.
Ms Groves spent four days working in the Grande-Synthe camp over the Christmas break. Though short, her time there was illuminating. “The most surprising thing about volunteering was how little the locals and other French people were engaged and knew about the situation,” she says. “No one knew that the government and riot police were actually actively hindering the volunteers from helping [refugees].” When she entered the camp site alongside other volunteers, they were searched for things that would add to the permanence of the camp, such as tents and sleeping bags. Alice Newsome was also shocked by the police presence in and around the camp. She says: “I understand the need for security, but this is not providing security by fear and terror, [which is] what these people are fleeing in the first place.”
Once inside, Ms Groves was saddened by how the camp’s routines had already infiltrated the children’s lives. When it came time for the daily snack, all the children queued up, already “used to the distribution methods in the camp.” On the other hand, she was inspired by the generosity of the refugees and the commitment of her fellow volunteers in the midst of chaos. One of the teams distributing supplies and providing support on the ground, Care4Calais, was started by an English accountant who quit her job for the cause. Ms Newsome adds that, despite the awful conditions and lack of resources, the refugees themselves were the most welcoming. “The days we were there, we saw the dozens of policemen teargas the camp, we saw police brutality, we saw the violence from the French right-wing groups,” she says. “But [we] saw nothing but smiles and warmth from the refugees.”
Ms Leder hopes that the student speakers encourage others to get involved. “So many of these world crises happen so far away and they’re inaccessible, so people who want to help so much just don’t have the opportunity,” she says. “So the fact that Calais is right across the channel has really provided a great opportunity for people,” St Andrews students included.
Both Ms Naegeli and Ms Leder stress that this year’s event is for everyone. The SAFAC committee has partnered with the School of Geography and is keen to present a variety of views on the theme: anthropological, geographical, political and more. “We’re really excited to make [the conference] interdisciplinary, especially since our focus this year is more than just a subject for international relations or politics,” says Ms Naegeli. “It’s really something that everyone can become engaged in.”
Academic engagement is certainly important, but personal engagement is also something the committee hopes to promote. Considering the scope of the current crisis, Ms Leder says: “It is relevant for everyone. No matter what you study, no matter what your opinion on it is. So I presume [the conference] will be useful for anyone who is interested in the state of the world.” The widening impact of this crisis is something that Ms Naegeli thinks the conference will help hightlight. “The Syrian civil war can affect migration in Europe can affect policy can affect St Andrews students,” she says. “Everything is kind of interconnected, and I really wanted to explore that with this conference.”
So it is fitting when Ms Naegeli suggests that our University’s population is especially well positioned to empathize with refugees, in Calais and everywhere else. “The international student and teaching body in particular knows what it is like to live and works in a foreign land,” she writes in the aforementioned article. “The domestic student body, conversely, knows what it is like to live and work with people around the world.”
By approaching the issue from so many sides, Ms Naegeli says the committee hopes to “educate people from the ground up but also educate people horizontally, as broadly as possible.” Students who feel unlearned on the topic should take the conference as an invitation to learn more. Students who have studied migration and displaced peoples from the international relations perspectives should do the same. By including speakers from the field of human geography and from the non-profit sector, the committee hopes to reach every guest, wherever he or she may stand. Ms Naegeli says: “Ultimately, we don’t want to take a side policy-wise, but we do want to provide lots of diverse points of views so that you can make your opinions.”
To learn more about the event, including the day’s schedule and background information on invited speakers, go to the St. Andrews Foreign Affairs Conference (SAFAC) Facebook page.