Syrian refugee situation: DePaul University experts provide insight on U.S. and global implications

​​​​​CHICAGO — In the wake of recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut reportedly carried out by the Islamic State group, government leaders and individuals around the world have raised questions about Syrian refugee migration. DePaul University faculty experts are available to provide insight and commentary on international security, political, economic, and foreign affairs issues regarding the Syrian refugee crisis.

These DePaul experts are faculty members teaching in the master’s degree program in refugee and forced migration studies, believed to be the first of its kind in the country.

Experts available for news interviews include:

Shailja Sharma, associate dean and associate professor, College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. Sharma, an expert in forced migration and diaspora studies, is director of the master’s degree program in refugee and forced migration studies program. She can discuss the benefits of a country taking in refugees, the process of becoming a full citizen and what it means to have to forcefully leave your home country.

“Other countries see refugees as economic migrants rather than asylum seekers and as a drain on their resources. This is a mistaken view because refugees, like those from Syria, are educated and skilled and bring a lot of human capital with them,” said Sharma. “In the short term, receiving countries have to spend some money on accepting and resettling refugees. In the long run however, these countries gain a group of people who can rejuvenate their societies by bringing skills, culture and new perspectives. This is especially true for many countries of Europe, which are suffering a demographic decline,” she said.

“People need to understand there is a difference between migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, since these terms are often used interchangeably. Asylum seekers are people who are fleeing persecution or a danger to their lives and asking for protection. They request and receive refugee status when they are allowed to stay in a country,” said Sharma. “Refugee status is defined in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ 1951 convention as a person who is afraid of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. Migrants are people who move for reasons other than persecution and fear.

The term ‘forced migration’ includes refugees as well as internally displaced persons. Nobody wants to leave their home country, families or friends. But, people move because they fear for their lives, or else because they are seeking better opportunities than are available in their countries,” Sharma said. She can be reached at or 773-325-7838.

Rajit Mazumder, associate professor, College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. Mazumder is an expert in refugee studies and can talk about the complexities surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis. “The Syrian crisis has created one of the largest population groups of displaced peoples in the world, at the moment. An estimated 4 million people have left Syria because of the civil war, and these estimates are a couple of months old. In addition, 7.6 million people are also internally displaced within Syria,” said Mazumder.
“The crisis has become a global one, and its solution will come only through concerted global effort.  The ‘refugee crisis’ is just a symptom of the underlying problem – its proximate cause is the civil war in Syria.  As long as the civil war continues people will continue to be displaced, and will continue to seek refuge outside of Syria,” noted Mazumder. “The enduring solution to this refugee crisis is a cessation of the Syrian conflict.  That requires a political solution in a highly complex conflict. Given the intractable political rivalries and competing political interests in the region, I am afraid I don’t see peace coming to Syria in the near future.” 
“Meanwhile, refugees have to be provided humanitarian and political protection. European countries and the U.S. could do more to aid refugees. This includes taking in more people fleeing desperate situations like in Syria, and providing them with basic amenities of food, shelter, medical aid, clothing, education,” he said. “The subsequent requirement of employment and integration is equally significant. We are witnessing something unprecedented, and extant policies are inadequate to deal with the situation.”

“There are many reasons why people voluntarily leave their home countries. However, there is one basic reason people are forced to leave their home countries– the inability to live their lives in safety, in peace and with dignity,” explained Mazumder. “Refugees are not just a ‘cost’ to the host nation. Refugees, like all populations, can provide labor of all levels of skill, from the unskilled to the highly specialized. However, there is no consensus on whether refugees should be integrated into the host economy. Varying levels of restriction, up to a total ban on employment, exists across host nations. This adds another level of complexity in assessing the economic impact of refugees. While it may be possible to estimate how much it could cost to provide essential services to refugee populations, particularly if they are located in isolated camps, it is not possible to estimate how much refugees could contribute to the host nation if allowed to work. Until that happens, most countries will continue to view refugees as an economic burden, and a hindrance to their own development,” Mazumder said. He can be reached at or 773-325-4189.

Nezih Altay, associate professor of management, Driehaus College of Business. Altay can discuss humanitarian logistics, including refugee camp locations and the costs associated with caring for refugees. “Depending on the number of the refugees the economy of a host country will get affected at different levels. For example, according to Mercy Corps there are about 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Only about 850,000 of them live in designated camps. Since the start of the crisis Turkey spent reportedly $6 billion on refugees,” said Altay. “Separately, in Jordan, a single camp, called Za'atari camp has more than 800,000 refugees making the camp the country’s fourth largest city. Rarely are camps designed to be self-sufficient. Everything needs to be supplied to a refugee camp, therefore they're like islands. This is a huge logistical and economic undertaking,” Altay said.

“Generally, refugees outside of the camps cannot legally work in a host country. So they do it illegally. This cheap workforce may be welcome in some sectors, such as construction, but since these workers are not legal they also don't pay taxes. Therefore, refugees tend to drive down labor costs in the regions with high refugee populations. Small businesses tend to gouge prices for refugees. The host county spends a lot of money but doesn't collect it in taxes, while businesses in refugee-concentrated regions try to make money off of them by acting opportunistically,” Altay said. He can be reached at or 312-362-6783.

Tom Mockaitis, professor of history, College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. Mockaitis can speak about the security aspects countries face in dealing with refugees and people who are forced to migrate. “The circumstances of migration create conditions that can encourage radicalization. Refugees and asylum seekers are no more prone to extremism than anyone else, but being uprooted from their homes, disconnected from traditional institutions, placed in camps and exposed to prejudice and even mistreatment in host countries may make them vulnerable to recruitment,” Mockaitis said.

“This risk is especially high for the large number of unaccompanied minors, most of them young men, being sent to Europe by their families. Ideally, every country should have in place, not only an asylum policy consistent with international law, but a strategy for handling refugees and asylum seekers,” he said. “In reality, most countries handle each crisis on an ad hoc basis. The European Union should adopt a policy that allows refugees to be processed at their point of entry and distributed among member states based upon a quota system determined by each member’s absorptive capacity,” Mockaitis said. He can be reached at or 773-325-7471.


Media Contact:
Jon Cecero​
(312) 362-7640