David Palumbo-Liu's blog

Suppression of human rights in Europe and refugees: Are they the cause or just a symptom?

David Palumbo-Liu's picture

This blog is filed by 

Iakovos Anagnostopoulos

LL.M. Candidate, 

Corporate Governance & Practice,

Stanford Law School, Class of 2016

Currently around 45,000 refugees and migrants are trapped within Greece. The number is a result of the blockage of the so-called Balkan route which was imposed just a few days ago by the government of the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) at its borders with Greece. The Balkan route was until recently used by refugees and migrants to reach northern Europe. The FYROM was followed by Croatia and Slovenia while the Serbian authorities also announced the taking of similar measures. Austria appeared to be blessing the actions taken. Albania and Bulgaria are doing the same now. Sweden and Denmark had imposed limitations on the refugees reaching their border prior to the above countries.

Inside Greece, the debate over the refugees and migrants is focusing on the logistics for the handling of this immense problem (rather than on the medium- and long-term management of it): the creation of refugees camps or “hot-spots” across the country in order for the huge human inflows to be temporarily hosted, recorded and then either forwarded back to their countries of origin, in the event that they do not qualify as refugees, or be granted permission to remain in the EU and be allocated across the member states (Solution that is objected by many EU countries).

Only in 2015 more than one million people made the “trip” to Europe. Around 4,000 of them died trying to reach the shores of Greece or Italy. Almost half of them are coming from Syria. This year appears to have started even more intensely with Greece having received almost 75,000 people by mid-February[1]. However only a few of them actually wish to remain in the country. The Greek government has stated that Greece would admit and host as many as 180,000 refugees but this is highly doubtful given its economically dire situation over the past six years.

I am not familiar with the refugee asylum system of Greece, let alone the dozen ones of the remaining of the European countries. So, I would avoid criticizing or being over-judgmental about their stance towards the refugees from a legal perspective (although, all intuitively I sense that they must be breaking their respective laws in this). My main concern here relates to the European Union as a political organization and in particular how the EU treats the people entering the Union as refuges or migrants. What these people are expecting from Europe and what they actually find when they cross its external borders and attempt to head towards their final destinations. Are there any impediments or limitations imposed on them and how these obstacles are conflicting with essential European values. What is the purpose of the refugees’ camps (hot-spots) and how their existence and operation can be reconciled with what Europe is supposed to represent when it comes to human rights?

First of all, I should explain why I refer to refugees and migrants separately: The former constitute a very special category of people violently displaced from their home countries due to war, persecution or natural disaster. Refugees are understandably a very dear category of international humanitarian law. The same is not true for migrants, i.e. people who leave their birth place in search for a better life, usually in another country. The law is not as friendly to migrants as it is with refugees and it often sets very strict quotas for their admittance to the host state[2]. I note here that article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union states that “[t]he Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.  Moreover, Article 3 paragraphs 1 and 2 provide that “1. The Union's aim is to promote peace, its values and the well-being of its peoples, and 2. [t]he Union shall offer its citizens an area of freedom, security and justice without internal frontiers, in which the free movement of persons is ensured in conjunction with appropriate measures with respect to external border controls, asylum, immigration and the prevention and combating of crime”[3].

Obviously, the European Union has statutorily put human rights at the center of its very foundations. It has also vested itself with the authority to regulate refugees’ asylum and immigration related matters and so the current crisis could be expected to be treated harmonically at a European level.  But it is not. Instead we are seeing member states act with a view to protecting solely their own narrowly interpreted national interests against not only their fellow member-states but the people who are seeking asylum from them. In a sense we are watching the EU “publicize” to the world its lack of maturity and its unpreparedness to handle a situation which it has helped build in the first place by means of its unbalanced foreign policies. The images from the route of refugees from Syria to Europe are disheartening. Even more disheartening are however the ones taken on European land. How is it really possible to watch children, drowning in the sea and being hungry and totally unprotected from the elements of nature in the 21st century Europe? How inhumane is to see refugees beaten-up by border-control police or treated as dangerous criminals that must be kept detained and separated from the rest of society?  Why EU governments do not stand against extreme-wing populists who attack refugees and migrants rather they are playing their game and bowing to their hostile screams and not opposing their rhetoric of hatred? What has made Europeans so scared and insecure about their own lives so that racism and hate against refugees and immigrants have lately nested into their hearts? And where is the respect for human rights and human dignity that the EU is built on?

It must not be a coincidence that crossing the Atlantic, from the EU to US, we find strong parallels in the appeal of Donald Trump to some, mostly feeling socially marginalized, American citizens. What is making people aggressive to humanism? Are perhaps people losing faith to people as globalization proceeds favoring more some over others? The article attached here provides some thoughts on this that deserve looking at.








[1] http://bruegel.org/2016/02/eu-migration-crisis-facts-figures-and-disappo...

[2] I find this to be at least hypocritical. While the immediate need for any country to admit as quickly as possible and with the least hurdles possible any refugees asking asylum can be understood on a humanitarian basis, reality shows that the relevant procedures are full of red-tape and thus extremely slow and the treatment of these people receive is far from ideal. So their theoretical priority over economic migrants in practice disappears. On the other hand, migrants are predominantly people seeking a better future for them and their families and they usually arrive to the host country with the dream of finding a new hospitable home which they will respect while themselves being treated decently and with the dignity they deserve -but so often missed in their home countries. They might be punished by strictest immigration rules but are usually the ones that revive their new countries with their energy and passion to progress and be part of their foster societies.

[3] http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:12012M/TXT&...





Refugee Crisis in Europe, and the Missing US

David Palumbo-Liu's picture

This is a blog by Mira B and Lisa H, graduate students at the University of Würzburg, who invite your comments:

No matter if one watches TV, reads a newspaper or follows the news online, the Syrian refugee crisis has been a ubiquitous topic during the last months in Europe. It is horrible to experience people’s despair and suffering when they try to escape the ever-lasting war in their home country. They are forced to leave their native country with nothing more than they are able to carry with them. What is even more, if they don’t die on their way to another European country they are confronted with many bureaucratic difficulties they have to cope with before being fully accepted in their new “home country”.

            The longer one follows the news, the more obvious becomes the question whether the refugees and their admission to other countries is actually only the task of some countries such as Italy and Germany or whether it should be a problem concerning the whole world. To say it bluntly, the world asks itself which stance the U.S. is taking in this issue. Germany and the U.S. were once seen as the world’s two largest recipients of immigrants[1]; therefore, it is not astonishing that people in Europe – especially here in Germany – get kind of angry when they hear that the U.S. only accepted 1.500 Syrian refugees since 2011, whereas Berlin accepted 1000 of them in the month of July 2015 alone![2]

            When we searched for “the USA and the refugees” (a query without judging in any direction), one of the first things we discovered was the following cartoon, which is somehow speaking for itself and it does not need any further explanation.

Description: Cartoon: Syrische Flüchtlinge USA (medium) by Schwarwel tagged syrische,flüchtlinge,syrien,asyl,asylanten,asylbewerber,usa,us,freiheitsstatue,freiheit,angst,islam,anschlag,islamisten,karikatur,schwarwel,syrische,flüchtlinge,syrien,asyl,asylanten,asylbewerber,usa,us,freiheitsstatue,freiheit,angst,islam,anschlag,islamisten,karikatur,schwarwel[3]

            Of course, one could argue that there is the ocean as natural barrier between Syria and the U.S. Given this fact, the admission of refugees is not that easy in the United States, but in our opinion this cannot be the reason for the entire non-participation of the U.S. concerning the admission of more refugees. The U.S. government constantly opposes that it is their responsibility to stabilize the situation in Syria. For them it is no priority to take refugees in and help them to start a new life without war and fear[4] – no matter how you look at it, the entire situation totally contradicts Obama’s widespread sentence “Yes, we can!” being said after his first election. To top this all, further military actions done by the U.S. government, as is very well known, turn out to be even more expensive than a resettlement of the refugees would ever be.[5] Nevertheless, if one could believe in the promises of the U.S. to take in about 5000 to 8000 Syrian refugees next year, this numbers are still far too small for such a huge country.[6]

One might argue numbers do not paint the whole picture. Therefore, we aim to compare the situation in Germany and the U.S. in more detail now. According to Eurostat, 110.350 applications of asylum seekers were accepted in Germany. That is the highest rate of the EU altogether and almost three times more than in Hungary, which is ranked after Germany.

The following figure[7] illustrates this fact:






Of course, one could go on and on comparing, but that will not stop the refugee crisis in the next years. It would become even worse for many European countries concerning available spaces and money. However, keeping in mind that we publish this blog on a Human Rights Website, it is very important for us to say that one should never forget that seeking asylum is a basic human right for everyone.


[1]Schuck, Peter and Rainer Münz. “’Paths to Inclusion’: The Integration of Migrants in the United States and Germany.” Migration and Refugees: Politics and Policies in the United States and Germany. Ed. Myron Weiner. New York: Berghahn Books, 1998. Vii.

[2] Weiland, Severin. “Die USA und die Flüchtlinge: Eine Supermacht versteckt sich.“ Spiegel Online Politik. 07 September 2015. Web. 13 December 2015.

[3] “Syrische Flüchtlinge USA.” Toonpool. 07 September 2015. Web. 11 December 2015.

[4]Weiland, Severin. “Die USA und die Flüchtlinge: Eine Supermacht versteckt sich.“ Spiegel Online Politik. 07 September 2015. Web. 13 December 2015.

[5]Thrall, Trevor A. „Let Syrian Refugees In—All of Them: Why resettlement is a cheaper, and morally superior, alternative to Western military action in Syria.” The Atlantic. 21 October 2015. Web. 14 December 2015.


[6]Ignatieff, Michael. „The Refugee Crisis Isn’t a ‘European Problem’.” The New York Times. 5 September 2015. Web. 14 December 2015.

[7]„Infografiken: Zahlen und Fakten zu Flüchtlingen in der EU.” Tagesschau. Web. 10 December 2015. 







Daily Life in Germany (post from German university student on refugee crisis)

David Palumbo-Liu's picture

This is a blog written by Sabrina W, a graduate student from the U of Würzburg, who invites your comments:

Train delayed, no trains between Salzburg and Munich, long waiting periods on borders. News like these are by now part of everyday life in Austria and Germany.

The refugee crisis in Europe is still an ongoing problem that causes plenty of discussions in politics and society. But what is actually going on in Europe and especially in Germany? Possibly, Germany’s foreign politics or that of the European Union is the reason for the war most Syrians are fleeing from[1]. According to Günther Oettinger, German EU commissioner, the asylum system of Germany is as well a magnet for refugees as a cause of the crisis. He said that his home country has to change its current system and make changes in the asylum laws. Therefore, the very recent issue that is debated on is the determination of a maximum limit of refugees accepted in Germany.

Nevertheless, some European countries already have a limitation, for example Sweden, where refugees are advised to go back to Germany or Denmark, and these countries always nourish the demands in the German population.[2] Especially after having seen the determination likely to be introduced in Austria, many German politicians put even more pressure on Angela Merkel to do the same for Germany because everybody knows that if Austria will have a limitation, even more refugees will come to Germany. But Merkel is not deterred by these demands and still tries to achieve a protection of the external frontiers and a balanced distribution of the refugees within the European Union.[3] However, Merkel is not alone with her opinion that a maximum limit is no solution for the ongoing crisis. Ulrike Lunacek, a green member of the European parliament, criticizes Austria’s decision very harshly. Not only would it encourage the smugglers but also because these plans are absolutely against international laws and the human right of seeking asylum. She, as wells as Merkel, fully argues for a solution found together with all European states and, what is more important, to fight against the reasons of the refuge.[4] As far as the determination of a maximum limit is concerned, Merkel and Lunacek have to stand many oppositional voices, especially from her own party CDU/CSU. Very recently, the governor of Bavaria, Horst Seehofer, threatened Merkel with a constitutional challenge to close the borders and implement a limitation of 200.000 refugees a year.[5] All in all, referring to the maximum limit of refugees, there will always be different opinions among German politicians. The refugee crisis will definitely be a huge topic in the EU summit in mid-February.[6]

In the course of these events, Germans are more and more confronted with new situations and are taken out of their comfort zone since many cities and also smaller towns are forced to take in and help refugees. Although this new structure is mostly accepted and many people are willing to support the immigrants, it also nourishes prejudices and negative opinions about the refugees. The biggest problem that is always present since so many refugees have come to Germany is the opinion that every bad thing that happens, be it fight, theft, rape or any other crime, is caused by the refugees.[7] The most recent event that comes into mind is New Year’s Eve in Cologne, where women were attacked and robbed by a group of men. Since this night Germany even more debates on the refugee crisis and the possibility for anti-refugee groups to gain new sympathizers increased rapidly.

One far-reaching consequence of the attacks in Cologne is the tightening of the deportation law meaning that refugees are more likely to be deported when they get in any conflict with the law. Nevertheless, many voices emphasize that it is very important that we do not treat every refugee as a suspect but also protect the innocent ones who are not to blame for these cruel attacks or any other committed crime.[8]

That such crimes are not accepted by the refugees themselves as well, can be seen very well in Würzburg when about twenty refugees met at the main railroad station. They carried posters with them reading “Syrians against Sexism” or “For us women are mothers, daughters and aunts” and gave roses and tulips to especially female passersby to illustrate that they are completely different from those criminals in Cologne.[9]

Nevertheless, there are also opposing, or better to say worried, voices in Würzburg. In August 2015, an old tent was used to give “home” to some refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Georgia. In an assembly of some citizens there were many voices claiming that they are worried about their night’s sleep, attacks by anti-refugee groups or other problems that have already been recognized in other areas.[10] Overall, most citizens were willing to help and support the refugees, but the question still remains where all these often wrongful worries and prejudices come from.

Many German newspapers, as for example Die Zeit, started to address some of the prejudices and try to get rid of these “myths”. Maybe, this helps to change the attitude of at least some Germans towards refugees so that they can be integrated better in order to start a new life, hopefully without war and fear. To name only a few, the most common opinion concerning the refugees is that there is no more space to live in Germany because our country has already taken in much more refugees than other European states. When one is looking at current numbers from the first six months of 2015 this fact might be true but the problem is that many Germans do not even glance at the years before. Because if they would do so, they could see that Sweden, Hungary or Austria have taken in much more refugees than Germany did since 2014.[11]

Besides the Germans’ fear of having to take in more and more refugees, another big worry is the money. At first, one constantly hears that the taxpayer has to pay for all the refugees and that they even get more money than an unemployed German citizen gets paid after the first 12-18 months of unemployment. To be honest, this is completely ridiculous. Only since a court decision made in 2012, a refugee theoretically gets paid the same amount of money as a German citizen because the court decided that a refugee is “worth” the same as the federal citizen. Certain it is, that they do definitely not get more money but mostly they only get around 130€ and besides that, donated clothing, food and accommodation.[12]

Germans are kind of split between acceptance and rejection but actually, everybody should support the existing organizations and programs to help the refugees building up a new life in Germany. 

How can I help the refugees? Where do I get information from? People who want to get involved can inform themselves for example on various platforms that provide information, guidelines and material for giving German classes[13].In addition, the “Bundesministerium für Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend”(= Federal Ministry for families, seniors, women and youth) launched a project on the 19th of January 2016 called „Menschen stärken Menschen“ in which people permanently support and empower other people. In this way, sponsorships between refugees and local people should be converted from spontaneous actions into permanent help. It is all about exchanging knowledge on a personal level.

What is even more, a cooperation of the Goethe-Institut, Bayerischer Rundfunk and Bundesanstalt für Arbeit created an App called „Ankommen“ (= arriving / settling in) which eases the process of integration for refugees. Often, smartphones are the only way to be connected with the people. Since the 13th January it is available for free in Google Play Store and App Store and comes without advertisements. The app is translated into five languages including Arabic, English, Farsi, French and German and is also usable offline. Basically, it is a guide helping refugees during the first weeks in Germany. Moreover, basic German culture and customs are explained, for example:

  • “Which are my rights and duties as a refugee?
    • How is Germany organised as a whole?
    • Which steps do I have to consider when applying for asylum?
    • When do I have to send my children to school?
    • What happens if I get sick?
    • How do I get a work permit?”[14]

The surface is easily structured into the three major parts asylum, training, finding a job plus information about learning the language. Current topics are added to the App like articles about the freedom of religion in Germany or Gender Equality after the mass assault in Cologne. Apps like this are not new, in the city of Dresden refugees can navigate with the help of an App to the most important places and Apps helping to register exist.

When only looking at Würzburg, first, the IHK (= Industrie und Handelskammer / Industry and Board of Trade) developed a program that should help middle class firms to recruit refugees for apprenticeships via language courses. Since 22th of December 2015, 100 refugees mainly from Syria and Eritrea are offered 320 lessons to reach a basic German vocabulary. The IHK organizes a “chauffeur service” for the participants and pays for the required material. Second, at the University of Würzburg, free space is used for accommodation. The territory, known as Leighton-Barracks, formerly used by the US Army and now home for 300 refugees since October. Two more areas should be used for housing and this should be done by 2017 in a project by the University and the “Regierung von Unterfranken” (= government of Unterfranken). Third, websites called “Würzburg hilft!”[15] or “WueFugees”[16] provide tips about how to coordinate donations concerning clothing, food, toys, spare time, hygienic articles and various other things. “WueFugees” is rather aimed at refugees offering general information about asylum. The guide consists of – amongst others – short video clips by the “Bayerischer Rundfunk” where important everyday issues for example opening a bank account, studying in Germany, medical help, support for school kids, saving on train, basic transportation, getting internet access, working in Germany and school registration for refugee children are explained. Forth, help also comes from students. Three educational students developed a map of Würzburg for asylum seekers[17]. It was part of a University project called “helping refugees actively”. In the map, they linked important places in town such as internet cafés, playgrounds, youth centers, information places with short descriptions and the address. Moreover, the information is translated into Russian and Arabic.

This list can be continued but what should never be forgotten is that refugees are human. They have a personality, an individual character like you and me and deserve a fair treatment.





[1]Erpenbeck, Jenny. “The refugee crisis is forcing Germans to ask: who are we?”.The Guardian 21 December 2015. Online. 21 January 2016.

[2] „Schweden kann Flüchtlinge nicht mehr unterbringen.“ Zeit online. 5 November 2016. Web. 26 January 2016.

[3] Sirleschtov, Antje. „Österreich führt Obergrenzen ein, Merkel ist weiterhin dagegen.“ Der Tagesspiegel. 20 January 2016. Web. 25 January 2016.

[4] Kaess, Christiane. „Das ist eine politische Seifenblase.“ Deutschlandfunk. 21 January 2016. Web. 26 January 2016. 

[5] Birnbaum, Robert. „Koalition streitet über Androhung einer Verfassungsklage.“ Tagesspiegel. 26 January 2016. Web. 27 January 2016.

[6] Sirleschtov, Antje. „Österreich führt Obergrenzen ein, Merkel ist weiterhin dagegen.“ Der Tagesspiegel. 20 January 2016. Web. 25 January 2016.

[7] Erpenbeck, Jenny. „The refugee crisis is forcing Germany to aks: who are we?“ The Guardian. 21 December 2015. Web. 26 January 2016.

[8] „Deportation law to be tightened.“ The Federal Government. 12 January 2016. Web. 25 January 2016.

[9] „‘Syrer gegen Sexismus‘: Flüchtlinge verteilen Blumen an Passantinnen.“ Süddeutsche Zeitung. 16 January 2016. Web. 25 January 2016.

[10] „Anwohner zwischen Ablehnung und Verständnis.“ BR 24. 26 August 2015. Web. 25 January 2016.

[11] Dobbert, Steffen, and Nadine Oberhuber. „Haben wir wirklich keinen Platz mehr in Deutschland?“ Zeit online. 18 August 2015. Web. 26 January 2016.

[12] Dobbert, Steffen, and Nadine Oberhuber. „Haben wir wirklich keinen Platz mehr in Deutschland?“ Zeit online. 18 August 2015. Web. 26 January 2016.

[13] Vogel, Birgit. „Wie kann ich helfen? Informationsportal über Hilfsprojekte für Flüchtlinge in Deutschland“ Wie kann ich helfen? 25 January 2016. Web. 27 January 2016.







Starting Off: Why Did I Create This Website?

David Palumbo-Liu's picture

Hello!  This is David Palumbo-Liu, the professor at Stanford who is teaching the Human Rights & Global Literature course here.  I'll start off my posting this link to a story about this course, which includes a video interview with me in which I explain the basic intent behind this course, and this web site.  Essentially, after all the publicity around online education, especially pointing to Stanford as a world leader in developing online learning, I decided to explore how this technology could be developed to fulfill one of online education's attested goals--the democratization of education. I experimented with a class in which I partnered with colleagues at Duke University (Cathy Davidson) and the University of California at Santa Barbara (Christopher Newfield).  That course was part of a series the Graduate School of Education runs called "Education's Digital Future."

In that course, my colleagues and I each conducted separate classes based on different syllabi, but all the courses shared the purpose of examining the history of higher education in the US and elsewhere, and then linked those histories to the present-day.  Common themes were the idea of community, vocation, funding, learning, democracy.  We had five Google Hang-Outs which are uploaded on YouTube.  As you can see, it was sometimes pretty clunky.  Nevertheless, we had some great shared discussions that fulfilled part of the main purpose of the course--to break down the barriers between institutions and people.

I then was fortunate to receive a grant from Stanford's Vice Provost of Online Learning to develop an online component for my Human Rights course.  Why did I want to do this?

I feel that learning about human rights will greatly benefit from having a rich and diverse set of materials that can be shared and curated by teachers and students.  I also feel that having participants from a wide range of national and global locations helps to see how human rights look different in different contexts.  I also feel that having a diversity of types of participants and ways of contributing to the website and interacting with other each is important. That is why we are calling it a "collaboratory."

Please explore the website, and feel free to email me or any of my co-instructors with comments or suggestions.  You are also encouraged to blog those comments, suggestions, so others can join in!

Subscribe to RSS - David Palumbo-Liu's blog