Resolved: Refugees have an obligation to assimilate to the culture of their host country

Weekly Debates

The Society returned to the Philodemic room for the spring semester under the new leadership of President Thanki to debate Resolved: Refugees have an obligation to assimilate to the culture of their host country.

Mr. Benjamin Ellis (COL ’18) of North Carolina and, returning from studying abroad in Jordan, Ms. Rosa Cuppari (SFS ’17) of New Jersey keynoted. Mr. Ellis opened by discussing the Syrian refugee crisis, which the keynoters intended to use as a case study for the debate. He defined assimilation as adopting the culture of one’s host country so much as to be a ‘welcome guest.’ Mr. Ellis argued that because the countries currently taking in refugees such as Germany, Turkey, Lebanon, Sweden did not cause the current crisis, they had no obligation to take in the refugees. As such, refugees should be grateful to their host countries and return the favor by being welcome guests. Mr. Ellis brought up the larger financial burden of housing, employing and educating refugees which he said refugees should repay by assimilating in order to become economically productive members of society. Mr. Ellis continued by discussing a recent incident in Cologne in which many women complained of sexual harassment by groups of Middle Eastern men. He argued that this was an example of the consequences of non-assimilation – that not following the norms of a country is not something a welcome guest would do.

Ms. Cuppari began her keynote wearing a keffiyeh, a Jordanian head scarf used as business attire, which she got while studying there. She used the example of the keffiyeh to argue that assimilation inherently means the loss of one’s own culture – the Jordanians regard the scarf as critical to their heritage and identity, and not wearing it would diminish that culture. She argued that it is not necessary to change one’s appearance to function effectively in society, and that refugees should strive to preserve their own cultures. Ms. Cuppari posed three questions to the society, asking Is assimilation positive? Should it be an obligation for foreigners? and do refugees have an obligation to their host country? She maintained that even if the first two were answered positively, that refugees did not have any obligations to their host nations, that even if assimilation was a good, can we really make it a moral obligation? Ms. Cuppari concluded with a touching example of people in a refugee camp who were forced to leave their homes through tragic circumstances, through no choice of their own, which she argued meant that host countries did not have a right to insist that refugees assimilate.

Mr. Mullaney took to the floor to describe a false binary between assimilation and multiculturalism, saying refugees did indeed have an obligation to assimilate but not to abandon their past culture. Reminding the floor that sexual harassment is not a value of Arab culture, Ms. Haag sought to reposition the Society’s mindset to look at the situation from the refugees’ perspectives, saying that what works in the United States does not always apply elsewhere. In response, Mr. Hinck spoke about the US’s unique idea of double identities, something not present in the Middle East or Europe, where France bans the hijab in public. In these historically monolingual societies, those who do not assimilate often face discrimination, so refugees in fact do have an obligation to better their children’s futures.

Mr. Ernst asked the Society where does the onus fall, on refugees or the host country? He reminded us that refugees are suffering and that the obligation should not rest on victims and that we should not impose a carte blanche obligation on a whole category of people. Mr. Graff posited that we were in a ‘fraught’ position between legal and moral obligations and that the Society would have to answer to what extent a person is obligated to their host country. Ms. Regen (SFS ’14) spoke about her experience in Brazil in a town that hosted Syrian refugees, arguing that the hosts are the ones who should be welcoming. Ms. Kurek replied that refugees and societies had to meet in the middle and that assimilation is a good. Vice President Little countered, breathing life into the negation by saying that even if assimilation does good, cultural diversity is lost in it, that assimilation’s negatives prevented it from being an obligation.

Mr. Willis asserted that nationalism underlies culture around the world and that distasteful as it may be, there is an expectation of assimilation in a nationalist world. In contrast, Ms. Hernick replied that dual nationalities exist all across the world, inverting preconceived ideas by asking the Society if Christian refugees should give up their religious identities in a Muslim country. Stepping down from the dais, President Thanki gave a rousing speech for the affirmation, giving a vivid portrait of the ways assimilation is way for refugees to protect themselves while questioning the extent this should be an obligation. With great passion and righteous anger, Mr. Kleinman demanded the Society put itself in the refugees’ shoes, arguing that the affirmation would mean countries would be morally obligated to turn away refugees fleeing conflicts who refused to assimilate. In response, Mr. Eisen denounced the idea that assimilation is about dress, instead focusing on the future of multicultural societies. He asked, ‘what happens to Germany in 50 years?’ Indeed, refugees who did not assimilate might reject the very concept of a multicultural society.

Opening the non-member speaking time, Mr. Brody Sloan (SFS ’19) argued that even people born in certain countries are not subject to the same pressures of assimilation as refugees, so there should be a higher bar before demanding assimilation. Ms. Marnie Klein (NHS ’17) responded to Mr. Eisen, saying we do not recognize our culture from 50 years ago and that perhaps refugees might show us where are our laws are unjust. Mr. Andrew Boling (SFS ’18) insisted that refugees are morally bound to ensure a better future for their children by participating totally in society. Ms. Madison Ferris (COL ’19) built on Ms. Klein’s point by describing the variance across cultures, saying that refugees will only add to cultures, not totally change them. Finally, Mr. Richard Howell (SFS ’19) asserted that culture is about values, and assimilation means the adoption of values that would benefit refugees’ present situations.

Mr. Schafer restarted the member speaking time by bringing up freedom of religious expression, saying that perhaps some laws should be violated by refugees if the laws prohibit their personal religious expression, maintaining that privacy of belief is not a shared value and that we cannot expect refugees to keep their religious beliefs private. In response, Mr. Shaughnessy made a nuanced argument about the difference between assimilation and capitulation, clarifying that assimilation means the recognition of the appropriate limits of culture and expression. Mr. Marrow made a bombastic speech, at times finding himself overcome with eloquence, arguing that the vast majority of even immigrant populations become assimilated but that this assimilation must be reflect a welcoming spirit. Building off Mr. Marrow, Ms. Oster countered him by bringing up the melting pot and the importance of respecting the host country’s values.

Mr. Fletcher reminded the floor that culture is a fluid concept, reflecting its circumstances and used the poignant example of the Great Migration of African-Americans nearly 70 years ago to point out that America has not always had a welcoming culture and to say that we shouldn’t be beholden to our present culture. Ms. Ludtke returned to the idea that parents have an obligation to ensure their children’s happiness, arguing that in certain situations refugees should be obliged to assimilate for their children’s sake. Mr. Perez-Reyes sought to redeem the negation by saying that instead of asking refugees to give up their culture, we can extend our culture to encompass theirs, a process which make us stronger. With the last floor speech of the night, Ms. Hu made a deeply personal case for refugees assimilating to a culture that may not be so welcoming as we’d like to think but so that after assimilating refugees can change that culture and create a more welcoming environment.

Ms. Cuppari closed the negation by returning to the idea that refugees do not have a choice where they go, saying that this fact relieved them of their obligations to the host country. She reminded the floor that the obligation is directed towards the host country, not the refugees’ own children. Hammering home the point that keeping their culture is doing no one harm, Ms. Cuppari closed by asking the Society that if we can accept the vast differences in people who become citizens of our country, why can’t we accept the differences of those fleeing conflict?

Mr. Ellis ended the night by rebutting a few key points of the negation, saying that adoption doesn’t mean giving something up, rather it simply means the creation of multicultural identities. Despite being inexperienced in political theory, he ventured a definition of laws as the embodiment of the norms and ideas of the people, and argued that if refugees follow the laws of the land, they are acknowledging their obligation to their host country. Mr. Ellis closed by saying that assimilation may not be the best situation but it is the reality. Refugees must make a future for themselves and find that obligation not externally but internally.

In a thrilling tie-breaker, this resolution was negated with a vote of 27-0-28!            


Garrett Hinck  

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