Priyanca Mathur Velath Unpacks Refugee Crisis

Photo by Pauline Park

Dr. Priyanca Mathur Velath of St. Joseph’s College gave a presentation on Thursday titled “Refugees, Migrants and the Nation-State: the ‘Insider-Outsider’ Paradox” in the Alumni Lounges. Velath discussed the issues of human rights violations that refugees face, that often go unreported to the public.

“These are a group of people that are rendered homeless, rendered jobless, because of things they cannot control … their rights situation is the most precarious rights situation we can think of,” said Velath.

The presentation focused on the Rohingyan refugees, who are currently located in Hyderabad, India. Velath explained that India takes in a lot of refugees and produces very little because of its idea of “vasudhaiva kutumbakam – the world is my family.”

While many people think that a refugee’s biggest struggle is crossing the border into a safer country, Velath explained that refugees like the Rohingyan people face many difficulties even when they reach a new land. Velath pinpointed seven main struggles of the refugee population, including language barriers, inability to make enough money for survival, education and fear of deportation.

Velath described her field research and personal work with refugees in India as both a humbling and inspiring experience.

“It tells me about the strength of the human agency and the strength of the human spirit, despite all that goes on,” she said.

During the Q & A portion of the event, communications professor Pat Keeton brought up the refugee crisis in Europe that has recently been heavily covered in the media. Velath described it as a “time bomb that has finally exploded in our faces. It is a marker of a problem that we have been neglecting for years.”

She also pointed out the importance of using correct terminology when referring to the issue. CNN and other news outlets originally referred to Europe’s situation as a migrant crisis. According to Velath, calling it a migrant crisis shifts blame onto the individuals who leave their home country and ignores the bigger problem of why refugees are being persecuted.

“We need to be very critical in the manner in which the media represents them,” Velath warned.

Although refugee crises have been a popular story for multiple news outlets lately, there is still a lot of information on the issue that students might not know.

The audience consisted mostly of students from the Media and Cinema Studies class and the sustainability seminar. However, other students who were interested in the topic attended, as well.

“This opened my eyes to a lot of information I just wasn’t aware of,” said junior Michael Pacheco. “I consider myself a pretty informed person and I still didn’t know any of this.”

Pacheco will also be one of the students traveling to India next semester as part of the study abroad program and plans to use this information in his upcoming travels.

“I’m definitely going to study refugees of some kind while I’m in India and I think that will be a great opportunity for me to physically see their living conditions and understand their issues from their point of view,” said Pacheco.

Pacheco was particularly disturbed by the situations in which government does not acknowledge the existence of refugees or people seeking asylum.

“There’s literally no way for these people to get help,” he said. “It’s terrible and I didn’t even know that could happen.”

Issues of climate change also entered the discussion. While this is still a developing concept, Velath explained that people can be victims of climate change and forced to leave their home countries because of it. Velath said the United Nations is currently working on expanding the definitions of refugees to include people in such situations.

“You cannot deny that this is going to be the biggest crisis of our time,” said Velath. “It’s high time we all started talking about it.”