Campus News

Refugees, migrants the focus of Des Forges symposium

War refugees at the Gyekenyes Zakany Railway Station in Gyekenyes, Hungary.


Published April 7, 2016

The massive flow of refugees and other migrants into Europe has caught the world’s attention in recent months, with more than 1 million people streaming across the continent’s borders just last year.

To enhance our understanding of the historical roots and global dimensions of this crisis, experts from leading human rights organizations will gather at UB on April 14 for a daylong symposium on refugees, migrants, human trafficking and slavery.

Presenters will range from Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, to Evelyn Chumbow, a survivor of and activist against human trafficking.

The free, public event will take place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 14 in 120 Clemens Hall, North Campus.

It will be followed by a scholarship fund dinner in Buffalo that benefits students interested in human rights.

Both the symposium and dinner honor the memory of Alison L. Des Forges, a member of the UB community who fought to call the world’s attention to an earlier great humanitarian crisis: the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

Des Forges, who received her doctorate in African History from Yale University, was an internationally known historian and senior adviser to the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch based in New York City. She taught at several universities, including UB; the University of California, Berkeley; and Beijing University. She received an honorary doctorate from SUNY during UB’s 155th general commencement ceremony in 2001.

She was one of the world’s leading experts on Rwanda, serving as an expert witness in 11 trials at the United Nations International Criminal Court for Rwanda. Her award-winning book “Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda” was a landmark account of the 1994 genocide. Her tireless efforts to awaken the international community to the horrors that occurred earned her a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999.

The symposium will open with registration and welcoming remarks at 9 a.m., followed by a morning and an afternoon panel, and a final wrap-up session.

The morning panel, which runs from 9:30 a.m. to noon, is titled “From the Middle East and Africa to Europe.” It includes the following presentations:

  • Drivers of Displacement: How War, Repression, Terror and Neglect led to Europe’s Refugee Catastrophe
    Joe Stork, deputy director, Middle East and North Africa, Human Rights Watch.
    This presentation will sketch the origins of the 2015-16 refugee crisis in Europe in the wars, military interventions and state repression that tore apart Iraq, Syria and Libya over the past dozen years.

  • Understanding Migration from Sub-Saharan Africa to Europe: Might Efforts to Stem the Flow Work?
    Karen Jacobsen, acting director, Feinstein International Center, Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy, and associate research professor, Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts University.
    Jacobsen will outline the routes, motivations and experiences of Sub-Saharan African refugees and migrants traveling through the Sahel, en route to and returning from Europe. She will explore the consequences for migrants of recent policy responses on the part of Europe and the U.S., including increased efforts to provide security as jihadist groups such as Boko Haram emerge in the Sahel and increased border controls.

  • Refugees Welcome? How Europe’s Incoherent Policy, Scapegoating and Exploitation of Terrorism Have Failed Refugees
    Julia Hall, Amnesty International’s expert on criminal justice, counter-terrorism and human rights in Europe and Central Asia.
    Hall will explore how various European governments have justified their refusal to provide refugees and migrants with safety and longer-term international protection by invoking not only the costs, but also the alleged threat of terrorism, and the cultural and social “imbalance” that might occur if large numbers of foreigners are resettled in their countries.

The afternoon panel, which runs from 1-3 p.m., is titled “Within Africa and from Africa to North America.” It includes the following presentations:

  • Fighting Slavery from the Grassroots Up
    Karen Stauss, director of programs, Free the Slaves.
    Stauss will discuss the role of Free the Slaves in working to combat modern forms of slavery in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana and Uganda, among other places in the global south. 

  • From Cameroon to the U.S. and From Slavery to Freedom
    Evelyn Chumbow, survivor of and activist against human trafficking.
    Chumbow will describe her work as an advocate to raise awareness about slavery in the United States and other countries, and to end human trafficking in West Africa, in her hometown and the rest of the world.

The event will conclude from 3:30-4 p.m. with a brief presentation on local perspectives by Amy Fleischauer, director of survivor support services for the International Institute of Buffalo. That will be followed by a general wrap-up discussion.

Sponsors include the Alison L. Des Forges Memorial Committee, UB Asian Studies Program, UB Community for Global Health Equity, UB departments of Comparative Literature, History and Political Science, UB Humanities Institute, UB Department of Philosophy Samuel P. Capen Chair, UB Office of the Vice Provost for International Education, and UB School of Social Work.

Scholarship dinner

A dinner and discussion will follow the symposium. Proceeds will support an endowment that funds Alison L. Des Forges Memorial Scholarships for graduates of the Buffalo Public Schools demonstrating a strong interest in pursuing studies at UB related to human rights and social justice.

The dinner, which costs $100 per seat, will take place from 6:30-9:30 p.m. April 14 at the Jacobs Executive Development Center, 672 Delaware Ave., Buffalo.

Reservations are required. Interested persons should contact Kathleen Curtis at 716-645-2077 or