June 20, 2017

World Refugee Day 2017: Refugees Are Welcome, and It Should Stay That Way



Today is World Refugee Day, and the need to focus on refugees could not be greater. As the record number of refugees and displaced persons continues to rise, we must recognize the importance of improving refugee resettlement for those in need, especially considering how robust resettlement programs further our own national interests.

The number of displaced persons throughout the world is currently at an all-time high, and includes 22.5 million refugees and 40.3 million internally displaced persons. One in every 113 people has been forcibly displaced from their home, is a refugee forced from their home country, or is an asylum seeker.

There are also at least 3.2 million reported stateless people—those who have no legal nationality—though the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there could be as many as 10 million. These individuals are hard to identify because they often live on the margins of society.  

In light of the number of individuals in need, refugee resettlement is incredibly important for a number of reasons.

Families and individuals living in, or outside, refugee camps live in dire conditions while they await resettlement that may never come. Poverty is rampant in the camps, and refugees, who are mostly women and children, are often unable to find supportive jobs. They are normally unable to move in order to find work—many used all of their money to escape the violence and destruction around their homes. Children often drop out of school to work, and women endure exploitation in order to survive.

Further, refugees often face malnutrition and lack of clean water, making them more susceptible to diseases. UNHCR estimated that half of the current camps can’t provide the minimum amount of daily clean water to refugees, and the water pumps are often far away. Additionally, the camps often have inadequate shelters or housing, and 30% of the camps don’t have proper waste disposal or latrines.

By resettling refugees, we alleviate the harsh conditions for those suffering in camps, while simultaneously improving our foreign relations with the rest of the world. The U.S. has a duty as a global superpower to help those in need, and a reputation as a humanitarian pillar to uphold. By reducing the number of refugees we take in, we break down our foreign relationships and lose our authority to call on others to help during times of crisis.

Additionally, increasing refugee resettlement is critical to preserving our national security. First, helping to quell the crisis through assistance and diplomacy will likely save us from engaging in costly military actions later.

Second, refugee camps are hunting grounds for radicalized terrorist groups looking to recruit new members, and to do so, they target the most vulnerable. Protecting those in camps sends a clear message to the world that the U.S. is working diligently to protect those in need.

In turn, refugees who have lived in the camps where recruitment is taking place provide invaluable, and otherwise unavailable, human intelligence about these terrorist groups. This type of intelligence gathering also occurred during the Cold War via defectors; today, it is Syrian refugees who are providing a wealth of intelligence on ISIS.

Robust humanitarian aid not only improves our reputation around the world and enables us to better protect ourselves and our allies; it also helps our economy.  In fiscal year 2013, the majority of refugee arrivals (66 percent) were of working age; meaning, they worked and contributed to our economy through taxes. Before that, refugee men aged 16 and older had a higher employment rate than their U.S.-born counterparts, at 67 percent and 60 percent, respectively.

Improving our refugee resettlement system to better assist the refugees we bring in and allow them to create meaningful lives in the U.S. will only continue to improve our social and economic standing.

We should focus our efforts on increasing successful integration into the U.S. and local communities. This can be achieved in part by increasing the amount of time that financial assistance is provided to refugees, from 30 days of assistance to 60 or 90 days, if necessary. Often, refugees will scramble to find any job that will support them and their families, rather than seeking employment that reflects their specific skills and expertise. A longer timeline will allow refugees to find jobs that better suited to their talents, and provides better compensation and benefits.

Further, by increasing integration through expanded education and language services, we allow refugees to better assimilate into their new communities. This will help us deal with the demographic shift that has led to more non-English speaking, uneducated refugees arriving in the U.S. While the White House Task Force on New Americans made some strides through coalition-building and programming, there is still a lack of access to English Second Language (ESL) courses, housing, and educational opportunities. In fact, only 5-10 percent of refugees advance their education once they arrive in the U.S.

Pre-departure education programs are also a useful tool for increasing integration. These programs help build realistic expectations about living in the U.S. before refugees leave. They teach about health, housing, education, money management, and cultural adaptation. They also provide language and literacy training for those that need it.

Finally, adapting our system to allow for private and co-sponsorship would likely increase the number of refugees we bring in, and allow for more individualized integration efforts.

Through private sponsorship of refugees, individuals and groups can work with the government to fund refugees, in addition to those covered under the cap. Private actors provide more hands-on integration efforts and can help families with day-to-day issues that arise, therefore helping them assimilate more quickly and building stronger community ties. The International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) and Human Rights First put together a blueprint for what this system could look like.

Co-sponsorship works similarly—and Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS) in New Haven, CT already employs a co-sponsorship system. They work with a team of volunteers who have raised the required amount of money to match them with refugees and help them provide needed assistance, such as housing, ESL classes, and job placement. Their program has been successful and could be used by other refugee assistance organizations to allow more private volunteer groups to assist refugees.  

Refugee numbers throughout the world are at an all-time high, and it is our duty as the global humanitarian leader to provide safe haven for as many as we can. Doing so will serve our interests, as well as help the most vulnerable. On this World Refugee Day, it is imperative that we make a commitment to the international community to be the light shining in the darkness for those in need.