On September 19, 2016, The United Nations General Assembly will, for the first time in history, hold a plenary meeting to address large movements of refugees and migrants. The next day, President Obama will bring together world leaders for a summit aimed to collectively realize a 30 percent increase in humanitarian aid; a doubling of global refugee resettlement and admissions numbers; the right to work for one million more refugees; and access to education for one million more refugee children. At this time of unprecedented displacement and given the inadequacy of current commitments and systems, the utility of both gatherings will be evaluated in terms of one central question: do they lead to tangible improvements in the protection and futures of refugees in every corner of the world?
In this critical moment, Church World Service (CWS), a humanitarian and refugee assistance organization representing 37 Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox communions and 33 refugee resettlement offices across the United States, calls for bold action on part of all actors, including the United Nations system, its member states, and the private sector, including civil society organizations. Cosmetic changes to the currently overwhelmed humanitarian response system will not lead to the change so sorely needed. What the world needs is a new, modernized approach to dealing with forced displacement that takes into consideration the assets and capacities of displaced individuals, host communities and the private sector. Timely resource allocation, full and unimpeded implementation of already agreed upon protection mechanisms, evaluation and ongoing improvements will be critical if these gatherings are to make an impact. All governments and international agencies must actively work together and reject the paralysis that can come with disagreements over jurisdiction. To modernize our collective approach and focus on creative solutions that will protect people’s lives, change will be needed for our systems, roles, and responsibilities. We also must ensure that lives are not sacrificed in the name of positions, pride, and bureaucracy.
Now is the time to look beyond the mandates that evolved over time and instead focus on preventing both internal and external displacement in the first place. This can be done by investing in development assistance; ensuring early and meaningful humanitarian assistance that prioritizes cash-based interventions and ensures the right-to-work for displaced individuals; creating true, new relief-to-development coordination in which host countries are seen as equal partners and rewarded for including displaced individuals in their development goals; and amplifying access to other solutions in the spirit of true responsibility (not burden) sharing, including resettlement and other forms of humanitarian admissions.
As a global and a U.S. based NGO, CWS calls on President Obama to lead by example. Given the prolonged nature of many displacement crises and the subsequent loss of life and human potential, refugee resettlement and humanitarian admissions must be utilized to the fullest extent. CWS urges the United States to double its own commitment to refugee admissions, from the 100,000 planned for Fiscal Year 2017 to 200,000, in a demonstration of moral leadership and as an indication that the collective goal of doubling refugee admissions is achievable with right political will. This is certainly possible, as the United States welcomed approximately 200,000 Vietnamese refugees every year throughout the 1980s, demonstrating that where there’s a will, there’s a way.
The vast majority of the world’s refugees reside in nations with very limited resources, while the wealthiest countries close their doors to refugees. This perpetuates migration that can be both orderly, and at times not. The United States should utilize its comparative wealth and proven expertise in refugee resettlement to go beyond its proportionate share of refugee admissions. Such leadership would demonstrate meaningful solidarity with displaced persons and host countries, and is necessary to reaching the global goal of protecting ten percent of the global refugee population through resettlement and admissions. All possible pathways must be utilized to provide protection to as many refugees as possible, including asylum, parole, refugee resettlement, in-country and off-shore processing, Special Immigrant Visas (SIV), medical and emergency evacuation, and expanded access to family, work-based, education, and other immigrant visas. Timely access to protection must also be accompanied with access to social services that help refugees integrate and thrive.
In the United States and throughout the world, communities, schools, congregations, and employers are welcoming refugees and helping them integrate in their new homes. In turn, refugees contribute to their new communities with their inspiring perseverance and skills, dedicated work ethic and entrepreneurship that help revitalize and bolster local economies. The welcome of millions of people across the United States and beyond must be met with the same enthusiasm, innovation, and moral leadership on behalf of the U.S. government. The robust hospitality of communities is a powerful antidote to the dangerous xenophobic, anti-Muslim, racist, and nativist rhetoric espoused from a small, but loud, and increasingly organized contingent. United States leadership must reflect the welcome demonstrated by millions of Americans, rather than allowing a small number of hate-filled voices to define the moral fabric of our country.
The narrative that certain individuals are less worthy of protection and a future due to their religion, race, education, profession, or arbitrarily defined “ability to integrate” is not only a lie, but is hazardous to our very humanity. If such a concept is to be deemed permissible, the entire human race must question any semblance of morality we claim. We cannot – nor should we even attempt – to establish metrics regarding the dignity of an individual or evaluate if they “deserve” the opportunity to live and thrive. As a global community, we must ensure that refugees’ human rights are respected, including the unity of their families, access to work and education, freedom from discrimination, and ability to participate in civic discussions that impact their lives. Refugees are leaders in their communities, including a wide diaspora of former refugees who have become citizens of the countries that welcomed them. CWS affirms that all vulnerable persons in need of protection must be welcomed, regardless of their ethnicity, legal status, or religious affiliation.
As the President convenes world leaders to discuss the global refugee crisis, it is also paramount that the United States examine its own role in denying Central American refugees access to protection. By assisting military and police forces in Mexico and the Northern Triangle in preventing individuals from reaching the United States, the U.S. government is complicit in refoulement, or unsafe return, which is illegal under international and U.S. law, and sets a dangerous precedent in terms of territorial access and the protection of vulnerable populations. The United States must recognize the Central American refugee crisis as a humanitarian situation, rather than a border enforcement mission. Access to asylum must be granted, the detention of families and children must be ended, and a better standard must be set.
CWS urges the United States to demonstrate accountability and hold other countries accountable to concrete implementation of international humanitarian, human rights, refugee law, and commitments made both at the United Nations General Assembly and at the White House in September. We cannot sit idly by while our brothers and sisters become refugees, struggle and even perish as they seek safety from the violence that has forced them from their homes. Decisions made this September will go down in history as either celebrated leadership or dismal ineptitude in the wake of a largest displacement crisis in history. The world is watching, including millions of individuals offering up their homes and hands in solidarity and demanding leadership from their governments. Let us not disappoint them, nor our displaced brothers and sisters in their time of need. We must overcome complacency and reject the lie that it is permissible that 65 million people’s lives are on hold. CWS is committed to working with government, non-governmental organizations and international partners to exhaust all options and hold all actors accountable for doing everything possible so that the displaced of today become the leaders of tomorrow.