Today, on #WorldRefugeeDay, it's hard to feel hopeful. This morning I visited with a friend in the Immigration Detention Center who has been waiting there for a year for his refugee status. He's decided he's had enough and is going back to West Africa. He's not sure if the people who were after him for political differences are still around, but he's gonna try to blend in and hope for the best. Another of my friends was rejected and is going back to Congo soon, but she has no idea what she will find there. No family. No connections. She has been in detention for more than two years. Whenever I'm in IDC, the arbitrary and ridiculous nature of their incarcerations reminds me of this scene from Parks and Rec. You came to find a dignified life? Jail. You came expecting to work? Jail. Trafficked here against your will? Jail. As they wait for their cases to be processed, sometimes for years, refugees can't legally work or be formally educated. In many countries (such as Thailand) you risk imprisonment as you wait. From my ant's eye view of the refugee crisis, since the U.S. halted refugee acceptance and reduced financial contributions to the UN, the needs have grown but the hope has dimmed.
Look, the refugee process isn't perfect, but UNHCR deserves credit for the thorough investigations in sometimes failed or uncooperative states and the care they try to provide for the thousands of people applying at their offices around the world every day. The background checks and interviews understandably take time. I'm not saying the waiting could or should be shortened, though that would certainly be nice. In the meantime, as the process moves along, sponsor states and third party countries have a role to play. If the unprecedented 65.6 million forcibly displaced people continue to be denied access to travel, work and and be educated in transitional countries, the dependency that so many sponsor states worry about will only be perpetuated. Somali children in Kenya go uneducated. Syrian doctors in the EU can't practice or keep their skills current. More personally, I know six Afghan men losing years of productivity while being forced to depend on others as they await their resettlement. I continue to argue that it's in everyone's best interest to welcome, assimilate, employ, educate and befriend refugees, be it on a personal or political level.
I met Alex Betts when he was a visiting professor at UT Austin a few years ago. He argues on the world stage (and in this Guardian piece) that the current refugee camp strategy employed since the 80's "undermines autonomy and dignity. It also erodes human potential by focusing almost exclusively on people’s vulnerabilities, rather than on rebuilding their lives." While the concept of refugee connotes a neediness, "the truth is that refugees around the world lead complex and diverse economic lives. They are consumers, producers, buyers, sellers, borrowers, lenders and entrepreneurs." Many refugees I know are more capable, motivated, speak more languages than I do and have skills that are more marketable than mine (hello my B.A. in History). I wonder sometimes, in my more cynical moments, if more people don't respond more hospitably to refugees because they are competition. Refugees continue to be punished for their nationality and the accidents of disaster or violence that have befallen their countries even as their abilities and intellect are worthy of all the things I take for granted.
As more and more people are moved/smuggled/trafficked across borders, unless there are fair employment systems set up, migration will get more and more dangerous and resources will become even more competitive. Things I've read recently put this in sharp, bleak focus. If you want your guts ripped out, read these New Yorker pieces on refugee children migrating/being trafficked from Nigeria to Italy and living in "The Jungle" in France after leaving Afghanistan for the UK. The stories have haunted me for months. Or read Exit West, a prescient tale of magical realism by Mohsin Hamid, that similarly left me thinking about what is both possible and the worst case scenario in a world in which nations keep turning more and more inward. The convenient nationalism and cowardly protectionism that infects so many Western countries can only continue to weaponize patriotism and divide people for so long until they realize that they rely on the global majority/"emerging markets" to source their iPhone minerals and make and buy their products and services. Like I said, I get pretty cynical.
The political and practical realities of employing and educating refugees are certainly difficult. But, as host countries become less willing or able to resettle refugees and there are more and more people displaced every year, we have no other choice. Also, I truly believe it works. I'm just one person, and I have helped enroll kids in school, secured jobs for teens and adults and taught basic English. None of this was hard, but it did take time and effort. Two former refugee kids I worked with in Austin graduated high school this year. When I was in the States in April, I visited newly purchased homes and saw backyard gardens of formerly-refugee friends. The refugee students I have worked with here for the past year are speaking and writing in English more confidently. They actually recently welcomed three people from their country, and the authority and the tone they took as they bossed the new guys around cracked me up. They are getting the hang of things here as they prepare to be uprooted and sent somewhere else, where they will eagerly start the process of learning the customs and language and expectations of that place all over again. As I sit here on World Refugee Day, I don't have very much hope in the system, but I do have an infinite amount of faith in my refugee friends and their resourcefulness and resilience.