The Refugee Responsibility

The discussion so far about thousands of child refugees from violence-torn Central America has failed to distinguish between refugees and undocumented (illegal) immigrants.  I've seen little from the media, from Washington politicians or even from the Obama administration acknowledging there might actually be something distinct about "refugees".

Lest we think of refugees merely as numbers, here are a few prominent refugees you may recognize:

Madeline Albright, former US Secretary of State. Refugee from the Czech Republic in 1948.
Isabel Allende, novelist. Refugee from Chile in 1973.
Hannah Arendt, philosopher. Refugee from Germany in 1941.
Bela Bartok, composer. Refugee from Hungary in 1940.
Charlie Chaplin, actor. Refugee from US in 1952.
Frederic Chopin, composer. Refugee from Poland in 1831.
Marlene Dietrich, actress. Refugee from Germany in 1939.
Albert Einstein, scientist. Refugee from Germany in 1932.
Victor Hugo, writer. Refugee from France in 1851.
Peter Lorre, actor. Refugee from Czech Republic in 1933.
Miriam Makeba, singer. Refugee from South Africa in 1950s.
Thomas Mann, philosopher. Refugee from Germany in 1933.
Vladimir Nabokov, novelist. Refugee from Russia in 1919.
Rudolf Nureyev, ballet dancer. Refugee from Russia.
Otto Preminger, movie director. Refugee from Austria in 1935.
Edward Said, philosopher. Refugee from Palestine in 1948.
Edward Snowden, intelligence worker. Refugee to Russia in 2013.
Sitting Bull, Sioux chief. Refugee to Canada in 1876.
Leon Trotsky, political philosopher. Refugee from Russia in 1929.
Maria Von Trapp, subject of Sound of Music film. Refugee from Austria in 1938.

In the words of Maria Von Trapp,
"Overnight we had become really poor; we had become refugees. A refugee not only has no country, he also has no rights. He is a displaced person. At times he feels like a parcel which has been mailed and is moved from place to place."
Source: UNHCR
I got just a glimpse of what it's like to be a refugee several years ago. I was on a train travelling from France to Switzerland with my brother-in-law. Ali is a political refugee from Iran, once a high official who had to flee for his life. He did not live in a refugee camp or have to worry about food, clean water or disease as many do. In fact, he lived in a quiet Paris apartment.  He is a man without country and holds a UNHCR passport. As we approached the Swiss border, guards entered each car, checking passports and interviewing passengers.  I showed my American passport and was treated with great respect, perhaps even deference. My interview was quite brief. Ali showed his refugee passport and was subjected to extensive interrogation. His briefcase and suitcase were opened and every item (underwear, prayer beads, papers) removed and thoroughly examined. The tone of the interrogation was harsh and intimidating, juxtaposed against my own. Without a nation-state to stand up for his rights, Ali was subject to every humiliation.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that there are now over fifty million refugees around the world, more than at any time since World War II. Refugees fleeing violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and the Congo flood neighboring states, creating humanitarian crises wherever they go. Providing shelter, clean water, food, medical care and other infrastructure has become an international responsibility. 

Today, Lebanon hosts over a million Syrian refugees, one fourth of the Lebanese population.  Jordan, Turkey and Iraq also share in the burden of caring for the three million who have fled that civil war.  Russia however has sent back Syrians who have sought asylum there, violating the international rules against returning refugees to danger in their native countries. But Russia is an ally of the Assad regime and turns its back on those who flee Assad. (source)

Sadly, the US and Russia share this selective ambivalence about families fleeing friendly regimes. Think about the major waves of refugees to the United States: those fleeing Castro's Cuba in the 60s, Ho Chi Minh's Vietnam in the 70s, Khomeini's Iran in the 80s. During the Cold War, the US gave preferential status to those fleeing communist countries.  

"...embodied in the permanent amendment of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965, which established a preference class for those who “because of persecution or fear of persecution . . . have fled from any Communist or Communist-dominated country or area, or from any country within the general area of the Middle East.” From the mid-1950s through 1979, less than one-third of 1 percent of refugee admissions were from noncommunist countries, and as late as 1987, 85 percent of refugees were from the communist countries of Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Poland, Russia, and Romania."(source)
There are many oppressive regimes that are not communist, of course.  Shah Pahlavi and his murderous SAVAK were overthrown in Iran in 1979 because of their brutality and corruption. But the Shah was our ally and we did not admit refugees from his Iran. When Khomeini's followers overthrew him however, Iranian refugees were welcomed.

So today we have thousands of women and children fleeing violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. They arrive in our southern states with no resources, no money and no high-ranking friends. They claim refugee status based on the brutality from criminal gangs, as compared to international refugee definitions focused on danger from war or one's own government. Whether or not they are granted refugee status, there is no question that they deserve humane treatment and compassion, unfortunately not what met them here recently.

In the United States, we have a quota established for how many asylum-seekers and from where we will accept for resettlement. But we do not accept emergency refugees, those fleeing warfare and danger in their countries but who would likely return when it becomes safer. Unless we have a potential political advantage for accepting refugees, we turn away. This was most notable in 1939 when the St. Louis, a ship carrying 1000 Jewish refugees from Germany, was turned back from the port of New York. Many of those onboard later died in concentration camps.

The United Nations is urging the US to consider these children as refugees, not migrants. Mexico has already expanded its definition of refugees to include all those fleeing systemic violence.  Yet neither Congress nor the Obama Administration appears sympathetic to the plight of these children. Both are pushing to expedite their return to war-torn Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. 

It's time for a more mature approach to asylum, refugees and immigration. Let's stop demonizing anyone not born in the US and weigh actual facts, not populist fears, when looking at policy. Escalating deportations, higher fences, armed border patrols, and intimidation do not become the world's oldest democracy.

See also: 11 Scary Charts


  1. This post was modified based on information from the Immigration Policy Center ( Thank you Adam for this link. The previous version said the US accepts few refugees; clarification on what we do and don't accept was needed.


Post a Comment

I'm interested in your comments.