By definition, they're the people nobody wants. Conflict, disaster, persecution and other crises uprooted about 43 million people from their homes last year. Many millions were displaced by conflicts directly linked to U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. But despite its historical promise of refuge to the world's huddled masses, America keeps its humanitarian floodgates tightly guarded.
Recently, the Obama administration proposed an annual cap of 80,000 on refugees entering the U.S.--a generous number by international standards but a tiny fraction of the unrelenting wave of displacement.
The annual cap will include around 17,000 Iraqis (though the actual number admitted may differ from the annual target). The figure is a modest acknowledgment of America's moral debt to that country. It also may reflect geopolitical posturing at least as much as it responds to humanitarian needs--not surprisingly, the U.S. absorbs far more refugees from Iraq, Burma, Iran and Cuba than from the rest of the world combined. Regardless, opening our doors to 17,000 Iraqi refugees is not nearly enough, when measured against Washington's responsibility in driving them from their homes.
Betsy Cooper of the U.S.-based Iraq Refugee Assistance Project, argues that from a historical standpoint:
We could do better--and have. The United States annually resettled at least 35,000 refugees fleeing the Vietnam War for over a decade. After the Cold War, we welcomed over 60,000 Soviet refugees in a single year. We have played no less of a role in causing the refugee crisis in Iraq, yet our commitment to resettling refugees seemingly has waned.
What hasn't waned is Iraq's underlying instability, despite the formal end of U.S. combat operations and Washington's eagerness to turn away from Baghdad toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to the Washington Post, recent polls suggest that a majority of Iraqis who have returned to their country after fleeing now long for escape again:
Of those who expressed regret, some 60 percent cited security concerns such as bombings, harassment, military operations and kidnappings. ... 34 percent of those polled would consider leaving Iraq again unless conditions improve.
Refugees International reports that some Iraqi refugees who resettled in Jordan and Syria are so impoverished that they seek work back to Iraq, where they may "end up living as squatters in slum areas; many women turn to night clubs and prostitution; some children drop out of school to work; and others turn to smugglers to help them find work opportunities abroad."
The UN has raised concerns that Iraqis have been quietly shipped back on "special charter flights," possibly in violation of U.N. regulations, according to IRIN:
No country told the UN [High Commissioner for Refugees] how many of the passengers being put on board the plane were going home voluntarily, and how many were being deported against their will, but reports from Baghdad say police had to be called to escort some of them off the plane.
Calling for an overhaul of the system, human rights activists point out that many are shut out due to arbitrary restrictions, like a one-year filing deadline for asylum applications. Human Right First has criticized the administration for applying so-called "terrorism bars" so broadly that under the rubric of national security, even victims of militia groups are branded "supporters" of terrorists.
Meanwhile, Europe's reputation as a beacon of humanitarianism clashes with the continent's rising ride of xenophobia. Officials have pushed back against resettling "non-European" humanitarian migrants--i.e., mainly poorer, darker people from across the Mediterranean. In recent weeks, Iranian asylum seekers in Greece, who have claimed they will face persecution or death if returned to Iran, sewed their lips shut to protest their legal limbo as their cases stall in the immigration bureaucracy.
Canada and New Zealand, too, have tightened their refugee and asylum policies, reflecting fears of "boat people" fleeing from crisis zones like Burma.
The Global South isn't in such a privileged position to pick and choose among the desperate survivors clamoring for a temporary safe haven.
Typically, refugees in some of the most embattled regions are shuttled from one "fragile state" to another. Around 1.7 million Afghans have fled to neighboring Pakistan, only to face more militia violence and air strikes from the United States (which took in just 349* Afghan refugees last year)--and now add to that the devastation of catastrophic floods.
But even in a supposedly wealthy beacon of democracy like the United States, survivors are subject to all kinds of suffering. Asylum seekers, who apply for humanitarian protection after landing in their host country (as opposed to refugees who apply from abroad) may be detained arbitrarily, locked into a legal gauntlet that could drag on for months or years.
Amnesty International's investigation of the U.S. immigrant detention system reveals:
According to a 2003 study, individuals who were eventually granted asylum spent an average of 10 months in detention with the longest reported period being 3.5 years... Individuals who have been ordered deported may languish in detention indefinitely if their home country is unwilling to accept their return or does not have diplomatic relations with the United States.
In conflict zones, monstrous violence has spawned a transient, deeply traumatized population: children out of school, parents separated, workers unable to provide for their families. When wealthier countries arbitrarily deny refuge to displaced migrants from zones of disaster and conflict, the divide between the industrialized north and global south grows wider still, and temporary displacement shades into long-term devastation of whole communities.
Bringing 80,000 people into the U.S. on humanitarian grounds helps ease some of that suffering, but countries like Iraq and Afghanistan need more than a slot in a resettlement queue. The U.S. and Europe need to restructure policies to account for social and economic inequality on a global scale, while ensuring that individual refugees have access to critical services, legal help, and a process for family reunification. Ultimately, refugee protection must be coupled with assistance to migrants' home countries so that as many as possible eventually have the right to return.
America isn't solely responsible for the global refugee crisis, but as long as U.S. policies keep churning up waves of destruction and displacement, Washington can't justify shutting out so many of those who wash up on our shores.
*An earlier version of this post incorrectly reported the number of Afghan refugees the U.S. admitted last year. The cumulative number of official Afghanistan refugees admitted since fiscal year 2002 is in the neighborhood of 7,000.