United States government fellow speaks at UBC on refugees

According to United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations refugee agency, there are around 59.5 million forcibly displaced people in the world.

Most refugees have been displaced for more than five years, which the current system in place for helping them has not been designed to cope with. Approximately 19.5 million of the near 60 million displaced peoples are refugees who have left their home country — the rest are people displaced within their own country.

Today, there are more Syrian refugees than refugees from any other country — about 25 per cent of all refugees in 2015 were Syrian. The conflict in Syria certainly has been prominent in the media, but there are, of course, refugees all over the world, including many who have fled to developing countries.

Sarah Miller is an international relations professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and former Franklin Fellow in the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour’s African Affairs. She explains that leaving is rarely a choice for refugees — it is forced by violence, terror and war.

Miller is touring three Canadian cities in order to discuss refugee resettlement policies and to offer her expertise to volunteer groups to help them better support refugee integration into Canadian society.

It is not unlikely that the media attention given to the Syrian conflict over others is due to the one million refugees that have arrived on European shores since the beginning of 2015. The difficulties refugees face are enormous and are not limited to the reintegration process or trauma of the conflict they were fleeing. However, the resettlement process for the many Syrian refugees flooding into surrounding countries has become political.

“Right now, we’re seeing a lot of political football. Unfortunately, what has been largely a bipartisan-supported, very humanitarian issue has now become very politicized and very securitized,” said Miller, who spoke at UBC last week about forced displacement.

Canada has fulfilled its commitment take 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February. The United States has agreed to take 10,000. These are both a fraction of the 4.3 million refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict, which does not include the 10.8 million who are in need of humanitarian aid within Syria. Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan are hosting about three million refugees and Europe about one million.

Those chosen for resettlement in the United States are often considered most vulnerable — those who are stranded at a volatile border, in need of medical assistance or subject to gender, sexuality or religion based violence. Refugees are referred for resettlement by UNHCR.

Incoming refugees receive financial support for a number of months. In Canada, there are both government sponsored refugees and privately sponsored refugees. One student group that has been active at UBC is the World University Service Canada (WUSC), a program that fundraises for refugees who are students. The program helps them not only resettle, but also continue their studies, which are often disrupted by the conflict they are fleeing.

However, Miller said refugees lack legal, medical, physical and, in many cases, emotional protection. Even once they have been resettled, “people come in with PTSD … cultural assimilation, emotional support — all of these kinds of issues come together.”

According to Miller, resettlement is usually the third solution. The first two, finding a way for the refugees to return to their home country or letting them settle and work in the country to which they’ve arrived, are preferred solutions.

Countries across Europe and North America have expressed some concerns about the huge influx of refugees in need of resettlement. The main concerns are surrounding security and economic issues. Countries worry that by letting refugees in that they will also be letting terrorists in, risking the lives of their current citizens.

“President Obama has put a lot of emphasis on the idea that refugees are themselves victims of terror,” said Miller. “Half of the Syrians resettled in the United States are children and a quarter are over 60.”

In the United States especially, there is a loud rhetoric likening refugees to terrorists because of their religion. However, to apply for asylum in the United States, the screening process for refugees involves many steps and takes between 18-24 months.

“The security screenings are extremely rigorous, they’re among the most strict there could be. And while you can’t always screen out every possible threat, it logically speaking would be the worst way to try to come if you wanted to commit an act of terror,” said Miller.

Additionally, many countries in North America and Europe worry that refugees are an economic burden. However, according to Dr. Miller, refugees have proved to be extremely economically self-sufficient and often actually add to the host country’s economy by owning businesses. Although they rely on aid initially, most of them achieve at least 87 per cent of the new country’s average income within 10-20 years.

In Canada, Miller credits the increase of the quota of refugees in part to public support. Even in the United States, she said she’s seeing mass public support. However, she said, “The more [arriving refugees] can be linked to broader security and economic arguments, at least at the leadership level. I think that’s maybe where we can see some real traction.”