As a former refugee, this week has a special significance for me. Over 40 years ago, I left behind everything I knew to begin my life in a country that opened its doors to people like me.
Like many African refugees, I was forced out of my country to reimagine my life away from my family, friends and community. I learned a new idiom, new history and behaviors, and how to fit into a culture that was outside of my own. I am now an American. I was one of the lucky ones.
However, according to the recent United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report, the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide has, for the first time in the post-World War II era, exceeded 70 million people. Of these, most of them are still languishing under inhuman conditions lasting decades — their futures in limbo and forgotten by the international community.
In the last 65 years, the global refugee rights advocacy community, including the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), has made great strides in mobilizing humanitarian assistance and enshrining the essential protection of refugees from refoulement — the forcible return of refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they are liable to be subjected to persecution. Unfortunately, given the upsurge of multifaceted global conflicts and the upswing of refugees fleeing violence, persecution and discrimination, racism and the global pandemic of COVID-19, the rights of refugees to live a normal and decent life have been ignored.
Albert Einstein once said, “The significant problems of our time cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” Although not in the 1951 Refugee Convention, the international community has made refugee camp policy in developing countries a long-term containment strategy regardless of how inhuman the conditions are — predominantly for African and South Asian refugees. This policy of containment has succeeded in keeping refugees in uninhabitable camps for several generations with no education, health care, meager food rations and no viable future.
However, the new generation of refugees has rejected this inhumane practice and decided to pursue alternative solutions by taking long, treacherous trails searching for freedom and a place to call home. Unfortunately, the international community’s response has been a policy of denying refugees the right to live a normal and dignified life, forcibly returning them to their first country of asylum, or worse, deporting them to developing countries in exchange of development help. These practices are unlawful, morally indefensible and a crime against humanity.
Worldwide, there are almost 27 million refugees, the majority of whom are children. The U.S. government set its refugee admissions ceiling at 15,000 refugees — a historic low for a country known to open its doors to oppressed and marginalized people. This year, the new administration raised the ceiling to 62,500, and refugee groups around the country are advocating to raise the ceiling to 125,000 for the next fiscal year.
Historically, the U.S. has built its global reputation on providing a haven for those fleeing violence and oppression — from religious freedom to political tyranny. Our aspirational values as Americans set us on a path to include people who, in the words of Somali poet Warsan Shire, leave home because “home is the mouth of a shark.”
America’s humanitarian values have provided us with immense benefits as a nation. The extraordinary contributions of refugees and immigrants to technology, business, engineering, education and the arts — to name a few — have built our country’s wealth both materially and culturally — ordinary people becoming extraordinary citizens.
This week, which marks World Refugee Day, let us remember our history and recommit ourselves to opening America’s door to the brave and resilient people who, writes Shire, “only leave home when a home doesn’t let you stay.”
Here is what we can do. First, we must raise the refugee admissions ceiling to 125,000 — while only giving a fraction of refugees sanctuary, it is a start. Second, we can work with the European Union and United Kingdom to increase pathways to admission in countries most able to absorb refugees. Third, we must provide funding for the developing countries hosting refugees to resettle and integrate them into local communities. And fourth, the international community needs to rethink the concept of refugee camps and provide adequate funding to the camps until people are resettled or can return home.
As a former refugee from Ethiopia, I am part of America’s story. I left home only when the home would not let me stay. I am one of the lucky ones. America is now my home.