Rethinking Refugee Resettlement: Why the United States Should Resettle More Refugees
*** I’ve removed the tail of citations at the end of the document. If you want the citation please ask in the comments and I will provide the source.***
After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, refugees, especially those adhering to the Islamic faith, became the most rigorously screened class of immigrants attempting to enter the United States. But what is a refugee and what distinguishes one from an asylum seeker or a migrant? And what rights does a refugee have compared to the other classes of immigrants?
To understand the idea of the refugee, we must go back to the rebuilding of Europe after the Second World War, where world leaders were attempting to fully comprehend the human rights atrocities that took place on the continent.
The 1951 Refugee Convention was a response to these atrocities and gave refugee status to those who faced persecution as a result of the events occurring before January 1, 1951 “in Europe” or “in Europe or elsewhere.” The “original refugee” was considered the European Jew fleeing fascism. The core principle of the 1951 Convention was the concept of non-refoulement, which asserts that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. Unfortunately, there was a grim precedent set that made the issue of non-refoulement a priority.
On May 13, 1939, 935 people set sail from Hamburg, Germany, headed for Cuba on a ship called the St. Louis — almost all of them were German Jews. At the last minute, for a multitude of reasons that could fall under the umbrella of anti-Semitism, Cuba changed its visa policy, thereby leaving the vast majority of the passengers in limbo as they waited onboard the ship in Havana Harbor — only 26 were allowed to enter Cuba. The St. Louis left Cuba for Miami, but upon entering US waters, the Coast Guard forced the ship to anchor before entering the city. Instead of allowing the 900 remaining refugees to enter the country as they awaited their visas, they were instead turned back and divided up among European nations. The luckiest ones were sent to the UK, a nation that was never overrun by the Nazis. The rest were sent to France, Belgium, and the Netherlands — all countries that would eventually be invaded by the Nazis, and their Jews sent to concentration camps. 254 passengers on the St. Louis died in the Holocaust — all of their lives could have easily been saved.
After the Second World War and the discovery and true magnitude of the Holocaust were realized, the United States assumed the role of protector for the persecuted, becoming the leader in refugee acceptance and resettlement.
In 1967, the United States signed the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which removed the geographic and time sensitive limitations to the 1951 Convention and expanded the scope of who constituted as a refugee, as if re-discovering the inscription on the plaque of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free[.]”
Then came the ban — on January 27, 2017, President Trump signed the Executive Order 13769 titled: Protecting the Nation from Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals. The order was broad in scope, discriminatory, and, as will be discussed in its own section, contradictory to its own purposes. The language of the order is purposefully misleading by lumping in refugees who have undergone the thorough vetting and resettlement process with asylum seekers and migrants: “Hundreds of foreign-born individuals have been convicted or implicated in terrorism- related crimes since [9/11], including foreign nationals who entered the [US] after claiming asylum; after receiving visitor, student, or employment visas; or (emphasis added) through the US refugee resettlement program.”
The way this section of the order is phrased does not portion out which part of the “[h]undreds” of terrorists went through the resettlement program. This is entirely intentional because as a citizen reads “[h]undreds” followed by “refugee resettlement program” they immediately combine all of these different immigration processes as inadequate. In reality, the refugee resettlement process is the most thorough process an immigrant can endure. A refugee has never gone through the process and been resettled with the hidden agenda of being an extremist and carrying out an attack on US soil.
A few days after the President signed the order, the state of Washington filed suit alleging that the executive order was unconstitutional because it violates the Fifth Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law. The state of Washington also alleged that the order was unconstitutional because it was intended to harm and discriminate against their States’ residents based upon their national origin or religion, and therefore it violates the establishment clause by giving preference to Christianity and disfavoring Islam.
While the fears of those who support the ban are not completely unfounded, the ban targets the wrong people, hurts our national interests abroad, reinforces damaging stereotypes about immigrants, and neglects the already arduous and thorough security checks any refugee attempting to settle in the United States endures. The goal of this essay is to debunk the false statements perpetuated by the current administration, explain how the actual refugee process works, and give an overview of the economic and social benefits refugees bring with them to the United States. This paper will conclude by identifying and promoting ways to improve the refugee system that benefits both the refugees themselves and the countries that host them.
II. Migrant? Refugee? Asylum Seeker?
While the terms Refugee, Asylum Seeker, and Migrant are often times tossed around interchangeably in the media and in political rhetoric, each immigrant category has distinctions that carry varying legal implications. An example of the misnomer medley is the often-cited “migrant crisis” affecting the shores of Europe.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees defines migrants as those who choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but mainly to improve their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education, family reunion, or other reasons. Migrants do not face a direct threat of death or persecution if they return to the home country.
Distinguishable from migrants, refugees are persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution. Their situation is often so dire that they leave their host countries in search of a UN refugee camp where they are provided food and shelter. From the confines of the camp, the refugee can commence the extensive and thorough process with the goal of resettlement in a stable country. This process will be detailed in great length in section IV.
When a potential refugee crosses the border of another country, either legally or illegally, and then attempts to become a permanent resident of that country, they are asylum seekers. The distinction between an asylum seeker and a refugee is pertinent to understanding the “crisis” as a whole. Because asylum seekers have potentially not been vetted or screened properly enough while still residing in a new country, citizens of the potential host country become fearful of attacks and their fear is not entirely unfounded. However, by strengthening asylum seeker laws and resources, and by devoting more resources and spots to refugees that have endured the vetting process, stable nations can provide safety and aid to those properly screened, thus alleviating the fear of the unknown and undocumented.
III. Understanding the Fear
From September 11, 2001 to October of 2015, the United States resettled 784,000 refugees from war-torn countries around the world. Out of those 784,000, exactly three have been arrested for planning terrorist activities — two were not planning an attack in the United States and the third’s plans were not credible.
Opponents of refugee resettlement — and immigration in general — will cite horrific attacks from those including the “Boston Bombers,” the November 13, 2015 Paris attackers (Bataclan Theater, Stade de France, et al.) and the Ohio State knife attack of 2016, as a deterrent against further acceptance of refugees. But none of these three attackers fit the narrative of resettled refugees with allegiances or sympathies to an Islamic extremist group taking advantage of the refugee system and carrying out an attack on the United States.
The Tsarnaev brothers, responsible for the Boston Marathon attacks in 2013, were not resettled as refugees as some sources claim. In fact, the brothers’ parents arrived in the US on a tourist visa — a form of entry with far less rigorous inspection than refugee screenings — and immediately applied for asylum upon entering the country. The merits of the family’s asylum claims have been called “dubious” by the Boston Globe, and the program director of Harvard University’s Project on Cold War Studies, Mark Kramer, who has testified in many asylum cases, said he sees “no basis for their being granted asylum at all.”
The November 13, 2015 attacks in Paris, the most devastating attacks on French soil since the Second World War, were largely carried out by European-born “fighting age males” (a term whose definition varies, typically between 16–50) who were radicalized over the internet and within their communities. They used stolen Syrian passports to cross the porous borders of Eastern Europe — returning from fighting alongside Islamic extremist groups in Syria — taking advantage of the waves of potential refugees and migrants overwhelming the continent. The attacks will forever be used as anti-immigrant fodder in Europe, as the continent is facing a crisis it has never experienced before and it is completely distinct from anything facing the United States. Simply put, attacks like those carried out in France would never have materialized by refugees in the US.
The United States has the geographic luxury of choosing who may be resettled in the country from the Middle East and surrounding areas. Most of the terrorists in the Paris attacks were already listed on terror databases, but moved in and out of the continent with ease, evading the authorities. Had they sought asylum on US soil — as asylum seekers, not refugees — they still would have faced rigorous vetting. This vetting, given their criminal backgrounds and already known extremist proclivities, would have had them immediately deported or, more likely, handed over to the proper authorities.
The most chilling attack that, on its face, counters the argument that the refugee program is adequately protecting US citizens, is the attack that took place at Ohio State University on November 28, 2016. Abdul Razak Ali Artan (“Artan”) came to the United States with his family as a refugee in 2014 from Pakistan. Artan had moved to Pakistan when he was ten escaping violence and turmoil in his native Somalia. Unlike many of those radicalized in Europe, who face wide-spread unemployment and lack education, Artan fit the mold of a successful refugee story — he was educated, did not show any signs of radicalization. In fact, he had been quoted as “loving America” for the opportunities the country provided. Instead, Artan personified a larger issue on global terrorism — rapid-speed radicalization largely proliferated via the internet.
Before his attack, Artan wrote indiscernible posts on his Facebook page citing the radical American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Although Awlaki was killed during a drone strike in Yemen in 2011, his presence lives on, often being a source of inspiration for Islamic terrorist violence. Why there is not more of a movement to remove his sermons, as well as other fiery clerics that incite violence from the internet, and to prosecute those who spread it as hate crimes or condoning violence on innocent civilians, is a question of counter-terrorism — a topic reserved for another essay. Artan did not fit the narrative of radicalized ISIS/Al-Qaeda members or sympathizers meticulously working their way through the refugee resettlement program and carrying out a mass-scale attack on US citizens — a failed knife frenzy certainly does not conjure up images of a jihadist Trojan horse, the image that the current administration spreads.
But any attack on US soil will cause wide-spread fear, and rightfully so, especially when the assault is carried out by those we have opened up our cities, houses of worship, and resources to. Whether the refugee is pursuing the more traditional path of resettlement or is applying for asylum while already in the US, there are a multitude of safeguards and screening processes discussed in the subsequent sections that are put forth to ensure terrorists or potential terrorists are not resettled next-door.
IV. The Asylum Process
All asylum seekers are potential refugees until their cases have been determined by the UNHCR or the US government. Depending on whether the asylum seeker arrived in the US legally or illegally will determine which burden of a fear of persecution they will face. In either proceeding, the asylum seeker must demonstrate past persecution or a “well-founded fear” of future persecution in their home country.
The two primary ways a person may apply for asylum are the affirmative and defensive processes.
Affirmative asylum is when the person is not in removal proceedings — he or she is in the US legally. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will have an officer listen to and determine whether the fear is “credible.” If the officer has determined that the fear is credible then it means that there is a “significant possibility” of establishing eligibility for asylum. If the officer does not grant the asylum application, the applicant is referred to removal proceedings, where he or she may renew the request for asylum through the defensive process and appear before and immigration judge.
When the asylum seeker has entered the country illegally, he or she must fight forcible deportation when pleading their credible fear in front of an immigration judge.  This process is called defensive asylum and has a higher burden than affirmative asylum.
The asylum process can take years conclude and sometimes an asylum seeker’s interview date will be years in the future. In 2016, the U.S. immigration court and asylum systems were so backlogged, that pending removal and asylum cases resulted in combined wait times of up to six years. For those applying through the affirmative process, wait years are typically two years and those applying through the defensive process (in immigration court) face wait times up to three or more years on average — this varies from the state and is closer to six years in Texas.
While applications are being processed, some asylum seekers live in the country while others are detained. This period of limbo asylum seekers face is the double-edged sword that typically divides along political lines.
While asylum seekers are detained they are accounted for, and given the far less stringent background and security checks they went through in order to be in the country — minimal if they came on a visa or perhaps none at all if they arrived at the border — citizens have their own credible fear that a potential asylum seeker could carry out an attack. However, it is worth noting that many asylum seekers are the most vulnerable members of society — children, single mothers, victims of domestic violence or torture, and others who have suffered persecution, abuse, or trauma — searching for safety.
When asylum seekers are detained they are often separated from their families and resources, limited to legal counsel, and exposed to viruses, infections, and psychological problems. Defensive asylum seekers are held in prison-like detention centers around the country before they get their day in court — the Department of Homeland Security detained 429,000 immigrants, including asylum seekers, in more than 250 detention facilities in 2011.
The asylum statute provides remedies that if applied sufficiently, will help alleviate the process of asylum seeker applications and the fears of a potential attack on US soil. For example, the “Safe third country” section of the statute provides that if a safe alternative country with a bilateral or multilateral agreement with the US exists (other than the country of the asylum seeker’s country of nationality or last habitual residence) in which the asylum seeker’s life or freedom would not be threatened, then he or she may be removed to that country.
The burden of proof is that the asylum seeker must demonstrate that he or she was persecuted or has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular group, or political opinion — this is the same high burden of proof for refugees. Further, this burden must be sustained by corroboration, or if that is not available, by demonstrating to the trier of fact that the testimony is credible, persuasive, and refers to specific facts sufficient to demonstrate that the applicant is a “refugee” by definition.
However, the asylum seeker, even if demonstrating that he or she falls under the definition of a “refugee,” shall not be permitted to remain in the US if he or she has: ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated in the persecution of any person falling into one of the “refugee” categories, if he or she has been convicted by a judgment of a serious crime, if he or she has committed a serious nonpolitical crime outside the US prior to arrival, or if there are reasonable grounds for regarding the asylum seeker as a danger to the security of the nation — great deference is given to the judge or officer determining the asylum status.
Lastly, asylum can be terminated after it has been granted if the asylum seeker commits a crime or it is determined that there are serious reasons for believing that the asylum seeker poses a threat to the US. When asylum is terminated, the asylum seeker is removed from the country.
Therefore, there are numerous safeguards in place for when the asylum seeker is in the application process. The issue of national security arises when the asylum seeker is moving within the country and his or her application has stalled. To alleviate this problem, more thorough screening needs to take place at the initial level of contact, whether it is affirmative or defensive. The extensive screening is already implemented for refugees — not asylum seekers — who are applying for resettlement from abroad. More resources need to be allocated for the asylum seeker screening process because those already in the country, especially undocumented (defensive) and not detained, pose the largest threat. However, detaining asylum seekers should be selective and reserved for those who signal any of the denial of asylum exceptions listed in sections (b)(2)(A)(i)-(iv).
V. The Refugee Process
The United States has long prided itself as a nation built by immigrants. After the Second World War, and the unthinkable atrocities humans committed to their neighbors was revealed to the public eye, the United States took the command of protecting the persecuted and became the largest refugee resettlement country in the world, accepting 62% of all UNHCR submissions in 2015. Americans also gave $350 billion in private charities in 2014 — at $1,100 per person, makes US citizens the most generous in the world. But even with the resettlement efforts of the United States and other developed nations, only .5% of the total refugee population was resettled in 2015 — the other 99.5% largely remained in host countries in parts of the world that can least afford to absorb them.
Further, there has been a backlash against resettlement fomented under the guise of populism and self-preservation. In the United States, which largely has the luxury of choosing which refugees they want to resettle, the polemics that extremists are slowly infiltrating our neighborhoods, plotting to attack us while sucking up our resources, still strikes a chord with a large swath of the American public.
The truth is, the refugee resettlement program is the least likely path for a terrorist to choose when planning an attack. Refugees who are selected for resettlement to the US go through a painstaking, multi-layered review before they are even accepted to begin the process.
Once a refugee submits him or herself to the UNHCR, a process begins that, on average, lasts 18–24 months. To be accepted for resettlement, the refugee has a high burden of proof that must always line up. Invasive questions including, but not limited to, What kind of knife was the man that killed your father holding? Or How many hours were you on the boat that night before the smuggler shot your brother and threw him overboard? These kinds of questions are the norm, not exceptions, to the early stages of the vetting process. However, the potential refugee’s word alone is not enough — photo evidence, corroborating country of origin intelligence, documents, and medical records are all required to continue with the process. Further, no matter how many times the refugee must retell — correction — relive the most traumatic moments of their lives, the vetting officer is continually checking to make sure the story lines up with each new piece of evidence. Only after six interviews does the individual receive refugee status and can begin the resettlement process — this process can take another 1–4 years, in which time their case will undergo 18 additional levels of screenings.
With the help of an interpreter, the refugee will be interviewed by three additional vetting bodies: a US government Resettlement Support Center, the Department of Homeland Security, and customs officials — for a total of nine interviews. In between these interviews, the refugee’s name and biographical data will be checked against a State Department database, and any new information identified in the background checks will be relayed to the next interviewer. Next, the refugee’s biometric profile, such as fingerprints and photos, will be checked against an inter-agency database.
Syrians attempting to resettle through the refugee process undergo additional vetting by the US citizenship and Immigration services because of the highly volatile and factious war occurring in their home country.
Therefore, no individual who sets foot on American soil will ever have been more vetted and verified than a refugee — especially one coming from Syria. It seems unbelievable that any individual seeking to harm the US would choose a tortuous process that 99% of worthy, credible individuals fail to access — especially given that anyone who passes through the resettlement process is immediately on the radar of top intelligence agencies.
Unfortunately, the US has accepted less refugees than in the past and have accepted more asylum seekers. This is a reversal of the American tradition of refugee humanitarianism — where we make it more difficult for those enduring the most thorough process — and exposes the nation to more risks, albeit still slim, in terms of violent offenders. But these risks do not come from formally resettled refugees.
Therefore, our goal as a nation with a tradition of humanitarian aid should be to resettle as many of the refugees that avail themselves to the formal process while making public the extreme security checks and vetting they undergo to promote public support.
VI. Who are the Refugees?
The seven nations singled out on Executive Order 13769 are Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Syria, and Libya. Lyman Stone, a regional population economics researcher, agricultural economist at the USDA, and a self-identifying religious conservative, compiled refugee information from 2007–2017 on the seven banned countries of the executive order. However, the study will focus on five of the seven because the number of resettled refugees from Yemen and Libya is negligible: 131 and 12 respectively.
The results of the study show that the demographics of the refugees from the “Muslim majority” banned nations are far more diverse than the government and media would have you believe. Although President Trump promised to help non-Muslim persecuted minorities from these countries, especially Christians, the Customs and Border Protection officials have rejected Christians coming from the Middle East while operating under the order — the very people he promised to protect. Therefore, either way the order is read — whether a ban on a religious group or a ban on all people coming from a particular country — the President’s order is misinformed, counterproductive, and/or discriminatory.
Here is the refugee breakdown by country:
Although Christians account for little more than 1% of the Iraqi population, they accounted for 33% of refugees from 2007–2017. This directly rebuts President Trump’s claim that Christians have an especially hard time getting accepted as refugees in the US. Of the 140,000 Iraqi refugees resettled within that time period, about 36,000 have at least a community-college level degree, with most having the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree, and about 84,700 are adults who could potentially have some kind of degree — many are children, too young for college. The refugees educational equivalent is roughly to or better than the level of education among Americans.
Further, and probably the most unique aspect to the refugees coming from Iraq, is the role many of them played in providing military aid to the United States and coalition militaries during the Iraq War (2003–2011) in the form of informants, translators, military contractors, and other positions.
Although the revised executive order removes Iraq from the list of banned Muslim majority countries, it took national and international uproar and appeals circuit court review to revise the ban. It should be noted that had the public and the courts simply acquiesced to the executive’s power, Iraq and all those who put their lives in danger by helping the US military would undoubtedly still be on the banned list.
What makes refugees coming from Iran so interesting is how much they differ from the Iranian population as a whole. Although Christians make up a tiny percentage of the Iranian population, they account for almost 60% of the 36,000 refugees from Iran. Judaism, Zoroastrian, Baha’i and Mandean faiths, which like Christianity make up a sliver of the Iranian population, account for almost 40% of Iranian refugees. While Shia Muslims, who make up 92% of the Iranian population and belong to the theocratic religion of the state, make up only 3.5% of refugees.
Further, the ethnic makeup of Iranian refugees is 43% Armenian, while Persians, the ethnic majority of Iran, represent only 9.5% of refugees.
For education, 28.5% of adult Iranian refugees have some higher education, a rate that is not dissimilar from many developed, western countries. Iranian refugees are a great example of how their resettlement benefits the United States by easily meshing with existing ethnic and religious communities and becoming productive citizens. Many Iranian refugees go on to become doctors, professors, and members of other skilled professions.
Terror threats related to Iranian refugees are extremely rare as the already smaller percentage of Muslim refugees are Shiite, a group who are ideologically opposed to, victims of, and helping combat, terror groups including, but not limited to, Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, and Al-Shabaab. As Lyman Stone puts it: “Americans hear ‘Iran’ and think ‘radical [Muslim] theocracy,’ when what they should hear is ‘minorities trying to escape radical [Muslim] theocracy.”
The Syrian civil war that has raged on since 2011 has become the focal point of the refugee discussion. Despite being fourth out of the seven banned nations in terms of resettled refugees in the US, the Syrian civil war has become a Middle East proxy with spectacular elements in every corner: religious fanatics, despotic regimes, leftist-Marxists, and western super-powers, to name a few. Because the Syrian civil war is at the center of the discussion, the refugees coming out of that conflict are highlighted.
What has made the conservative wing of the US weary is that while religious minorities in Syria (mainly Christians, Yazidis, and Druze) represent around 12% of the population, only about 1% of Syrian refugees belong to this category. Opposition to refugee resettlement makes claims that such low numbers of religious minorities from Syria (mainly Christians) shows the discriminatory aspects of resettlement itself and against what the program was designed to do. However, there may be logical reasons that the percentage of minorities amongst the refugees is significantly lower than their share of the population.
The Assad regime, although despotic, has ruled as a secular one. The Assad family itself adheres to the Alawi branch of Islam, which is itself a minority branch within the minority branch of Shia Islam — Alawites only comprise of 12% of the total Syrian population. Therefore, the regime has often times protected religious minorities, with some even fighting for the regime. Certainly the US cannot resettle people who are not even availing themselves to refugee services.
Further, especially for Christians, Syria’s geographic neighbor Lebanon, a melting pot of religious diversity, is home to Syrian Christians that have taken in their family that remained in Syria until the violence of the civil war. It is also worth noting that not every person fleeing Syria wants to be resettled in another country. Despite the dangers and destruction of the civil war, many may choose to live in a neighboring country with family to wait out the fighting and eventually return home — Syrians residing in the Zaatari Refugee Camp in nearby Jordan — the largest in the world — have expressed this exact sentiment.
Also, some Christians and other religious minorities elect to find refuge within church-run camps, instead of the mixed camps directed by the UN. These refugees would not be included in the resettlement process and would have to seek alternatives for their welfare.
Lastly, religious minorities have reported persecution within the refugee camps with little being done to correct it. While this is completely unacceptable, and I trust that the extreme vetting occurring in camps before resettlement shuns those who show/are accused of any intolerance toward another religion or ethnic group, it helps explain why Christians and other religious minorities may not elect the refugee camp plan, instead remaining in regime controlled areas or seeking refuge with family in a more stable country.
Should the resettlement process seek out religious minorities who are being persecuted for their religious beliefs? Absolutely, persecution for ones religious beliefs is black-letter legitimacy for refugee status and resettlement procedures. However, if the minorities simply do not avail themselves to the process then it will be impossible to help them.
But it is worth remembering that the ban on Syria is a ban on all Syrians, and therefore is also a de facto Christian ban — a Christian family fleeing the war-torn nation was sent back to the Middle East after their plane landed in Philadelphia. The family had waited months to obtain the proper documentation (they received F-4, family based visas) and reunite with family in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Most Syrian refugees seem to be middle-class families with about 14% of adults having some form of higher education. This number is low compared to the US, but actually high compared to the Syrian population as a whole, which is between 6–10%.
What also builds the case for accepting Syrian refugees and calming fears is that a whopping 48% are children, which implies that nearly every Syrian refugee resettled in the US is a family unit with kids. This is distinguishable from the fears of Europe, where, as I explained above, a large percentage of Syrian asylum seekers flooding the borders are “fighting age” males. Without even including the detailed, arduous, and extreme vetting process required to step foot on American soil, the statistics alone show that the fear of ISIS or another extremist group applying a “Trojan Horse” strategy to the resettlement process is just not in the numbers.
Sudan is another country whose refugee population does not resemble their population makeup as a whole. Since 2007 the US has resettled 10,000 Sudanese. While Sudan’s religious makeup is 98–99% Muslim, 20% of their refugee population is Christian.
Also, Sudanese refugees come from various ethnic groups, which can help alleviate fears that they will all cluster and fail to integrate into American society. The main groups are Arabs or “mixed” Arabs, Nubians, Zaghawa, and Copts.
Sudanese refugees are more educated than the population as a whole with 13% having some form of higher education versus somewhere between 3% and 9% for the general population. About 30% of these refugees are children, which suggests a large presence of families. Although about 34% of them are “fighting-age males,” which puts fear in those who are anti-refugee resettlement, a Sudanese terrorist has never been identified in any terrorist attacks.
The issue with Sudan (along with Iran and Syria) is that the government has been designated as a state sponsor of terrorism by the US state department. First, President Clinton designated the African nation a state sponsor of terrorism back in 1993 due to concerns about support to terrorist groups within the Palestinian territories and providing safe havens for a budding al-Qaeda. However, large-spread support for these groups ceased in the mid 1990s and Sudan has cooperated with coalition forces against al-Qaeda and ISIS. That being said, Sudan still has an abysmal human rights record and is one of the few countries that operates its legal system under Sharia Law — Sudan’s president has been quoted as saying “We don’t want to hear anything about diversity. Sudan is an Islamic and Arabic country.” This quote resurfaced after 25 Sudanese men belonging to an ethnic minority group were threatened with death for apostasy (leaving one’s religion) because they were practicing the wrong type of Islam.
It is uncomfortable and nonsensical that many in the developed world stigmatize those fleeing despotic regimes by somehow including them in the criticisms of their governments. We would never criticize a family for fleeing Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, Stalin’s Soviet Union, or Hitler’s Nazi Empire, but somehow a refugee from Sudan, Somalia, or Iran is automatically considered to have sympathies to the very government from which they are trying to escape. We should do refugees the favor of believing they are grateful to resettle in a free country and give them the opportunity to integrate into American society. The vetting process will weed-out anyone who may have sympathies to extremism and opposed to the civil liberties we espouse in the West.
Although the vast majority of Somalian refugees have integrated well into American society, the demographic does pose some obstacles not present with the other refugee groups mentioned. For instance, Somalians speak their own language (Somali), which is less prevalent and therefore less resources exist than Arabic, spoken by the Iraqi, Syrian, and Sudanese population, or Farsi (or in many refugees’ cases, Armenian) spoken by the Iranian population. Further, Somalian refugees come from a war torn nation with decades of chaos perpetuated by Islamic extremists and corrupt governments.
Further, the average educational level of Somalian refugees is low (3.2%), they are virtually all Muslim (99.7%), and are not ethnically diverse compared to refugees from the other banned nations. Many of them arrive as family units, but 27% are still “fighting-age” males. The group’s homogeneity fuels anti-resettlement fears that the refugees will simply form their own communities while neglecting American customs, fail to integrate, and cause violence and terrorism. But statistics and those who live in or around Somali-heavy cities simply show an opposite trend.
For instance, when President Trump insinuated that the Somali community fostered terrorists and increased crime while he visited Maine on the campaign trail (Portland has a Somali population of around 4,000 and Lewistown around 7,000) the community fired back with calls for “more love, less hate.” In fact, the police chief of Lewistown stated that crime has decreased 17% in 2015, which has continued the downward trend of crime nationwide.
Whenever a Somalian has been involved in violent crime or there is a social blunder, the issue is amplified and blanket accusations are spread across the Somalian refugee community as a whole. Leaders from the communities swiftly condemn all violence and sympathize with the victims, assuring that Somalian refugees are Americans first. Therefore, while Somalian refugees pose some obstacles as a group, they have integrated well into many American cities and should be considered a successful product of the resettlement process.
The analysis of the seven “banned nations” shows us that there is far more diversity coming from these countries than we are lead to believe, that the majority are families, mainly women and children, and that many are more educated than the general populations of the countries which they are fleeing. It is pertinent to remember that these refugees go through the painstaking vetting process to leave their homes and start over, in America’s case, halfway around the world. And that the refugees are fleeing the very extremists and despotic regimes that we criticize and loathe.
VII. How Refugees Help the Economy
A common misconception bruited about the anti-resettlement camp is that refugees, once resettled, simply subside off of social welfare programs and do not give back to the greater community. This view is incorrect and dangerous because it is so easy to accept as truth.
Refugees are often described as a “burden” for the countries they settle in, but this again should be analyzed on a country by country basis and not blanketed over every refugee resettling nation — for instance, the economic challenges facing Greece and those facing the US are completely different. However, research that has looked at statistics from all different types of countries, from Socialist Scandinavian to Western Capitalist to Industrializing African, showed that accepting refugees almost always has a positive or neutral effect on the host community’s economy and wages. Of course, countries incur costs up front to feed the refugees and help them find housing, jobs, and skills training, but research has shown that in the long term refugees are a “hugely profitable investment.”
The common fear from locals is that resettled refugees will take jobs, especially unskilled ones, and will be given the priority over American citizens and residents. But as I said in the previous section, many refugees have higher levels of education and skills sets that would not push them immediately into the unskilled job market. Further, because refugees that have higher education do not have a job waiting for them in their resettling country, unlike other immigrants who move for work. This makes refugees more entrepreneurial, thereby creating jobs for natives of their new country.
Refugees also help local businesses by purchasing food and supplies, and creating a demand for shelter and infrastructure. This is especially true in smaller cities in parts of the country that are losing population.
For example, Cleveland, a city that epitomizes “rust-belt” issues including drastic decreases in population, low wages, and poor infrastructure, directly benefits from refugee resettlement. In 2012 local refugee services agencies spent approximately $4.8 million to help refugees get established, but the economic impact that those refugees had on the community came to about $48 million, ten times the initial resettlement costs.
Cleveland is not an exceptional case either. In fact, typically the best cities for refugees are mid-size cities that benefit from the extra work-force. Indianapolis, Louisville, Troy (Michigan), Burlington, and Columbus have all benefited from resettling refugees in their cities. Refugee resettlement agencies in Columbus estimate that refugees contribute $1.6 billion annually to the central Ohio economy. The central Ohio study found that refugees were just as likely as natives to go to college and that they were twice as likely to start their own business. The top ten nations of the 16, 596 refugees resettled in central Ohio since 1983 are Bhutan, Iraq, Burma, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, and Iran.
The city of Utica, New York, is another example of rust-belt flight and decay that benefits from refugee resettlement. In fact, about a quarter of the city’ 62,000 residents are resettled refugees, largely coming from Vietnam, Bosnia, and Burma. The refugees have been an economic engine for the city, starting small businesses and renovating downtrodden properties. In fact, a study that looked at refugee communities in Utica and Syracuse found that Burmese and Bosnian refugees who have been here for more than 10 years are more likely to own their own home than the average US born citizen. Refugees start their own businesses at a rate close to the average for US-born people. And that both Bosnian and Burmese refugees play significant parts to revitalization by bringing new entrepreneurial activity, filling labor force needs, and renovating vacant housing and storefronts. Further, as refugees gain from the local economy, they are put on tax rolls, which is a boon to local fiscal stability.
As I write this piece from New Orleans, I cannot help but include a segment on the Vietnamese refugees that have formed an essential part to this already most cosmopolitan city of the American South.
After the pro-Western regime in Saigon fell in 1975, thousands of Vietnamese, many of them Catholics, had to flee their home because of the very real fear of persecution from the victorious Communists. New Orleans and southern Louisiana, being the Catholic anomaly of the American south (perhaps besides south Florida or parts of Texas) welcomed their religious brethren with the help of Catholic charities. Of course, the refugees faced similar apprehension and discrimination from both the majority and other minority groups, claiming that the newcomers were taking jobs and causing a housing crisis. But the Vietnamese were resilient, often times pooling their resources to make ends-meet and taking jobs natives did not want. This was not an issue of picking undocumented workers over Americans to pay low wages, the refugees were very much documented, as are all refugees. Eventually, the Vietnamese began opening shops, restaurants, and bodegas, all adding to the local economy and hiring natives of the city. And despite the language barrier and social obstacles that will inevitably occur with groups coming from other cultures, the Vietnamese became so entrenched and dedicated to New Orleans that one year after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, two thirds had returned to the city — their beloved church, Mary Queen of Vietnam, was cooking meals in the neighborhood before the Red Cross even arrived.
Those opposing resettlement of refugees coming from Muslim majority countries fear that there could be reprisal attacks for US military involvement in the region, especially for the War in Iraq or assisting Gulf States in their Yemen bombing campaign. But the Vietnamese refugees fleeing a war where thousands of deaths and birth defects have been attributed directly to US military involvement (it should be noted far more destruction has been attributed to the North and South Vietnamese militaries) have never sought out an attack on an American civilian or military personnel. Again, refugees want safety and the ability to proceed with their life, which may have been put on hold for years.
VIII. Refugee Economies
While the focus of this essay has been refugee resettlement in the United States, it is worth analyzing how other nations — nations with far less resources — have benefited from, and handled the struggles of, refugee resettlement.
Uganda, a stable African nation compared to many of its neighbors in the region, has been considered one of the most favorable environments in the world for refugees, according to UNHCR. The nation of approximately 40 million (ranking it around 35th worldwide) has become the third largest refugee-hosting country in Africa. Uganda’s refugee policy is considered progressive for many impressive reasons: (1) they opened the door to all asylum seekers regardless of their nationality or ethnic affiliation, (2) granted refugees relative freedom of movement and the right to seek employment, (3) providing prima facie (based on first impression, automatic) asylum for refugees of certain nationalities, and (4) giving a piece of land to each family for their own exclusive agricultural use.
It should be noted that Uganda’s carte blanche approach to accepting asylum seekers is not what I recommend for the United States. As I mentioned earlier, every nation faces different obstacles when resettling refugees and this point extends to Uganda vs. the USA. The vast majority of Uganda’s refugees come from countries caught in civil wars or regime changes, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and Burundi, but do not include the threat of terrorist activity. Further, Uganda itself is not the same type of target the US, France, the UK, etc. are to terrorism. What makes refugee resettlement to the US so desirable to the natives are the extensive background checks and vetting process refugees endure before ever stepping foot on American soil. But as Uganda faces a different type of “refugee crisis,” their approach will be distinct from ours, and for them it works.
Freedom of movement allows refugees to resettle where their skills are most beneficial to them and to the country. In urban centers, refugees have opened business enterprises including bars, hair dressers, milling, transportation, and retail. In rural areas refugees farm and cultivate land for self-sustenance and for their host country. Despite a lack of social services and poor infrastructure, there has been a commendable level of peaceful coexistence between refugees and host communities — intermarriages have been reported in many communities, which have helped eased tensions.
Uganda’s success as a refugee settling nation can largely be attributed to a shift in philosophy: refugees should be viewed as economic actors in charge of their destiny (developmental approach) rather than as beneficiaries of aid (humanitarian approach). When the focus is on transformative investments that address the pressing needs of refugees and host communities, there is a better chance that everyone benefits.
An extreme example of refugee resilience is the Zaatari Refugee Camp located in Jordan. The Zaatari camp lies just across the Syrian border where 2/3 of the camp’s occupants can hear the shelling and chaos taking place in their home city of Daraa: the birthplace of the Syrian revolution against the Assad regime.
The Zaatari camp is the largest Syrian refugee camp in the world — it has become the fourth largest “city” in Jordan. The camp has created its own economy comprised of 3,000 businesses. These include, but are not limited to, bakeries, barbershops, supermarkets, pizzerias, and bridal stores.
Jordan provides the camp with free electricity and housing for its occupants, and the UN provides weekly stipends for food. However, the Zaatari economy does not only benefit Syrian refugees, but its host country also.
Jordanians partner with refugees for credit, growth, and supplies, and the government provides vouchers for cooking and heating gas. Goods that are made within the camps confines are also sold outside — a bakery within the camp has gained a reputation for being one of the best in the area. During an interview, one of the founders of the bakery said “We want to work, we have to work. It’s our way of coping with our lives.”
Refugees fleeing Syria or other parts of the Middle East often times are criticized for not seeking asylum in more stable nations within the region. But it is the ability to work, to make a living, provide for their families, and give meaning to their lives, which makes the perilous journey across sea or land borders and into Europe the only option for refugees. For example, only 2,000 (or .074%) of Turkey’s 2.7 million Syrians have been allowed to apply for a work permit.
Initially, Syrian refugees were prohibited from working outside of the camps in Jordan, but the government has loosened these restrictions and now refugees are allowed to work in urban centers. Syrians are now able to work in manufacturing, construction, agriculture, and technology. A Syrian from Aleppo founded ShopGo, an e-commerce company that synthesizes online shopping in the region, which employs 25 Jordanians and seven Syrians.
The examples of Uganda and the Zaatari camp show that if refugees are provided with safety and the ability to work, they will thrive in environments with far less resources than the United States.
IX. Improvements to the Refugee System
In addition to establishing economic zones for refugees and cultivating economic environments for them to work, Alexander Betts, Director of the Refugee Studies Center, believes that preference matching and humanitarian visas can help both refugees reach safety and host countries improve the resettlement process.
Betts posits the idea of “preference matching.” Preference matching would allow refugees to rank in which host nations they would like to be resettled, and would allow for host nations to rank which refugees they want to resettle — this would be based off of refugee skills, language, and other factors. Of course there would need to be diversity quotas, but by allowing both parties to rank their preferences, there would be better chances of successful resettlement.
Betts believes that refugee resettlement can be more beneficial to both parties when geographic and demographic preferences are considered. For instance, in his home country of the UK, farmers have been resettled in cities, while engineers have been resettled in the countryside — no one is benefiting from that match.
Betts’ final idea is the concept of “Humanitarian Visas.” Refugees would be able to obtain the visa at a neighboring country or embassy and pay their own way to Europe or other stable host nation by ferry or flight. These visas would undoubtedly save lives (3,000 people have died on the borders of Europe), undercut smugglers, and alleviate border flooding — like the Greek Islands.
But Betts overlooks host nations’ unwillingness to resettle large numbers from Muslim majority nations because of the fear of violence. As I have detailed above, the fear is not unfounded, and the process alleviating that fear is the extensive security check and vetting carried out on every possible resettled refugee. If the vetting process takes place on the host country’s soil it would remove the refugees from immediate harm, but then they would have to be detained, whereby they would not be able to work and the reciprocal benefits would not take place. If a refugee does not pass the background check for whatever reason, the issue arises of removing him or her from the country and possibly stripping them away from family. Further, popular support for the detainment and social welfare of thousands of refugees is not likely to increase. I believe Betts’ “humanitarian visa” assumes too easily that there are not potential refugees who would pose a serious threat to Europe or other stable nations.
The refugee resettlement process already affords the “extreme vetting” the current administration has called for on potential refugees — no one will ever go through a more extensive and thorough process than a refugee being resettled in the United States.
The refugee population, including those on the “banned list,” is more diverse than anyone could have imagined. And despite their diversity, the thread that weaves through all refugee groups is that they are resilient, economically beneficial, and seeking — above all else — safety from persecution.
If you enjoyed this piece, you can follow Ben D’Alessio’s author page on Facebook and Twitter. His novels, Binge Until Tragedy & Lunchmeat, are available on Amazon in paperback and ebook formats. 25% of royalties are donated to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN).