Confessions of a Humanitarian Optimist

November 6, 2019

Refugees International President Eric Schwartz delivered a keynote address at a Georgetown University Berkley Center conference on “Current Challenges in Refugee Policy: Kids, Courts, and Refugee Resettlement in Global Perspective,” entitled “Confessions of a Humanitarian Optimist.” Read his speech below.

Many thanks for that kind introduction.

It is a pleasure for me to join with you today, to discuss the Human Rights of Refugees and Other Forced Migrants, with the subtitle “Confessions of a Humanitarian Optimist.”

It is with some trepidation that I offer remarks to this group of attendees, as so many of you are so deeply involved in the work of refugee protection: litigation on behalf of asylum seekers, advocacy with policymakers, engagement with the public, and research and writing to advance critical knowledge and understanding in the field.

And before getting to the subject of my remarks, which I hope will be affirming and not depressing, it is nonetheless important to state clearly the challenges that are in front of us as we think about promotion of the rights and well-being of refugees and others who are forcibly displaced from their homes due to violence, persecution, human rights violations, and disasters borne by natural hazards and often exacerbated by the impacts of climate change.

As most of you certainly know, at this moment in history, more than 70 million people around the world have fled their homes due to persecution, violence, and violations of human rights. More than 25 million of this total are refugees and more than 40 million others have fled within the borders of their countries of origin. And, again, beyond those numbers, there are millions of people displaced each year by natural disasters—earthquakes, hurricanes, storm surges.

War in Syria has displaced millions, both internally and beyond the borders of that country; misrule and deprivation has also displaced millions of Venezuelans throughout countries of South America; and a brutal attack on Rohingya Muslims in western Burma, effected by crimes against humanity perpetrated by the military of Burma, resulted in massive forced migration of some 700,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh, pushing the number of Rohingya refugees in that country to around one million. These forced migrations have come on top of older and protracted situations of displacement, involving Afghans in places like Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey, South Sudanese in Uganda and other neighboring countries, and many other populations around the world.

And much closer to home, misery and despair resulting from the gravest fears of persecution and violence has caused hundreds of thousands in recent years to flee countries of Central America in search of freedom from fear.

So where are we today?

Unfortunately, at a moment in history when people of the world would most benefit from genuinely elevated political dialogue on global forced migration issues informed by evidence, as well as by policies that seek to reconcile the legitimate need for migration management with more than a modicum of humanity, we are confronted with policies informed by nativism and a rejection of the biblical admonition to welcome the stranger.

In Europe, governments have closed borders to asylum seekers and, in the case of Libya, for example, have gone so far as to enter into arrangements in which they are complicit in the return of asylum seekers to situations threatening to their lives and their freedom. In recent weeks, the government of Turkey has perpetrated a campaign in northern Syria that is causing the displacement of many tens of thousands, with its president suggesting a massive and, ultimately, forced and illegal relocation of a million Syrian refugees into a region from which Kurds are being ethnically cleansed.

In the United States, we have witnessed a parade of horribles that reflect unmitigated hostility by the current administration toward asylum seekers. These have included unprecedented reductions in the U.S. Refugee Admissions program and efforts, effectively, to end asylum for vulnerable Central Americans and return them to situations of grave risk. With respect to overseas humanitarian engagement, President Trump has proposed massive cuts in assistance and has failed to speak out against horrendous abuses giving rise to massive refugee flight, such as large-scale killings and flight of the Rohingya to Bangladesh. In fact, he has not uttered a public word about these crimes against humanity, among the most grave of our generation. And the president has made clear in places like Northeast Syria that protection of vulnerable communities, like the Kurds, are of little interest to the administration, and he has withdrawn from key multilateral initiatives relating to migration and refugees.

Perhaps most disturbing has been the hateful and evidence-free rhetoric and the demonization of forced migrants and asylum seekers by the political leadership in the United States. And of course, what makes this all-the-more upsetting is the fact that the consensus, in the United States and in other parts of the world, on behalf of the principles of inclusion has always been a fragile one; and that, at key points in our history, we have relied on leadership to promote these principles, leadership that is now so wanting.

So that’s the bad news. But the bad news should not prevent us from being reminded, and being fortified, by the most compelling principle that animates the work of advocates for refuges, for forced migrants, and for humanitarian assistance and protection—and that is the principle of humanity, the notion  that the suffering of one person—say, a Rohingya refugee child threatened with malnutrition or sexual violence in a refugee camp in Bangladesh—is intrinsically no less significant, compelling, or worthy of compassion and response than if that suffering child was your own—or  my own—child.  

We can, and, I suppose, we should make as many arguments based on refugee contributions to economic growth, on the value of refugee assistance and protection in a national security strategy and for promoting U.S. leadership around the word, but for me and, I believe, for most of the American public and publics around the world it is this principle of humanity that is so critical—because it provides for us the moral foundation of our work and because it inspires us—advocates, policymakers, and citizens who elect policymakers—to promote practices and policies that recognize that there, but for the grace of god (or of fate), go all of us.

So why, despite all the nasty and vicious, gratuitously cruel policies coming from Washington, and the terrible ways that Washington’s assault on asylum, on refugee protection, and refugee resettlement is enabling terrible behavior among other governments around the world, why are there reasons to persevere, and even to be encouraged?

First, I think it’s first very important to come to these challenges with a sense of perspective, and to take a long view. And to appreciate that nativism, chauvinism, and bullying of migrants and others who are vulnerable is not new to political culture in the United States or around the world.

Here in the United States, there is of course the original sin of slavery, but there has been so much more. In the 19th century, there were Know Nothing appeals to anti-immigrant sentiment. In the early part of the 20th Century, there were the anti-Semitic rants of demagogues like Charles Edward Coughlin, who reportedly had tens of millions of followers. There was of course the trafficking in innuendo and guilt by association of Senator Joe McCarthy during the 1950s.

In short, there have always been loud voices of intolerance appealing to our fears rather than our hopes and aspirations, ready to blame the other in pursuit of political power. 

So these challenges, really, are never conclusively won—there is no end of history for vindication of human rights and the triumph of justice over inequality. Rather there is the critical importance of perseverance, of engagement, and of a willingness to stay the course.

And even in these difficult times, there are more than simply glimmers of hope for those who care deeply about promoting a brighter future for the tens of millions of people each year who are displaced by disasters.

We can be inspired by the strength and the willingness of those forced from their home to endure suffering and persevere—the Rohingya women, her name was Lila, whom I met in Bangladesh, who saw soldiers torch her village and shoot people attempting to flee; who escaped with her three young daughters as her husband told her he would meet them in Bangladesh, who learned later that her husband was shot and killed, and who was determined to tell us her story so the world could know, and determined to make a life for herself and her children.

We can be inspired by people like the Colombians I met last year in and outside of Cucuta, near the Venezuelan border, who were welcoming the strangers and providing assistance to the so-called caminantes, the walkers who were in many cases traveling hundreds of miles from the border to Bogota.

We can be inspired by these and countless other stories of the endurance and the willingness to sustain hope of those whose lives have been so dramatically affected.

We can be encouraged that while forced migration around the world is an overwhelming burden for millions of affected people, it is really a manageable global public policy challenge: refugees and others forcibly displaced by conflict, persecution, and human rights violations make up less than 1 percent of world population, and the 27 billion dollars or so spent on humanitarian assistance each year is really minuscule. In other words, while the bad news may be that governments are not doing enough to address humanitarian needs, we know that with greater political will, these challenges are surmountable.

We can be encouraged that, despite annual calls by the current presidential administration for massive reductions in U.S. humanitarian assistance around the world, the United States Congress has sustained generous levels of international humanitarian assistance around the world, from Africa to Asia to the Middle East and beyond. We can be encouraged, but we cannot be complacent, and we must do more, such as continue efforts to undo elimination of support to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, which provides critical assistance to women and girls.  

We can be encouraged that, despite the hateful rhetoric around migration and forced migration, the vast majority of governments of the world last year endorsed a Global Compact on Migration, a kind of rights-based desideratum, which recognizes that individuals forced from their homes for a broad array of reasons are deserving of basic protections. We can be encouraged, but we cannot be complacent, as those calls to action—including, for example, a call on governments to respond to climate induced forced migration, must be followed by real policy measures that define those responses. In this respect, we can be encouraged by legislative proposals in the Senate and House for a program of resettlement for those impacted by climate change.

We can be encouraged that international organizations and governments have begun, however tentatively, to recognize that the world’s refugees—those forced from their homes due to conflict, persecution, and violations of human rights—should not be warehoused pending political solutions in their countries that are uncertain at best and unlikely at worst—but rather that such people deserve access to education and access to employment and the ability to develop themselves and their families in their places of refuge. And in this respect, we can be encouraged that governments, from Uganda to Jordan to Ethiopia to Colombia—have sought, however unevenly and in varying degrees, to realize these objectives—and, as a result, South Sudanese refugees, Syrian refugees, Venezuelan refugees, and others in these countries of refuge are better off. But we cannot be complacent, as the protection records of each of these governments is far from perfect, whether it is corruption that impacted the program in Uganda, restrictions on the right to work and border restrictions in Jordan, failure to consider the needs of internally displaced persons in Ethiopia, or practices in Colombia that are lagging behind policy pronouncements about inclusion of Venezuelans.     

We can be encouraged that lawyers, in the United States and around the world, remain on the front lines of efforts to ensure basic protections for asylum seekers and vulnerable people. But we cannot be complacent, as the demands for legal representation and legal advocacy have dramatically outstripped current supply, and law firms and private philanthropy must do much more.

We can be encouraged by new and innovative ways that advocates are using to engage the public debate with positive and compelling messages about the contributions of refugees and immigrants. But work here has just begun, and while there is no shortage of survey data demonstrating that majorities of Americans do wish to welcome the stranger, advocates have as yet not succeeded in making support for refugees a winning position in our political culture.

And finally, we can be encouraged that so many of you remain committed to use your talents and skills to sustain these and related efforts.

I do not mean to be Pollyannaish, and, without making this a partisan speech, I know there are so many limitations to progress without a dramatic change in our country’s politics and the politics around the world. But none that should diminish our appreciation of the value and the impact of these and other continued efforts to create the prospects for a brighter future for hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Thank you.