Protecting the Human Rights of Refugees and Other Forced Migrants: Challenges at Home and Abroad

September 18, 2019

Refugees International President Eric Schwartz delivered the following speech at the John and Lawrence Bonzani Memorial Lecture at Binghamton University. 

Many thanks for that kind introduction.

It is both an honor and a pleasure for me to present the third annual John and Lawrence Bonzani Memorial Lecture at Binghamton University. It is a pleasure because it was Binghamton University, or SUNY Binghamton as we used to call it, where I spent four enormously valuable years—years in which my rather inchoate sense that I wanted to have a career in public life—that I wanted to make the world a better place—was transformed into a somewhat more defined appreciation for the options, opportunities, and challenges of such a professional career. It was in Emilio Roma’s Philosophy of Law class, Nathan Hakman’s course on civil rights and civil liberties, and courses in foundations of common law and in international law where I both gained a deeper understanding of the law and learned something of the relationship between law and public policy, which informed my decision to pursue a law degree. It was in courses on Congress, one taught by David Cingranelli and another by Edward Weisband, where I learned about the dynamism of the U.S. policy and foreign policy process, and it was Edward Weisband’s world politics class that really transformed my thinking about the world and my possible place in it. It was in courses like Al Vos’s Shakespeare class and courses in economics and philosophy, in the proliferation of instrumental groups with which I was involved at Binghamton, and the relationships I developed with friends and faculty that helped to equip me for all I have experienced since my graduation in 1979.

That includes law and graduate school, and a career that has included work in the non-governmental advocacy community focusing on human rights and humanitarianism, in the U.S. Congress, at the State Department and the National Security Council in the White House, at the United Nations, in academia, most recently as the Dean of the Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, and, now, as president of Refugees International. In that capacity, I lead an organization that seeks to promote humanitarian assistance and protection for refugees and other forced migrations, through firsthand field reporting and through advocacy. From Syria and Somalia, to Bangladesh, Burma, and Burkina Faso, to the southern border of the United States, we seek to ensure that that the voices of vulnerable populations of refugees and other forced migrants are heard in the halls of political power. 

I also am honored to be here at Binghamton, and associated with this great University, because of this public institution’s deep and abiding commitment both to access and to excellence. 

So now let me get to the subject of my talk: protecting the human rights of refugees and other forced migrants, both at home and abroad.

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 people who are outside their countries of origin—they are called refugees—and more than 40 million others have fled within the borders of their countries of origin—they are known as internally displaced people, or IDPs. 

Beyond these numbers, there are millions of people displaced each year by natural disasters—earthquakes, hurricanes, storm surges—often exacerbated by the effects of climate change. 

In recent years, the war in Syria displaced millions, both internally and beyond the borders of that country; misrule and deprivation has also displaced millions of Venezuelans throughout 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.

Let me begin by talking for a moment about the institutional and normative regimes that provide a context for understanding responses—or failures to respond—to the challenges of forced migration and humanitarian suffering. That seems like an appropriate place to start in a lecture designed to focus on students with possible interests in a legal education.

The UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, adopted in 1951, defines a refugee as an individual who has a well-founded fear of persecution—that is, severe mistreatment—based on his or her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Originally restricted in application to individuals who were displaced after World War II, the application of the Convention was extended worldwide—and without the Convention’s temporal limitation—by a 1967 Protocol, to which the United States became a party during the Lyndon Johnson administration. 

The bedrock commitment of this Convention is that governments will not return an individual to a place where his or her life or freedom may be in danger due to persecution as described in the Convention. The convention does not specifically provide for a right to asylum in another country, but that bedrock Convention commitment—a right not to be returned to a place where one’s life or freedom would be threatened due to persecution—is probably meaningless if it does not come with a right to have a place of refuge—if not the full rights of citizenship in a country to which the individual has fled.

But, as you may have noticed, the criteria to obtain refugee status is rather narrow. And we know—both intuitively and based on experience—that many people have good reason to flee—in fact, must flee—even in circumstances where it is uncertain whether they would meet all the requirements of the Refugee Convention and Protocol. 

If you lived in Aleppo, Syria, and your home was in an area of conflict, say, between the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition, and the lives of your spouse, your parents, and your children were at grave risk due to indiscriminate violence, you would flee—whether or not you could make the case that you were being subjected to persecution based on the five enumerated grounds that I have just described. And in fact, as a practical matter, the United Nations agency with responsibility for refugees, the institution of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, has often made judgments that large populations on the move due to such risks are refugees. When doing so, UNHCR has sought to make the case that these populations are, at first impression, refugee populations who would be at risk of persecution if forced back to their countries of origin, but the truth is that the general conception of who is a refugee has generally expanded to include people who are fleeing political violence. On the other hand, that expansion has not always come with a willingness of host governments to welcome such individuals.

And of course, there are other categories of individuals and groups who merit the concern and the attention of the international community but who do not meet the traditional definition of a refugee. Over the past decade or so, some 25 million people have been displaced each year, on average, by natural disasters. And due largely to climate change, these numbers are rising—there are quick onset disasters exacerbated by the impacts of climate change that cause rapid movements of populations, and there are slower onset changes—due, for example, to desertification of previously arable lands. 

So why should we care?

Most importantly, we should care because our common humanity demands that we care. The principle of humanity means that the suffering of one person—say, a Rohingya refugee girl 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 girl was your own—or  my own—daughter or sister. 

To be sure, it may seem impossible to feel empathy—connectedness—toward 70 million people who have been forced to leave their homes. The statistics are so overwhelming. And besides, while helping one person experiencing tragedy is fathomable, addressing the needs of millions seems simply too daunting.

But remembering our common humanity—and considering the circumstances of individuals—is critical, because it inspires us—advocates, policy makers, and citizens who elect policy makers—to promote practices and policies that recognize that basic principle of humanity—that, there, but for the grace of god (or fate), go I.

And this seems especially important in a country where the majority of citizens have forebears who themselves were fleeing countries of origin to find refuge in this country.

Beyond our common humanity, there are other reasons why we should care about refugees and forced migration—and the protection of the vulnerable—that have to do with more narrowly defined national interests. Let me suggest some of them, borrowing from my own inaugural address in 2009, when President Obama appointed me as Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration.

First, I not only identified the moral imperative—again, our common humanity—and the simple policy goal of saving lives—but noted that the people of the United States and, in particular, the U.S. Congress—had demonstrated strong support for generous efforts to alleviate human suffering around the world.

Second, I argued that the United States has a strong interest in sustaining world leadership, the policy benefits of which include enabling Washington to influence the development of international humanitarian law, programs, and policy like no other government in the world, and to leverage critical support from others.

Third, I said that it was crucial that the United States build sustainable partnerships with key friends and allies and their populations, as well as the populations of U.S. adversaries, where the generous provision of humanitarian aid can break down negative stereotypes and images of the United States and build support for U.S. objectives. 

And finally, I argued that the United States has a key goal of promoting reconciliation, security, and well-being in circumstances where despair and misery not only threatens stability, but also security interests of the United States.  

Nothing has altered my view on those rationales, articulated almost ten years ago to this day.

I would also add that immigration, including the resettlement of refugees, has well served the United States over our history. And while that fact doesn’t dictate what policy options ought to be pursued, it does strongly indicate that unbridled hostility toward migrants makes little sense for the United States of America.

In fact, it is impossible to imagine that the United States could have become the leading economic and political power it is today without the contribution made by significant and substantial levels of immigration. On balance, the data reveal that the overall effect on U.S. wages and U.S. economic growth from immigration has been positive, and that over time, not only have tax revenues generated by immigrants far exceeded the cost of the services they use, but immigration has been critical to the emergence of the United States as an economic powerhouse.

Immigration has revitalized declining communities and helped the United States to avoid what would otherwise be troubling demographic trends. In fact, new entrants and their families have played critical roles in helping the United States to sustain our capacity to maintain and support social programs.

So how, in particular, has the government of the United States, at home and abroad, provided support to refugees and others forced from their homes due to conflict, persecution, human rights violations, and natural disasters?

First, globally, in recent years, the civilian agencies of the government have contributed about 8 to 9 billion dollars per year to ease humanitarian suffering worldwide, largely through international humanitarian organizations such as the World Food Program, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Committee of the Red Cross and similar organizations, as well as a range of private voluntary organizations. While this constitutes upwards of a third of all international humanitarian and refugee assistance, it is far less than 1% of the U.S. budget. 

Second, the United States has historically participated, and been in the lead, in efforts among mostly more wealthy governments to provide resettlement—sometimes called third country resettlement—opportunities for refugees. There are three so-called possible durable solutionsfor the world’s refugees: they can return to their countries of origin when the conditions that forced their flight are resolved; they can gain permanent status of one kind or another in the countries to which they have fled; or they can be resettled in third countries. To be sure, third country resettlement, under any circumstances, will be a solution for only a small percentage of the world’s refugees, but for those in very vulnerable situations, including those in protracted situations that have gone on for years, this form of resettlement is an important option. Between 1980 and the beginning of the Trump administration, the United States offered this option to about 100,000 refugees, on average, per year—a small number in terms of overall U.S. immigration, but significant for those who need the resettlement option and important in terms of encouraging other governments around the world to do more.

And finally, the United States has had a system of asylum, separate from our refugee admissions program, in which individuals already in the United States or at U.S. borders could request the protection of the United States based on the fear of persecution in their countries of origin. In addition, the United States has had a range of domestic programs designed to provide relief to other discrete populations in the United States who would be at risk if returned to their countries of origin, such as trafficking victims.

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, have gone so far as to enter into arrangements in which they are complicit in the return of asylum seekers to situations threatening their lives and freedom. 

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 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, and the administration 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. 

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, what to do? 

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 really all that new to political culture in the United States or around the world. 

Here in the United States, there is of course our original sin of slavery, but there has been so much more. In the 19thcentury, there were Know Nothing appeals to anti-immigrant sentiment. In the early part of the 20thCentury, 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 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 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 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.

We can be encouraged that governments, from Uganda and Jordan to Turkey, Ethiopia, and 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.

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.

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.

And finally, we can be encouraged that students like those at Binghamton University remain committed to use their education and their skills to sustain these and related efforts—and create the prospects for a brighter future for hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Thank you.