Nazanin Ash is vice president for public policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee and a visiting policy fellow at the Center for Global Development. Previously, Ms. Ash has served as deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the Department of State, and as principal advisor and chief of staff to the first director of U.S. foreign assistance and administrator at USAID.
Open any newspaper, and you’ll be reminded that we’re living in a moment of global instability. Over 70 million people are displaced from their homes, the highest number since World War II and nearly double the level recorded 20 years ago. Of this number, 25.9 million are refugees, over half of whom are below the age of 18. Contrary to what headlines in the United States and Europe imply, the vast majority of refugees—88%—are hosted in low- and middle-income nations. Only 10 countries, with just 2.5% of global GDP, host half of the world’s refugees. Conflicts have become more violent and more protracted, driving global displacement and foreclosing opportunities for refugees to return home. Last year, just 3% of refugees were able to go home. Meanwhile, violence goes unchecked: Conflicts such as those in Syria and Yemen have dropped the floor out from under the laws of war and humanitarian response, with indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, food and medicine withheld as weapons of war, access to populations in need blocked, and little consequence for the perpetrators.
In the face of these unprecedented global challenges, the global community, and in particular wealthy nations, have been in retreat. Led by the United States, global resettlement slots, which provide a life-saving opportunity to only the most vulnerable refugees, are down by over 50% since 2016. Humanitarian aid has stagnated even as needs have grown—on average, UN humanitarian response plans are just 40% funded. And in contrast to the relative generosity of low- and middle-income countries bordering conflict zones, the United States, Australia, and many European nations have narrowed pathways to safety for asylum seekers, with policies such as detention, family separation, and deals with poor, often unstable, sometimes violent countries that amount to cash for containment of asylum seekers in unsafe, even life-threatening conditions.
So what gives us hope?
The resilience and power of refugees: Just last week, our colleagues at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), along with lawmakers, members of the community, and partner organizations joined together to call on New York State to increase funds allocated for refugee resettlement from $2 million to $5 million. Miriam Escobar, a 37-year old refugee from El Salvador who was resettled by the IRC only nine months ago, spoke publicly at the event to advocate for those fleeing violence and persecution. “Fortunately,” she said, “there are countries and organizations to help the other people in difficult situations. It’s necessary we all join together to help other people in difficult situations. It’s necessary we have empathy, cooperation, compassion, and respect.” Also this year, Delegate Kathy Tran, who came to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam and now serves in the Virginia House of Delegates, introduced legislation that would make it easier to refugees and Special Immigrant Visa holders—refugees who served alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq—to access in-state tuition for universities.
At the International Rescue Committee, we see the full arc of crisis: We work directly in crisis contexts, in countries of first refuge, across transit routes, and resettling refugees in 25 cities across the United States. We see what people are fleeing, what hardships they encounter in seeking safety, and what contributions they make when they find safety and opportunity.
The courage and compassion of our colleagues worldwide: Over 90% of our colleagues are national staff of the countries in which we work. This includes Syrians aiding Syrians. Congolese aiding Congolese. Yemenis aiding Yemenis. Right now, as bombs are dropping in Idlib Province in Syria, 20% of our staff have been displaced by the violence. Yet they continue to deliver aid. Here in the United States, working in partnership with local service organizations who have served asylum seekers for years, staff mobilized quickly to respond to a surge of asylum seekers by opening a Welcome Center in Phoenix, Arizona. The center provides food, shelter, crucial legal orientation, medical screening, travel coordination assistance, and donated clothing, toys, and hygiene items to families who have fled violence and persecution. Alex Cruz, who works as a specialist at the Welcome Center, commented, “Most of the time, my job is the only reason I get up in the morning. I think I live to work, not work for a living. I get strength from what [these families] have gone through. What they give is a lot larger than what we are able to provide.”
New and emerging voices advocating for refugees: In the face of continued threats against the United States’ refugee program, a broad coalition of partners—from military leaders to the Mormon community—have joined together to uphold the nation’s proud tradition of welcome. For example, countless local, national, and multinational businesses, including the meatpacking and hospitality industries, have advocated for admitting refugees into the United States. Moreover, as the Trump administration was meeting to decide the refugee admissions ceiling for 2020, a group of 27 retired senior military leaders drafted an unprecedented letter urging President Trump to preserve America’s resettlement program. And after President Trump issued an executive order that required state and local governments to consent to refugee resettlement, the Idaho Dairymen Association advocated to ensure that Governor Brad Little would continue welcoming refugees in the state.
The groundswell of state and local support for refugees: In 2015, 31 governors, Democrats and Republicans, sought to reject resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states. Nineteen states proposed over 50 pieces of anti-refugee legislation. But almost none passed—communities across the country have rejected over 100 pieces of anti-refugee legislation at the state and local level, and last year, 19 states proposed over 40 pieces of pro-refugee legislation, nearly double the number the previous year. And after President Trump issued an executive order that required state and local officials to provide written consent to resettle refugees, communities across the country once again stood up in support of refugees. 43 governors, including 19 Republicans, along with over 100 mayors and county officials from across the nation consented to resettling refugees before a judge issued a preliminary injunction on implementation of the executive order. In a statement on his decision to grant consent, Governor Bill Lee of Tennessee commented, “The United States and Tennessee have always been, since the very founding of our nation, a shining beacon of freedom and opportunity for the persecuted and oppressed, particularly those suffering religious persecution.”
Growing activism from Congress to protect refugees and asylum seekers: In response to the drastic reductions in refugee admissions imposed by the Trump administration—this year, the administration has set an admissions ceiling of just 18,000 refugees, 81% below the 40-year, bipartisan average of 95,000 annually—Congress has increasingly stepped in. When reports emerged that the Trump administration was considering zeroing out refugee resettlement, Senators James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) and Chris Coons (D-Delaware) secured nine Republican and nine Democratic senate co-signers on a letter urging President Trump to uphold our nation’s values and continue to resettle refugees. Representative Ken Buck, (R-Colorado) led 17 other Republican representatives on a letter urging the administration to preserve our nation’s longstanding commitment to assist refugees. And in contrast to 2015, when Congress came close to barring Syrian refugee admissions, today there are four pieces of legislation—including the NO BAN Act, which would prevent discriminatory travel bans from being implemented in the future, and the GRACE Act, which would set an annual refugee admissions floor of 95,000, consistent with the bipartisan average—which seek to ensure America’s commitment to welcome.
Growing public support for refugees: Despite the direct attacks on refugees from no less than the bully pulpit of the president, public support for welcoming refugees fleeing violence has never been higher, jumping from 61% in 2016 to 73% today. This shift is driven in large part by an 18% increase in support amongst Republicans, 58% of whom now support taking in refugees escaping violence as opposed to 40% in 2016.
In the face of what often seem to be insurmountable global challenges, we find hope in the stories of refugees who have found safety and opportunity and in the stories of those who have welcomed them. Together, communities across the country are working to restore the United States’ legacy of welcome. And they will succeed.