As U.S. retreats from refugee resettlement, humanitarians urge more compassion for world’s neediest

Describing the United States as “a compassionate nation,” on Tuesday told the that America would continue to support refugees but said that he would rather they remain “as close to their home countries as possible.”

“Out of the goodness of our hearts, we offer financial assistance to hosting countries in the region,” Trump said in his address to the world body. “This is the safe, responsible and humanitarian approach. For decades the United States has dealt with migration challenges here in the Western Hemisphere.”

His comments struck a sour note with some human rights advocates who have criticized what they view as America’s retreat from helping the world’s most needy.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times earlier this week, Melissa Fleming, chief spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, underscored the challenges facing the more than 65 million displaced people and 22 million refugees in the world.

The discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

The statistics are staggering. How do you get people to think about displaced people and refugees as more than just a statistic?

There’s a saying: statistics are human beings with the tears dried off. And beyond that … if you push out statistics and human beings are behind them, the result is that people just become numb. The problem just becomes too big. The other problem is that they can be manipulated to generate fear among populations and to garner votes.

So the best thing to do is to tell the individual stories behind those statistics, and all refugee stories are extremely compelling. They are harrowing survival stories and incredible stories of triumph of the human spirit and resilience.

So what are the kinds of stories that resonate when you speak to refugees?

One of the things I always ask refugees is, “What did you take with you when the bombs were falling on your house, or the tanks were rolling into your neighborhood?”

There was one story that I can’t get out of my mind of a young Syrian teenager, who just graduated from high school in the city of Homs. I was speaking to him in his tent in Lebanon and asked him, “What did you take?” And then he got up and went to the other side of the tent and came back with this silk-covered package that he unraveled, and then presented me with his high school diploma.

He said, “I took my high school diploma because my life depended on it. Without education I am nothing.”

What refugees tell me is also that the worst thing about the refugee experience is losing control of your life, that you no longer are the director of your life. But what I find is, very often, if you help refugees a little bit, then they can take back that control and move on despite all of the trauma that they’ve gone through. They just need a bit of help.

That bit of help could come from countries through resettlement. But the Trump administration is actually considering slashing resettlement numbers. What are the likely implications of such an action?

This is at a time when we have record numbers of refugees in the world, so we’re hoping that the U.S. will continue its leadership in humanity, because the people who are being resettled are the most vulnerable people — victims of torture, women who’ve been raped, children with medical conditions that can’t be treated in the country where they’re being hosted.

We’re hoping that the program will continue and that the U.S. will recognize that there is no more vetted person arriving in the United States than a refugee.

How do you dispel the fear that some people who want to do the U.S. harm may slip through as refugees?

The screening process is incredibly thorough. It starts with UNHCR that knows the case of each and every refugee. Our people on the ground have incredible knowledge and can cross-check a lot of the information. And once we’ve done our screening, the screening process restarts again with the country that has agreed to accept, unconditionally, this refugee, or this refugee family.

And the U.S. process is the most rigorous of any process in the world. It goes through many layers. And so we feel extremely confident that … these are people who are fleeing terrorism, not people who are bringing terrorism.

What’s your message to wealthy nations that have been criticized for shirking their responsibility for helping refugees?

The first message is recognize that 86% of the world’s refugees are in the developing countries, in poor countries. And those are the countries that need to be recognized for their humanity and also just the burden that they’re undertaking by hosting so many.

So support them and support them through development projects, infrastructure projects, and then support the humanitarian organizations … working on the ground to make sure the people fleeing war and persecution are not having to suffer so much again, that they have not just shelter over their heads but the ability to restart their lives — their children can go to school, the adults can receive therapy, and then they can rebuild their lives and move on.

We’ve seen a backlash by some of these poor host countries that have their own challenges. Take Kenya, for example, that has threatened to close its refugee camps. Why should they continue to bear the burden of refugees? Can they?

We can understand that Kenya gets frustrated and that it doesn’t feel like its generosity towards these refugees has been recognized as much as it should be by the international community. And when it sees that other richer countries that are taking in far, far fewer [refugees] are shutting their borders, then that does not send the right signal.

[But] we’re very hopeful. The world came together at the U.N. one year ago, united, to say we have to do more to help the world’s refugees, to respond to the world’s refugees, and to support the countries that are hosting them. So the pledges are there, but now we have to see this translated into more support for those countries, more support for UNHCR.

What are the durable solutions?

First of all, stop the conflicts that are driving so many people from their homes. Work to implement the [United Nations] sustainable development goals [a set of targets relating to future global development] … because if many of these goals were implemented you would not have the instability that leads to conflicts. Support the countries hosting so many refugees, but then also do your share through legal avenues like resettlement, like student scholarships. Take a meaningful proportion of refugees into your country in a regular way.

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