The Global Refugee Crisis | Facing History & Ourselves

The Global Refugee Crisis

Sasha Chanoff, Co-Founder and Executive Director of RefugePoint, discusses the refugee crisis facing the world in 2016.
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English — US


  • History
  • Global Migration & Immigration
  • Human & Civil Rights

The Global Refugee Crisis

After World War II, we learned a lot about the needs of refugees. We actually learned that when they do not go home-- because some people will never go home, their homes have been ripped away from them, they've faced so much trauma and hardship and disaster, that home is no longer home-- what we learned is that we have to find ways for them to rebuild homes elsewhere, so they can find a new sense of home in a new country that they can belong to.

There's one primary obligation of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. And that obligation is that refugees are not allowed to be sent back to the countries from which they have fled against their will because that would put their lives in danger. Countries who are signatories are not allowed to do that.

And yet, too often, even that most basic right and fundamental need is not observed. Too often we see that refugees are forced back home into the arms of the killers from whom they fled or they are forced into dangerous situations. So even at the most basic level, globally, we see that the rights of refugees are not maintained. They are not upheld. They are crushed.

Signatories to the UN Refugee Convention have committed to upholding the rights of refugees. But the reality is very different. The reality is that these countries themselves are dealing with poverty and other issues. The reality is that they do not uphold those rights articulated in the UN Refugee Convention. The reality is that refugees are sequestered in camps for decades.

In Dadaab camp in Kenya, for example, there are over 10,000 people whose grandparents arrived there as refugees. They've been there for 25 years. And they have no rights to work, to really pursue any kind of life outside the camp.

What can I do personally? What can you do personally to address this global refugee crisis? Number one, look in your backyard. Look in your community. Look in your hometown. Are there refugees there? Can you welcome them? Can you make them feel like they're at home there? Can you help them to rebuild?

That's how I got my start, by meeting with refugees here in Boston and helping them to rebuild their lives. And from those personal one-on-one contacts, I started learning about what their lives were like. And that led me into this whole world of refugees and has helped to shape and inform my life and give me a calling in my life. That's what we can do, number one.

Number two, we can influence our governments to do more. Governments don't act because the people who are in those countries don't pressure governments to act. Samantha Power's book, A Problem from Hell, talks about the fact that genocide happens in large part because governments don't act. And they don't act because the people in those countries don't pressure their governments to act. So we can tell our government that we want to welcome people, that we must welcome people, that it's a moral obligation to welcome people.

Another thing we can do, when we get more specific, is that we can look for more opportunities for refugees to resettle to countries where they can rebuild their lives. Resettlement, if it happens in every country to which refugees have fled, even to a small degree, helps give people hope. It helps keep people there and not force them to risk their lives on the open seas.

Another thing that we can do is look for opportunities for refugees in their host countries. In this sense, we have to see, can they work? Can they move freely? Are there development opportunities for them to be integrated into so they can have opportunities of locals there?

These are things that are happening to a limited degree. We have to find those examples of where refugees are supporting themselves, where they are pursuing livelihoods. And we have to support those efforts to expand so that refugees can have hope and opportunity and can feel that there is some sort of future for their children.

There are many people who raise really good points over concern on refugees coming here. Can we support them? What about our own backyard? We have a lot of problems here. Why should we extend ourselves beyond our borders when we have so many problems that are unaddressed here? Those are totally legitimate concerns. But I think once you get into the details, they're unfounded concerns because refugees actually contribute much more than they take.

Our government has a refugee resettlement program in the US. Right now, 70,000 people can access that program. It looks like it will be a lot more. That's a good thing. We've actually seen that, economically, in the long run, it makes sense.

There have been studies that show that refugees, once they've settled and integrated, contribute economically much more than they take. They have regenerated and rebuilt depressed areas of cities across the country. We've seen even in refugee hosting countries that refugees who are given opportunities by those hosting countries actually contribute not only to support themselves but to the locals among whom they live.

Not only that, but what I've found personally is, when you meet somebody face-to-face and you get to know them, it actually changes your life. It gives you meaning in your life. It helps you understand the world far beyond your own family and your own community. And it's the most enriching thing. It gives you meaning.

The Global Refugee Crisis

How to Cite This Video

Facing History & Ourselves, “The Global Refugee Crisis,” video, last updated September 20, 2016.

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