President and Chief Executive Officer, HIAS
President and Chief Executive Officer, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Senior Vice President, United States Programs and Awards Management Unit, International Rescue Committee
National Religion Correspondent, The New York Times
Mark Hetfield, president and chief executive officer of HIAS; Eskinder Negash, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants; and Jennifer Sime, senior vice president of United States programs and awards management unit at the International Rescue Committee, discuss the global refugee response, with Laurie Goodstein, national religion correspondent for the New York Times, moderating. This session took place at the American Academy of Religion 2018 Annual Meeting, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program.
This transcript has not been altered but is incomplete due to audio loss.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations luncheon. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach at CFR. Thank you to all of you for being with us. We’re delighted to be here at AAR.
As you know, the Council on Foreign Relations is a nonpartisan membership organization with a think tank and publisher of Foreign Affairs. Our specific initiative is our Religion and Foreign Policy Program, and we’re dedicated to being a resource for religious leaders and scholars, bringing foreign policy practitioners together with religious communities for discussion of issues at the intersection of religion and foreign policy.
I’m delighted to introduce our panel today. We’re going to be covering the global response to the refugee crisis. And I’m going to invite our distinguished panel on the stage.
I’ll leave it to my colleague Laurie Goodstein, who does tremendous work at the New York Times covering these issues, to introduce our distinguished panel.
So if you will all join me on stage.
GOODSTEIN: Hello, everybody.
Welcome. I was very honored to be asked to moderate this panel. This is a topic very, very dear to me. I cover religion at The New York Times for the national desk. But what we have been seeing over the last two years with immigrants and refugees, both the rise and the politics around it, I think, just makes this a really crucial discussion.
So I’m just going to make a few comments and then introduce our panelists so you know who we’re hearing from today.
So it’s just over three years ago that a photograph taken on a beach in Turkey shocked the world. Many of you may know what I’m referring to. It showed a little boy lying on the beach, his face was in the surf. He was dressed in a red shirt and blue shorts. He looked like, you know, a toddler any of us might know and he looked as if he were asleep. But he had drowned while crossing from Greece to Turkey with his family. His name was Aylan Kurdi and he was from Syria. He was only one of more than—well, we have some numbers, but they’re not so reliable, but let’s say tens of thousands of people, really uncountable, who have died at sea and on land in the last decades trying to reach Europe.
The experts we have with us here today are on the front lines working with these refugees. But I mention this little boy because I think it’s important that while we’re going to give you here today the big picture and the global picture of what’s happening that we keep in mind that each one of these refugees has a name and a face and a family and was loved by someone. It’s important to keep this in mind as we talk about the enormity of this problem. How enormous? There are now more refugees displaced around the world than at any time since World War II. Jennifer just told me the number is twenty-two million.
So our panelists here today are some of the top people working in this field. And I’ll start from your right. On the right is Eskinder Negash. He’s the president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. And he has his own refugee story that maybe he’ll tell you about.
To his right is Jennifer Sime. She’s the senior vice president of United States programs and the awards management unit for the International Rescue Committee.
And then to her right is Mark Hetfield, who is president and chief executive officer of HIAS, which used to be known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and now you just use the acronym, right? Yeah. So, OK.
All right. Let’s start with the basics. Why are people fleeing? Who are they? And where are they coming from now?
So maybe Jennifer can start us off with the global picture.
SIME: Sure. Can everybody hear me OK? No? All right.
GOODSTEIN: Can we get Jennifer?
SIME: Yeah. So the global picture is really not a pretty one. As Laurie just said, we have the highest number of refugees and internally displaced people throughout the world since World War II. So there’s approximately sixty-five (million), sixty-six million people who are either refugees or internally displaced at this point in time. The number of refugees is about twenty—anywhere from twenty-two to twenty-four million people. And of those twenty-two (million) to twenty-four million, about 1.4 (million) are in need of protection, 1.4 million; 4 percent, specifically.
So as you know from reading the news, there are a number of conflicts right now that have afflicted the world. A lot of the increase in the refugee numbers in recent years has been driven, of course, by the war in Syria where we have had people fleeing from Syria into neighboring countries, particularly Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, and more recently as we saw the influx into European countries.
But there’s also many other crises that don’t get as much attention that are out there. So there’s six hundred thousand people living in refugee camps in Bangladesh and that Rohingya that left Myanmar. We’ve got also very large numbers of South Sudanese that are in Uganda or in other neighboring countries. And we have, closer to home, there are five thousand people every day crossing from Venezuela into Colombia, which is a crisis that really is not getting enough attention in the States.
In terms of refugee resettlement, though, and where people are coming from, it usually takes a few years for the crisis to happen and then for us to actually start receiving refugees from those countries, in part because the system that we have is quite onerous and so it takes a while for people to be resettled.
So we used to have, up until 2016, large numbers of people coming from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Somalia. Those are probably the largest groups in the last—certainly in the last year. We have seen those numbers decline drastically. And I did bring some figures with me that I can tell you just so that you get a sense of it. But in fiscal year ’18, only sixty Syrians arrived in the United States. That’s literally a 99 percent decrease from 2017. Only thirty-five Iranians, only a hundred and thirty Iraqis. And then this one really hits me every time I think about this number: Only five Yazidi arrivals in the whole of FY 2018. So those numbers have gone down drastically.
So what we’re seeing right now is larger numbers of the refugees coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo, from Ukraine, from Burma, still some from the Bhutanese caseload that we have been resettling over the last ten years or so. The DRC seems to be sort of the largest group of refugees at this time.
GOODSTEIN: Where are they going? I mean, I think we have this image that refugees are always in refugee camps, you know, and there’s these tents and we can picture it. But I think, you know, I think it’s more complicated than that and it’s changing.
Eskinder, is that something you could talk about?
NEGASH: Great. So I think we have two kinds of crisis. The crisis of the number of refugees and IDPs, as Jennifer mentioned, the number is approaching about sixty-seven million. I think the other crisis we have is our response to the crisis.
HETFIELD: (In progress following audio break)—five dollars we spend—well, for every one dollar we spend bringing refugees here, we spend five (dollars) in assistance where they actually are in their countries of first asylum. It’s always been a strategy where we use resettlement to complement local solutions, not to replace them.
And in fact, this administration has proposed slashing refugee assistance by about 25 percent. So that’s not even really true. They’re not taking the resettlement money and reinvesting it in refugee assistance. They’re just trying to slash the budget across the board. Fortunately, Congress has not allowed them to do that over the last few years and has kept the budget constant. But every year, they’ve proposed a slash.
One thing that’s changed, as we all know, is the way that refugees are spoken of. Now, this didn’t start with this administration. This started to go downhill in 2015 when thirty-one governors and all fourteen Republican presidential candidates declared that we should have a pause on Syrian-Muslim refugees coming into this country. And that was shocking that we would actually discriminate on refugees based on what country they were born in or what religion they follow. That was—we haven’t seen that for a long, long time. So that started before this administration, but that has certainly been continued by this administration.
How has it been continued? One is through this so-called extreme vetting of refugees who are resettled here. And this is something Jennifer certainly alluded to. There was already extreme vetting of refugees in the resettlement program. It was already an extremely cumbersome and lengthy process where they vet everybody upside down and sideways, taking their fingerprints, running their bio data, and their names through multiple databases, doing face-to-face interviews, thorough file reviews. But that has been replaced by not extreme vetting, but extreme exclusion. So it’s not really vetting when you’re not bringing people in anymore and that’s what’s going on right now.
I mean, the comparison—again, Jennifer mentioned these statistics. In 2016, we resettled 12,587 Syrians. This year, sixty—sixty, not sixty thousand, sixty. 2016, we resettled 3,750 Iranians. This year, thirty-five. Nine thousand eight hundred and eighty Iraqis in 2016. This year, a hundred and thirty. Nine thousand twenty Somalis in 2016. This year, two hundred and fifty.
And it’s not totally fair to call this a Muslim ban because in fact this is impacting the Christians and Jews and Bahá'í from these countries as well as Muslims. I mean, everybody is being impacted. HIAS runs the program to bring Iranian religious minorities over here through Vienna. We have not had a single arrival since early 2017. So there has been a real serious impact.
The other—the other impact is, every year the president sets a refugee ceiling. Again, since the Refugee Act of 1980, that has been the custom. When the Refugee Act was first passed, the ceiling was actually higher than two hundred thousand refugees a year. It became, more or less, normal for the—for the ceiling to be seventy thousand, then it was raised to eighty-five thousand in 2016 and a hundred and ten thousand for 2017.
Well, this ceiling has always been treated as a goal by each administration. It’s not a goal that was always reached, but it was always treated as a goal. And in fact, in 2013, ’14, ’15, and ’16, the administration came—and I’m not exaggerating—within 99.9 percent of that ceiling. They managed to go just under that ceiling because they knew that every refugee short of that ceiling was a life lost or a life wasted. Because when the fiscal year ends, those numbers evaporate.
There’s a very different approach being taken this year. So we’ve gone from taking in 99.9 percent of the ceiling to under 50 percent in 2017 and under 50 percent in 2018, even though 2018 was the lowest ceiling in history—until 2019. So now we have to see how the administration performs. Hopefully they will manage to exceed 50 percent of the lowest ceiling ever.
Last thing I’ll say about changes that they’ve made. This administration loves to talk about how they just want people to come here through legal avenues. Well, in fact, they’ve closed those legal avenues. There weren’t that many to begin with. There was, for example, the Central American Minors Program which was created so that kids with relatives in the U.S. from Central America, from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador would not risk their lives fleeing across the desert, you know, putting their lives in the hands of coyotes. Well, that program has been ended so that avenue is no longer there. So once again, they have to go over illegally. We wonder where this caravan came from.
And there just have not been any new resettlement programs that have opened since that time. There are no discussions with us and the State Department anymore about improving the quality of resettlement, about the real problems that resettled refugees face, because there are real problems. The program does have real flaws, but one of those flaws is not security and has never been security. There are 3.1 million refugees have been admitted to the U.S. since 1980—3.1 million. How many of those have committed a lethal act of terror? Zero, not one, because we have effective vetting.
But nonetheless, all of our conversations are about, how do we vet these refugees more effectively? And we’re not vetting them effectively because if you’re not bringing them in that’s not effective vetting. If CBP—if TSA keeps you from boarding a plane at the airport, that’s not effective vetting and that’s exactly what’s happening right now is this is not vetting, this is just pure exclusion. Thank you.
GOODSTEIN: You talked about the drop-off in people coming from Muslim-majority countries and then it’s not just Muslims. What’s the overall picture in terms of religious affiliation of people admitted? Has that—has that changed? Are we seeing a rise, say, overall in Christians from other countries or in, you know, people persecuted of other faiths, from other countries? What’s the—what’s the big picture in terms of the change of the religious composition?
HETFIELD: There’s been a significant decrease in the number of Christians coming to this country, but there’s been an increase in their percentage of a much, much lower caseload. But everybody is adversely affected.
Clearly, they’re targeting Muslim-majority countries. The majority of refugees in the world right now are in fact Muslims. And so they have disproportionately affected, but all the numbers are down, Christians as well as Muslims.
SIME: I do have a couple of statistics on that. So going back to 2016, we resettled across the United States—46 percent of the refugees we resettled were Muslim and 44 percent were Christian. Fast forward to 2018, 16 percent are Muslim and 71 percent are Christian. So that gives you a sense of the way things have changed.
You know, that has to do with the fact that a lot of the countries or the refugees that are coming—DRC or Ukraine obviously are not Muslim countries, so they account for a large proportion of those—of that population, then those numbers are going to go up.
As Mark said, they’re down across the board for absolutely everybody, but we definitely see that with those populations that we were resettling in large numbers in 2016, those are really low in terms of arrivals right now and account for the massive decrease in Muslim refugees coming into the country.
NEGASH: And just to add. So it’s very sad now, you know, when refugees are coming or refugees are asking asylum, we are now starting to see them through their beliefs, who they—you know, what God they believe, rather than whether they have a well-founded fear of persecution because of their religion or politics and something else. So the idea that this narrative now is framed based on really just perspective, it shows to me that the whole system is in need of reframing, you know?
You know, imagine if we make the decision solely based on refugee—based on religion, imagine what kind of refugee program we’d have. You know, from my perspective, you know, once we start defining and once we’re accepting people or denying people because of their religion, then we’ll lose the whole humanity of the idea that these people are in danger, they have a well-founded fear of persecution because of their religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, you know, any other issues. But the administration—and it’s not only here. It’s actually, as I said previously, refugees are for the first time being seen through a national security perspective rather than from a humanitarian perspective. So we don’t see them first as people who look like us because, first, we have to see what religion they follow, whether they’re going to be a threat to us or to the country.
So it is a sad story. Imagine, when I came here as a refugee, if my religion wasn’t a priority, I would still be, you know, in a refugee camp maybe. The idea that, you know, we’re questioning people what God—which God they worship is itself a crisis. That’s why I said, you know, we have a number of crises, but there is a crisis of humanity. We stopped seeing ourselves through the people we’re trying to help. That’s where the danger we are.
Yes, the number is down. As Mark said, since 1980 we have resettled 3.1 million refugees. But prior to that, we have resettled also millions of people, you know? In 1956 under President Eisenhower, we decided to bring thirty-seven thousand Hungarians during the 1956 crisis in Hungary. We have taken one hundred thousand Cubans in 1980. But again, you know, what we are now seeing is the whole refugee discussion, the whole immigrant discussion is seen out of this really just litmus test, you know? So somebody has to change their religion if they want to be considered. That’s really the worst that we can be.
So I think, you know, we have a responsibility to change this narrative. And it’s not the religion we are concerned, it is their suffering that we believe that we have to open our arms.
GOODSTEIN: How are other countries doing this? I mean, we know there’s been a similar backlash in some other countries. I mean, we know about Hungary, we know there’s been questions raised in Germany and all that. But what, you know, what should we know about—I don’t know if you want to talk about it—but particular other country that’s a contrast. But, I mean, obviously, the requests for asylum are coming in, you know, to every country, not just to the United States. So can you talk about another country that might be a contrast or also the bigger picture? I mean, are we seeing—actually, the first question really should be, are we seeing a widespread backlash from lots of countries or just a few?
SIME: So let me get started on that. Basically, as I said at the beginning, there’s 1.4 million refugees in need of resettlement. To give you a sense of how many get resettled, in 2016 UNHCR referred one hundred and sixty-two thousand refugees for resettlement of which a hundred and twenty-five thousand ended up being resettled. That number of a hundred and sixty-two thousand in 2016, by 2017 that number had gone down to seventy-five thousand, so a drop of 54 percent.
GOODSTEIN: That’s globally.
SIME: That’s globally across the board. Because one of the things that happens with the United States basically saying we no longer really care so much about refugees so we’re not going to resettle them in large numbers, is that other countries say, well, if the U.S. is not doing that, then why should we do it, right? Because we were the traditional leaders when it came to refugee resettlement. So we are, you know, giving up that position and nobody else seems particularly interested in taking it on. Obviously, there are some countries like Canada who are doing, you know, a lot of great work when it comes to refugee resettlement.
But what we are doing, we actually have a program that IRC implements in New York. And so we are providing technical assistance to thirteen European countries that are interested in doing a better job with the caseloads that they have, which came during the influx in 2015, and others that actually want to expand and have more refugees come and create a resettlement program that is more similar to the one in the United States. One of those countries is Portugal that we have been working with very actively. The government is very open to resettling refugees. The numbers are, of course, a lot smaller, it’s a much smaller country than the United States, but they are very interested.
And in the last six months or so as well, we have been doing some work with Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, who are also very interested in resettling refugees. So Argentina and Chile have been resettling Syrian refugees, so we were able to tell them about our experience resettling the Syrians here, provide them with materials and assistance so that they can adapt that to their own context.
And then Uruguay, they resettled some Syrian refugees in the past and now has a very small program, so only fifty slots to resettle refugees from Central America, from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. And so they wanted support in getting some tools and figuring out how to—how to do that so that the refugees as well as the host communities had a better experience.
So thankfully, it’s not entirely across the board. Some countries do want to have refugees come to their communities, but other countries are basically saying, well, we’re just not going to really do a lot of work to try and resettle refugees, so you get those. And then you have the Hungarys of the world, right, that don’t want to have anybody come into their country.
NEGASH: Let me just add something. We talk about refugee resettlement, who’s accepting. Eighty-six percent of all refugees—86 percent—are hosted by poor countries—86 percent. You know, 30 percent in Africa, 12 percent in the Americas, 39 percent in the Middle East, and 14 percent in Asia and the Pacific.
Now, about 6 percent of all these refugees out of sixty-five million refugees and IDPs are currently in Europe—6 percent. Eighty-six percent of all refugees currently are hosted in poor countries, so you can see. So if we bring, you know, six Syrians, but Lebanon has almost 25 percent of their population is Syrian refugees, yeah, it’s a small country. You get to Turkey, maybe, you know, two million or more. So the issue is, you know, that’s why I think sometimes when we define this crisis we define it because these people are—all of a sudden, they’re going to Italy, they’re going to Great Britain, you know, Serbia, but the majority of these refugees are hosted by poor countries, very little resources, and have been there actually not just for six months or seven months, they have been there for years sometimes and generations.
So I think that’s where the imbalance is that we have. You know, we are accepting maybe .00-something percent and compare it to now Kenya has two major refugee camps, one is Dadaab and the other one is Kakuma camp. Ethiopia, as some of you know, is a poor country, is currently hosting one million refugees from Somalia, from Sudan, and from Eritrea. So this is—these are the numbers. I mean, if we go through the numbers where the refugees are becoming a burden to any society, then you can see that that’s not the case.
And if I may say one more thing. I mean, I believe this country is a country of refugees and immigrants. If refugees are a burden to any society, the U.S. would be the poorest country in the world if that’s how we define them and the reason that we don’t take them. Because sometimes, you know, outside the security issue, they say, well, they come here, they’re on welfare, they take this, they take that, but that’s not the case. If that’s the case, we’d have a different country.
SIME: Sorry for the interruption. But just to add to what Eskinder is saying because I think he raises a really good point that 86 percent of these refugees are in these countries and some of these countries are doing amazing work. Right? So Uganda is giving refugees the right to work, they have given them plots of land so that they can work the land. I mean, they have really gone above and beyond. Colombia is giving every Venezuelan free health care. They’re allowing children to enroll in local schools. So they are doing a tremendous job in supporting these populations that are coming to their countries looking for help.
So in some ways, we actually have a lot to learn from them because the numbers here are extremely small and there really is a lot more that we could be doing for the people that are here as well as having more people come in and doing more for them as well.
HETFIELD: Right. But the U.S. has really lost its voice and its ability to encourage other countries to do this. You know, for example, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey really did amazing work, unbelievable work in terms of allowing, as they’re required to under international law, but allowing Syrian refugees to come into their countries. Lebanon has over a million Syrian refugees in a very small country. Turkey has well over three million. Jordan has about seven hundred thousand. But all three of them have basically shut their borders, it’s simply not possible to get there anymore as a Syrian.
And with the United States taking in a whole sixty Syrian refugees last year, we’re not exactly in a position to encourage them to do more. Likewise, how do we encourage Bangladesh not to return the Rohingya under these circumstances?
And then in terms of resettlement countries, the United States had always been, in terms of pure numbers, the most—the most generous resettlement country in the world. And I say in terms of pure numbers because proportionate to our population, Australia, Canada, Sweden have generally been more generous than we are. But in terms of sheer numbers, we had always accepted the highest number of refugees—until now.
Calendar year 2018 will be the first year that Canada has accepted more refugees than the United States through resettlement. And Canada is a country that is one-tenth of our size in terms of population. And even Canada’s numbers are down. I mean, Canada in 2016, while candidate Trump was campaigning on a Muslim ban, prime minister candidate Trudeau was campaigning on bringing in twenty-five thousand additional Syrian refugees over and above their normal resettlement numbers. And he actually delivered on that promise, not within the six months that he promised, but very close to that. So we’re seeing, you know, two very different examples.
GOODSTEIN: So in a few minutes we’re going to take some questions from you. So if you, you know, have those in mind, that would be—that would be good.
I think the one thing I want to make sure gets asked is, you know, given this picture, I think there would be people wondering what should be done. You know, what should people in this room do? A lot of you are working on campuses with students. It doesn’t sound, in some ways, like the work is here. I don’t know, you know? But as you speak to American audiences, what are you saying? What are you asking of people?
Anybody can start. Mark, yeah?
HETFIELD: I’ll start. So HIAS is the American-Jewish community’s refugee agency. And my biggest problem four years ago was apathy and disinterest in the issue. That is no longer, like, in my top hundred—(laughter)—list of problems. I mean, the problem is almost the opposite where we have so much interest and people that don’t just want to give money, they want to give, you know, they want to donate services, they want to donate things in kind. But through the refugee resettlement program with so few arrivals, we have far more people interested in volunteering and helping than we have refugees that are coming in that need that help.
So we’ve been trying to encourage people to do more advocacy, to bring in higher numbers. We’ve been pivoting toward asylum-seekers. Asylum-seekers, their numbers are still very, very high. Just in the affirmative asylum process alone, the first stage of the asylum process, there’s over three hundred thousand people waiting to hear their claims heard. And they are refugees who have just made it to the United States already, but are waiting to find out whether or not they’re going to get asylum here. They need services. They’re not allowed to work for their first six months, whereas refugees, of course, can work from the moment they get off the plane. So they really do need that kind of assistance, so we’re trying to pivot and provide those services.
We are very proud of how the Jewish community has been galvanized. And I hope that other communities will follow suit that have not—that have not done so. We have over four hundred congregations that have joined our welcome campaign. We have two thousand rabbis from forty-eight states representing all movements of Judaism, not equally, not proportionally, but all movements of Judaism are represented calling for this country to keep its doors open to refugees. And we’re very, very proud of that.
But I just gave—I was at Boston University last week and I gave the Elie Wiesel memorial lecture. And Elie Wiesel wrote an excellent essay in 1985 on refuges and the sanctuary movement, which you can still find online. And it could have been written yesterday. Even the refugees he was talking about were—he was talking about Guatemalans in Salvador, and so very much some of—some of the same people that we’re dealing with today.
But he said, you know, woe to the country where a simple act of being human becomes an act of courage. And that’s exactly what we’re facing now, where we had, as you probably heard, we celebrated our first-ever refugee Shabbat. We organized this on October 20 and 21. And this apparently is what motivated the terrorist in Pittsburgh to target the Tree of Life congregation. It was actually the Congregation Dor Hadash, which is one of the three congregations inside Tree of Life, that was a refugee Shabbat congregation that had just celebrated it the week before. But that’s what led him to post on social media: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” I mean, that’s what he posted. He was obsessed with HIAS. He was particularly obsessed with refugee Shabbat. And our partners in Pittsburgh have really been hurting, but have gotten an incredible amount of support from all over the country. But, you know, again, this is just a simple human act and it becomes an act of courage.
And the last thing I’ll say on this is the words that he used, “invaders,” is the word that we constantly hear out of the White House to refer to asylum-seekers and that is very troubling.
GOODSTEIN: Thank you. OK.
SIME: So just to add to what Mark said. I always tell people three things when they ask me what they can do. The first one is advocacy, so call your representatives in Washington, let them know how you feel, let them know that you want to see refugees coming into this country. I think that’s extremely important, especially in this day and age.
The second one is around volunteers. Again, we don’t have that many clients coming in, so we cannot accommodate every single request for volunteering. But there might be very specific things that we do need done at specific times where we can make room for people who want to contribute their time.
And going to the issue of immigration, one of the things that we’re trying to ensure, that all of our clients get their green card after the first year that they’ve been here in the United States, and then after five years they get their citizenship. So sometimes just filling out those forms and helping to orient the refugees to go through that process is extremely important and we rely a lot on volunteers.
And then the third one, of course, is donations, whether it’s in-kind or cash. We keep track of everything, we can put it to good use. And I do want to say that we have an office here in Denver, IRC, and our director is sitting right there, Jennifer Wilson. So we are here locally as well in this community.
GOODSTEIN: Yeah, a brief—
NEGASH: So the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, it’s a very tiny organization. We have been providing service to refugees and immigrants since 1911. If you are wondering, I’m not the founder. (Laughter.) So I think that for our organization, we are a nonsectarian organization doing this work for a long period of time.
My only request is, every human tragedy, at least a modern tragedy, whether it’s in Europe, whether it’s Rwanda, whether Darfur, other places, it started with the language, a language of dehumanizing. You know, when we start dehumanizing Muslims because of their religion, when we start dehumanizing, you know, this group, that group, that’s the beginning of atrocity.
That’s why everywhere, if you look at it in Europe historically—I’ve been a good student of history—what happened in Rwanda, there is a language, a language of dehumanizing. And that dehumanizing, the next thing we do is we lose a sense of seeing ourselves through the other people. All of us a sudden, they and then us and that’s really the tragedy that we, you know, I see from my perspective.
And I briefly mentioned in passing, you know, I was a refugee once. I was a young refugee once. I was a young unaccompanied minor when crossing a border from one country to another country. And when I see a refugee, the first thing actually I see is myself because that’s the beginning of compassion and service to others.
So, you know, I want to tell you—I’m not Jewish, so, Mark, forgive me.
HETFIELD: You’re forgiven. (Laughter.)
NEGASH: A Hasidic rabbi once asked the people, saying, you know, can you tell me how you distinguish between daytime and nighttime? And everybody says, oh, yeah, it’s easy. When you see a fig tree from a distance, you know, it’s daytime. And others said, you know, when you see a car it’s daytime. And he kept saying—the rabbi kept saying no, no, no. And finally, the students say, you know, tell us, rabbi, you know, what’s the difference between the daytime and the nighttime. And he said when you see another person and when you don’t see yourself, that’s darkness. And that’s where we are. We’ve stopped seeing the, you know, other people because of their suffering, looking at it in a very compassionate way. We see them as a threat, we’re dehumanizing them. We use language as a very powerful tool to put them down, to scare everybody else. That’s where we are.
So I think, you know, when a refugee is dehumanized or immigrant is dehumanized, if we don’t see that’s about us, then we have an issue. And that’s why really I think we collectively have to say no, that’s not the way it is. We can argue how many people we should bring to this country, that’s a fair discussion, but if you start fearing the people, you know, because they are refugees or they don’t look like us, that’s the crisis that we have.
So I urge you to think about these people, think of them as if you are one of them. Thank you.
GOODSTEIN: Thank you. Yeah, that’s a wonderful place to now open this up for questions.
And I want to say that, you know, we’ve made some—I think we’ve made some assumptions here, you know? Refugees are, you know, a plus for the United States, we should be kind to refugees, we should let refugees in. Obviously, this is, you know, a controversial topic as well. So, you know, I think we would welcome questions that challenge some of these assumptions. Yeah.
HETFIELD: Well, God does say that thirty-six times in the Torah. (Laughter.)
GOODSTEIN: Exactly. All right. Well, and yet, it’s not settled. (Laughter.)
So I’ll point to people. I can see a lot of hands up. We’re not going to have time for all of you; so therefore, keep your question really tight. Please make it a question, please don’t make it, you know, an exposition. And say who you are and where you’re from before you begin.
So there’s a—all right, let me stand up here.
Woman in the back there? Yeah.
Q: Thank you. My name is Olivia Wilkinson from the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities.
My question is, we’ve recently seen two policy processes happening towards the Global Compacts on Refugees and Migration. And yet, in a vote last week at the U.N., we saw that the U.S. was the only country not to vote in favor of the Global Compact on Refugees. And my question is, what’s the future for these compacts? But more than anything, what’s the future for global solidarity and cooperation on refugees and migration?
GOODSTEIN: OK. Who would like to take that?
HETFIELD: I’ll start.
GOODSTEIN: Yeah, and maybe a little context, too, since we’re not familiar with it.
HETFIELD: Yeah, that’s a big question. So this is kind of a reflection of the high point we reached a few years ago and the low point we’re at now, where in 2016 after, you know, most of the world had been ignoring the refugee crisis for so long, there was a—there were two summits back to back convened in New York of heads of state, first summits ever of heads of state to talk about refugees and migrants. The first one was chaired by Ban Ki-moon, who was then secretary-general of the U.N., and the second one was President Obama chaired it. And that was a pay-to-play summit where countries had to come with a solid commitment to further refugee education or access to livelihoods or resettlement in order to participate in that. And he received billions of dollars’ worth of commitments through that.
But out of the—out of the U.N. part, out of the U.N. summit came these two compacts that were going to be negotiated, as well as the New York Declaration. One was the Migration Compact and one was the Refugee Compact.
One of the fatal flaws of the refugee convention, frankly, is that while it guarantees an asylum-seeker’s and a refugee’s rights in any individual country, it does nothing to compel international support for the country that takes in refugees. So, in other words, Lebanon has over a million refugees. It has to take them in under international law, whether it’s a signatory to the convention or not, but no other country has to help Lebanon. Right? There’s no obligation to do that. This was debated when the Refugee Convention was being drafted, but they decided not to have a requirement of responsibility sharing.
The compacts try to address that and try to take an international community approach to both refugees and migration. What the U.S. did with the Migration Compact is they didn’t just refuse to sign it, they refused to even participate. They just dropped out of the whole discussion process. Maybe that was for the best under current circumstances, but now other countries are starting to pull back and are threatening to drop out of that. The U.S. is still participating in the Refugee Compact process, but I’m, you know, pessimistic about how that may end up working out.
But this is just kind of a reflection of the U.S. can lead to the top or lead to the bottom. Right now, we’re doing what we did in the 1920s and ’30s, which is leading to the—to the bottom.
SIME: Yeah. And I would say that it goes back to the earlier point of, basically, other countries then saying, well, if the U.S. is not going to take that leadership, then why should we? Why should we pursue this?
You know, I certainly can’t read the future of these types of frameworks, but I would hope that there’s enough countries out there that still have the, you know, the moral authority and vision to keep them moving forward, regardless of what the United States does. But, of course, it remains to be seen.
GOODSTEIN: OK. Who else?
Yes, the gentleman who’s standing up?
Q: I have a question about economic migrant. Is that a valid category? If so, how do you distinguish between an economic migrant and your refugees?
GOODSTEIN: OK, good question.
HETFIELD: Yeah, that’s a very—economic migrant is a valid category, but it’s not—it’s not a ground for protection in terms of the Refugee Convention. And the challenge is that most flows are actually mixed flows, right? There are people who are primarily motivated by a need for economic betterment or even economic survival, and then there are those who are fleeing persecution based on race, nationality, social group, political opinion, or religion.
And sometimes, many times in fact, people have mixed motivations. And it’s up to a functioning asylum system to efficiently and humanely and fairly determine, is this person a refugee, who’s entitled to protection, or is this person an economic migrant, who has to find some other way to migrate, some legal way to migrate if that’s what he or she wants? And it’s totally legitimate, but the—but the problem is that most countries and particularly the United States are under-resourcing their asylum system, which hinders our ability to make those determinations.
Right now, if you go to immigration court, if you’re in immigration court in removal proceedings and you raise asylum as a defense, it will take you four years to get your hearing, at least that was the case. Now they have a last-in, first-out system, so they’re adjudicating all the new cases, but none of the old ones. So it’s a mess, but it’s a totally legitimate distinction.
SIME: Yeah. I would also add that, with economic migrants, you also have to look at what’s happening in those countries, right? What are the root causes? And where are we putting our foreign aid money? Is there more that we can do to invest in those countries to prevent those people from leaving? So that’s the other side of the coin there.
GOODSTEIN: OK. Who else? Maybe this side of the room?
Yes, go ahead? Microphone is coming, right here. Thank you.
Q: Sorry. Hi. So my question stems from something Eskinder said about why there’s a crisis now. And you mentioned it was sort of that refugees suddenly decided to leave and to go without permission.
But I want to sort of flip that and ask, what sort of policy changes have happened that have also contributed, either regulation on an international level or local level?
And then a two-part, if I can. This is all sort of based around the 1951 Refugee Convention. And we were talking a lot about resettlement through the UNHCR. And I want to ask, are there alternatives for that? There’s talk of alternative pathways through the UNHCR. Where are those? And where do they stand, I guess?
GOODSTEIN: OK. Sounds like a big question.
Q: Sorry. Yeah.
GOODSTEIN: Is the question, what policies are propelling refugees? Is that—
Q: No, contributing to the crisis, like, what’s happening, right? The fact that we consider it a crisis and then also, what alternatives are there to the UNHCR refugees?
GOODSTEIN: OK. All right. Eskinder?
NEGASH: So, I mean, and I go back to 1951. The convention doesn’t actually say anything keeping refugees permanently in refugee camp. So my view is we have actually, without saying, we had a policy of containment, meaning refugees kind of stay in refugee camp for an extended period of time. This temporary solution became a permanent solution.
So I’ll give you an example of the 1968 refugees currently in a refugee camp in Eastern Sudan. You know, you have the Dadaab refugee camp since 1991, and other places.
So the question became, given the modern age communication system, refugees saw this movie again and again. So if I go to the UNHCR and I go to register, they will put me, of course, in a refugee camp and I will be there for a generation. So they decided, you know, this is about time, they don’t want to follow that policy.
So I think UNHCR is now, if I’m not mistaken, thinking out of (inaudible) policy, trying to figure out.
Keep in mind, there’s a lot of refugees in urban cities, but not necessarily in a refugee camp. But for you to get protection and some assistance, most of them have to be in a refugee camp.
Again, you know, part of the challenge we have with this crisis is, like anything else, we have this selective outrage, you know? So all of a sudden, it became news when the Syrians start walking toward Europe or Greece. And then all of a sudden, you see that even in France that we have actually this camp, the “Jungle” was in was in Paris. So you see, other countries are actually defining the refugees are infiltrators rather than these are people in search of freedom and protection.
So nothing has changed, but that’s part of the problem is we could have made some changes to the model that we use for the past sixty years. Rather, we want to continue to do the same thing that we have done and expect a different outcome. In fact, the EU and some places has been discussing opening a refugee camp in other countries, in Libya and some other places. Again, we’re not learning from that process.
So we have practiced what the USCRI used to be calling a refugee warehousing, human warehousing. Yeah. And that’s really what seems, from my perspective—given that I have been to a refugee camp, I lived in a refugee camp, I know people still in a refugee camp—is part of the problem. Once in that camp, you are actually invisible to anybody. And once you make that decision by yourself, I’m going to go through, you know, Egypt or Libya to Italy or some other places, all of a sudden that’s a crisis. But from Turkey, you want to go to, you know, Hungary or other places, all of a sudden it becomes a crisis because, for the first time, people are going and asking for asylum without going through the standard processing.
So I think—I think the challenge, again, is how these countries usually provided funding for refugees camp, they never thought that these refugees can come also to their countries. And when they did, they didn’t want it.
GOODSTEIN: OK. Yes?
SIME: So in terms of alternative pathways, it is something that doesn’t really get a lot of—a lot of attention out there because it’s not as sexy, I guess. But there are some countries that have been looking at perhaps having certain visa regimes if they are—if they’re in need of more people in their workforce and bringing in people from other countries. So there are some initiatives of that type. Also, universities have some initiatives as well that they’re working with certain governments.
I’m aware that particularly in the European context, where I know some of this has been discussed in detail. I’m not really aware of those kind of on a broad scale in order to be able to bring large numbers of people.
GOODSTEIN: OK. Yes? Yes? Thank you.
Q: Thank you very much. I want to go back to something the lady—
Q: —she’s the only one lady—(laughter)—about addressing root causes of the refugee crisis. And wondering what kind of efforts are made to preempt the push factors. You know, what is pushing people out of the comfort of their homes into the total nightmare of refugee camps?
I also wanted to ask how this crisis, the nexus of effects between now, what had been referred to as climate change refugees, and the human trafficking crisis? Because there are many people, if they can’t go through the regular channel, they’ll go through some mercenary who will buy their way to some safety. Any comments?
SIME: Yeah. So I guess on the—on the root causes, for example, what we’re seeing right now with the Central Americans that are coming to the border, I think that’s the perfect example of people that are fleeing a variety of different things. Right? So there’s a lot of poverty, but you also have these gangs that are terrorizing entire communities in these countries and literally persecuting people and killing them because they’re not joining the gang.
So that’s—you know, it doesn’t matter how many times you tell these people that the border is closed, that you’re going to take their children away, that, you know, whatever it is, it’s not going to have an effect because they are fleeing from a really terrible situation, right, and so that’s not going to stop them. They want to get out, they need to get out in order to save their lives.
So the fact that walking across, you know, three countries is preferable to staying in El Salvador or Honduras, you know, tells you the magnitude of the problem.
But again, there’s not enough money going into foreign assistance for those countries, as well as many others that have issues as well. And until you address the problem of violence in those countries, you’re still going to have that influx of people trying to come across the border.
So I think that there’s a need to be more strategic, right, so that we can figure out, well, what is causing this and how do we solve that? Otherwise, you’re just addressing the symptoms, but not the real issue.
In terms of climate change, I think that’s a really interesting question that you ask because, obviously, climate change is not how you define refugees. You know, according to the Geneva Convention, it’s very much, you know, not part of that.
However, we are seeing people that are fleeing a number of areas around the world because they no longer have access to natural resources, whether that be water or something else. And that is creating these massive movements of people in different directions. And I think it’s something that the international community still hasn’t really grappled with. And it is going to really be challenging us in another thirty years or so when things get much worse than they are right now.
But I haven’t seen yet sort of the will to tackle that. It’s mentioned here and there. I’m starting to hear it mentioned more often, which is good, but I think it’s an area that the international community really needs to focus on in order to get ahead of it.
GOODSTEIN: OK. I think—I hate to say it because we’ve had so many good questions and so many of you have your hands in the air, but I think we have to close. We’re right at one minute ‘til. But they were really, really good questions.
And this panel has been fantastic. I mean, you could hear a pin drop during this lunch, which is something hard to do while you’re—while you’re eating. So I know that, you know, that people listened very raptly to what you had to say. I learned a lot and I really appreciate you all coming here and sharing what you know and what you do, with us. Thank you so much. (Applause.)