Boston Globe Op-Ed by Sen. John Mc Cain and Winston Lord on Refugee Admissions
|Senator John McCain (right), Republican of Arizona, was the 2001 recipient of the International Rescue Committee's Freedom Award; Ambassador Winston Lord (left) is co-chairman of the International Rescue Committee.|
Welcoming Refugees is in the National Interest
In December 2000, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted a Resolution naming June 20 as World Refugee Day. It was hoped that this commemorative day would reaffirm the values on which international agreements to Protect refugees are based. Tragically, the attacks on sept. 11 have only Exacerbated a global retreat on these values. The us refugee resettlement Program is a case in point.
The number of refugees allowed, under the annual determination made by the president in consultation with Congress, has been cut in half over the last decade. Moreover, during this same decade, more than 135,000 refugees did not make it into the United States because the actual arrivals have annually fallen far below the numbers authorized. And the numbers of refugees admitted since Sept. 11 suggest that this year will see the lowest number of refugees arriving in the history of the program.
The responsibility for this decline is multifold: The government agencies responsible for refugee admissions need to work with the private voluntary agencies to ensure that these ceilings are reached. And Congress and the administration need to ensure that the overall ceilings are increased to their historic levels while providing rigorous oversight to the agencies charged with refugee admissions.
This decline in support for refugees is baffling considering that it is one of the few foreign policy issues that bridges what is often a wide gulf between realists who emphasize national interests and idealists who emphasize national values. Welcoming refugees fleeing persecution both honors our values and promotes our interests.
This is further underscored by the fact that party affiliation has never defined refugee politics in the United States. There are champions and detractors on both sides of the aisle. The rationale behind support for the program varies. Some see economic interest, a continuing pool of labor willing to accept jobs that many American citizens would not consider. Others see political interest. The refugee program proved itself a valuable tool during the Cold War years - a way to embarrass our foes and assure our allies we were willing to assume some of the burdens created by superpower rivalries.
Some recognize what refugees are capable of bringing to this country: the philosophers, artists, businessmen, and statesman like Hanna Arendt, Albert Einstein, Marc Chagall, Andrew Grove, and Henry Kissinger. The very qualities possessed by refugees, the immediate knowledge of what it means to be oppressed and the precious nature of freedom, contributes profoundly to the genius that is America. Refugees, like students with disparate backgrounds who help enrich university life, revitalize and enrich America's founding principles of freedom, equality, and opportunity.
Some see a moral obligation to save lives based on the traditions of a nation founded by refugees for refugees. They would argue that for a tiny fraction of our foreign assistance budget, the refugee admissions program sets the standard that the rest of the world follows on refugees. This argument would seem to be buttressed by the fact that as the US commitment to refugees has waned, so, too, has much of the world's.
The plight of refugees and their hopes for a better life have increasingly become more difficult to resolve over the past decade. In Europe, numerous small parties holding extreme views on immigrants and refugees have gained greater acceptance, leading to policies that have severely tightened restrictions on refugees and asylum seekers. In Australia, the government is reeling from its ham-handed handling of asylum seekers arriving by boat. And in the United States, the attacks of Sept. 11 have led some policy makers to believe that the program is a political liability and an easy mark for the budget ax. These individuals can't seem to grasp that the principles on which this nation was founded must be defended as zealously as its people and its territory.
While the United States cannot hope to save every refugee in need, we can do much better in leading a world grown cold to the plight of the most oppressed among us. For millions of people around the world, the promise of liberty may seem as remote as winning a lottery. But the promise itself, the hope that it engenders, is not something that anyone who has ever been denied freedom would dismiss.
Sometimes hope and a desire for freedom are all there are to keep you alive. This was true for Jews escaping Hitler, for Hungarian freedom fighters, for Vietnamese fleeing by the thousands on leaky boats, for demonstrators who paraded the "Goddess of Democracy" through Tiananmen Square, for Rwandans escaping genocide, and for Afghan women fleeing the repressive Taliban.
At the core of all these valid arguments to help refugees is a simple truth: People's lives are at stake. Saving those refugees who are in imminent danger or have no hope of returning to their country unequivocally defines our values and supports our interests.
This piece ran on page A13 in the 18 Jun 2002 edition of the Boston Globe