Letter to the Editor: IRC Decries Low U.S. Refugee Admissions
There was a lot of talk during the Democratic and Republican conventions about compassion and America's place in the world. Unfortunately, the two were not linked. The rhetoric on compassion themes was limited to domestic issues and the focus on international affairs limited to protecting America's national security interests while reaping the economic rewards of the ever expanding global economy.
Why was it then, that both parties fell silent when it came to championing the cause of over 14 million refugees forced to flee their countries in fear and an additional 22 million people driven from their homes by violent conflict? Does America have both a role and a responsibility in ameliorating the negative forces unleashed by the end of the Cold War as well as benefiting from the positive ones?
Unquestionably we do. But we are falling short in tapping our capacity and meeting needs. And as the conventions demonstrated, both parties are unwilling to inspire the American people, as was so successfully donelast year by the Clinton administration in support of Kosovar refugees, to take their compassion global. Support of global humanitarianism appearsto be the new third rail of American presidential politics.
America currently spends less than 1 percent of its annual budget on foreign aid. Last year $1.63 per American was spent for refugee relief. By contrast the average Norwegian spent $15.62. America ranks last among the 15 richest nations in the percentage of GNP that it spends on refugees. And in Africa, the continent with the greatest need, the global contribution is just 11 cents a day per refugee.
Whether it is fear of attack from nativists and isolationists, how the issue would fare in the polls, or simply compassion fatigue, the failure of both candidates to take on such a dialogue with the American people belies the remarkably bipartisan nature of this issue, with both parties exhibiting both positive and negative influences. For instance, in the Senate Republicans Spencer Abraham, of Michigan, and Orrin Hatch, of Utah,are allied with Democrats Ted Kennedy, of Massachusetts, and Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, in their support for increased refugee admissions.
But despite vocal support from bipartisan corners of Congress, refugee admissions have fallen over 40 percent during the Clinton administration from the ceiling of 142,000 in 1992 when President Bush left office. This week Republican leaders Sonny Callahan, of Alabama, and Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, on the House and Senate Foreign Operations Appropriations subcommittees are set to go to conference and further reduce refugee admissions for FY 2001 by approving steep cuts in the State Department's budget that funds refugee admissions, the Migrationand Refugee Assistance Account. These cuts will not only impact refugee admissions, they will fall disproportionately hard on humanitarian assistance to Africa where disease, famine and war have reduced life expectancy in some countries to as low as 32 years.
From the perspective of those of us who on a daily basis are challenged to respond to an ever widening global humanitarian crisis, this election should include a dialogue on the leadership America will invoke in charting a course to combat the scourges of war, poverty and disease in the new millennium. The steps the United States takes to help the world's most vulnerable sets a critical standard. With our commitment to the plight of the world's growing number of refugees decreasing, our moral standing to urge the rest of the world to do their part in finding solutions for the world's dispossessed is diminished. If we fail to take issues like AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan -- each having claimed 2 million lives -- to the American people at the presidential level, we will continue to fall short of our potential to improve and protect the lives of those caught in the maelstrom of these events. America should not expect to continue its voyage of unprecedented prosperity without due consideration to those in desperate need beyond its borders. Both candidates need to forcefully make that case to the American public.
Cindy Jensen is director of the International Rescue Committee's resettlement program in San Diego