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Refugees and resettlement

Wilmot Collins on being a refugee mayor in a pro-Trump state

Helena’s first refugee mayor describes how he escaped civil war, navigated the vetting process, and is now upholding a deep sense of civic duty.

Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

Wilmot Collins and his wife, Maddie, were undernourished, exhausted, and frightened when they boarded a ship leaving Liberia in 1990. The country’s civil war, which eventually left 250,000 dead and 1.9 million displaced, had reached a fever pitch. Collins’ two brothers had been killed by factions in the conflict. Deeply shaken and grieving, he and Maddie decided to flee. They stood in line for three days to secure a place on the vessel. They didn’t know where it was going. They just knew they needed to get out of the country.

The ship docked in Ghana, where Collins headed to the campus of a school he was affiliated with. Students recognized him immediately, but something was wrong. “They started crying … I was confused. And then … when I went to use the restroom for the first time in almost six months, I looked in the mirror and realized why the kids were crying. When they knew me, I was 176 pounds. When they saw me that day … I was 92 pounds.”

He couldn’t have predicted it at the time, but that voyage was just the beginning of Collins’ journey out of Liberia. Four long years later, he would be resettled as a refugee in Helena, Montana – a town where an air temperature of 32 degrees is considered positively balmy and his daughter was one of two black children in her public school. And after a 20-year career in the US military and government, last December Collins was elected Helena’s first black mayor in over one hundred years, and the town’s first refugee mayor ever.

Resettlement to a third country is one of three so-called durable solutions to refugee crises, along with voluntary repatriation and integration into a country of first asylum. Fewer than 1% of refugees are resettled – typically only the most vulnerable or targeted are candidates. And even for the 1.2 million refugees currently deemed in need of resettlement, only 93,200 were offered places in 2017 – 43% fewer than in 2016. That declining trend is led by steep slashes to the US refugee cap: The United States has historically been a leader in refugee resettlement.

Once refugees arrive in the United States, they are linked to one of nine resettlement organizations (including the IRC). The emphasis is on employment: Refugees are expected to start looking for a job immediately and are “mainstreamed” into nationwide social benefit systems within 30 days after their arrival. Support from local resettlement agencies phases out after five years. Some have critiqued the American system for its relatively weak support for social integration: In Europe, for example, refugees may be required to enroll in language and cultural courses, sometimes for up to a year after their arrival; they also may be eligible for a generous suite of social benefits.

Researchers suspect that the different European and American models for refugee resettlement impact job rates down the line, with the American model producing higher levels of employment. In America, the average refugee becomes a net fiscal contributor just eight years after arriving. But in resettlement programs that emphasize cultural integration, as in Sweden, the majority of participants do not work after the integration program is finished.

I will do whatever I can [to help resettle refugees] because I know the caliber of refugees that we get into this country. My story is not unique.

Collins insists that refugee resettlement is the province of the federal government – but around the globe, municipal and regional governments have stepped up to demand that regional and national agencies come to bat for refugees. Six mayors in southern Italy have declared that their cities will accept migrants from rescue boats in defiance of that country’s Interior Ministry. The mayor of Paris has called on the national government to address what aid groups have called “catastrophic sanitary conditions” in that city’s ad-hoc migrant and refugee camps. And in the United States, mayors in sanctuary cities have vocally protested the Trump administration’s hard line on immigration and refugee resettlement. Recognizing the crucial role that local and municipal authorities have to play in refugee resettlement, the current draft of the Global Compact on Refugees – a UN document laying out a framework for refugee response and resettlement – recognizes city and state officials as stakeholders and calls on the international community to strengthen cities’ resettlement capacity. This could require more innovative thinking: In Denmark, for example, cities participate in a national refugee allocation scheme, where city needs are matched with refugee skills.

We touch on these global debates and more in our conversation today with Wilmot Collins.

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Related Reading

How Cities Can Help Solve Europe’s Crisis Over Refugees – Refugees Deeply, Megan Clement

European Countries Should Make It Easier for Refugees to Work – The Economist

How Refugees Find Jobs in Germany – The New Yorker, Ben Mauk

The Real Economic Cost of Accepting Refugees – Refugees Deeply, Michael Clemens

Letter from Liberia – The Guardian, Zadie Smith

Firestone and the Warlord – ProPublica, T. Christian Miller and Jonathan Jones

This is What It’s Like to Come to the United States as a Refugee – The Atlantic, Julia Ioffe

Interested in learning more about what went behind this episode? Check out Airbel’s Medium.

Opinions and views expressed by guests are their own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee.