Message from USCRI President and CEO Eskinder Negash
This year’s celebration of World Refugee Day on June 20th takes place during a global health pandemic and civil unrest in many parts of the world, including the U.S. Yet, we cannot turn our attention away from the over 70 million displaced people worldwide–26 million of whom are refugees warehoused in refugee camps and living in dreadful urban slums. In the U.S., once the top country for refugee resettlement worldwide, the ceiling for resettlement has been drastically slashed to 18,000 from an historic high of over 207,000 since the Refugee Act of 1980.
How do we speak about refugees in the time of COVID-19?
This pandemic knows no nationality, age, gender, income level, immigration status or ethnicity. Its power is in its rapid and indiscriminate transmission to young and old, rich and poor, man and woman, newly arrived refugee and descendant of The Mayflower.
Perhaps then, on World Refugee Day, we should speak of the refugee experience as the experience of the everyman. Refugee status is conferred upon an individual—meaning, a refugee is still the person they once were before conditions forced them to flee their his/her home. Here, they are strangers to us only in the sense that we have not met them before.
And in our communities, we welcome the refugee not because of the legal status conferred upon them—although we recognize the hardships they have endured that made them a refugee—but because of the people they are. They are our neighbors and our friends; they are the professor and the taxi driver; they are the corner grocery store owner; they are the physician and the home health care aid.
The refugee narrative in the U.S. begins with the historical and present-day contribution refugees make to building a nation. What was true yesterday is true today.
In small towns and rural areas across the country, people welcome the arrival of refugees as a way to reverse population decline, stimulate their workforce, and build diverse communities.
In counties throughout the U.S., for example, many where USCRI has active and vibrant field offices, refugee resettlement is a key strategy for invigorating economies suffering from population decline and labor shortages.
For those who believe that refugees are a drain on our economy, the numbers tell a different story. Refugees make an enormous net contribution to the U.S. economy with a fiscal impact over a ten-year period of $63 billion. Refugees paid $269 billion in taxes over that same period.
Yet, in the time of COVID-19, we recognize that refugees, like many others in the U.S., are suffering excessive hardships because of the pandemic. Many newly arrived refugees work in jobs, such as service sector jobs or in agribusiness, where there is a higher risk of exposure.
Moreover, they may also have health conditions from systemic poor health care in their home countries or the conditions they experienced in refugee camps that compromise their ability to resist the virus.
These are challenging times in America. Our public health system is strained under the burden of a global pandemic—the likes of which we have not seen in over a century. The pandemic will have an outsized impact on our economy for years to come, bringing hardship to large numbers of our people. Recent events have caused widespread civil unrest that requires institutional and societal changes across many sectors of the country.
Despite these challenges, on World Refugee Day, we are reminded of why the U.S. is the preferred destination for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have settled here in the past fifty years. In cities and towns across the country, we have extended welcome arms to the oppressed from all over the world. In return, refugees have made significant contributions to our economic, social and political life.
As a nation that has experienced social and economic upheaval throughout our history, we will preserve and overcome the challenges that are now before us. We will continue to work hard to meet the aspirational values upon which our country was founded. On this World Refugee Day, let us acknowledge and celebrate the diversity of our people and strive to become the idea of America that beckons the dispossessed from around the world.
May refugees worldwide find solace in knowing that they’re not far from our thoughts. This kind of pervasive and far-reaching global event—the COVID-19 pandemic–reminds us all that we share one planet and our lives are inextricably linked together in an unbroken chain of humanity. Our thoughts are with everyone in this one, vast global family that extends across borders and knows no nationality.