First Person

We need a better way forward for displaced people around the world

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Syrian refugees arrive on the small Greek island of Lesbos. Photo: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam

The photos were shocking. People, weak with hunger, ravaged after years of war. Forced to leave their homes — they had very little.

By Ray Offenheiser, President of Oxfam America  

To see their predicament in the modern age was almost incomprehensible. This new world was supposed to usher in an era of peace but two wars and many years of uncertainty and conflict had left more questions than answers. In the middle of it all were people who no longer had a home, and were desperately in need of assistance. The year was 1951 and everyone was trying to pick up the pieces after two world wars. This is how the United Nations Refugee Convention was born.

Today, despite the views of some national figures in the US, it is widely accepted – in principle if not in practice – that no person should be returned to a country where there is a serious threat to their life or freedom. Refugees’ rights to freedom and survival are largely taken for granted today because our grandparents had the compassion to welcome the stranger in their midst and the foresight to enshrine that practice into international law.  The Refugee Convention was a promise that one day, people would once again be on the move, leaving everything they know and loved because they simply have no other choice.

Six decades later, the world is once again in the midst of upheaval. War is still waged by the powerful at the expense of the powerless. We’re fearful for our family and friends in the wake of so much violence and the seemingly unending headlines of attacks, abuse, and conflict. It seems like every day the loss of life becomes greater, the violence more pronounced. Today, with more people displaced by violence and conflict since World War II, we are facing the same test.

In the United States, volunteer groups in cities and towns across the country are helping refugees find homes, get jobs, and build community. Contrary to the misinformation communicated on the national stage, the administration of the refugee resettlement program, through which some of the world’s most vulnerable people are brought to safety, includes extremely thorough vetting.  The program is far too small in comparison to the need and our ability to help, but despite its size it puts America’s best instincts on show.

As a global organization working across the globe in countries torn apart by the worst human instincts of hate and fear, Oxfam understands the threat they present to even the most basic rights.  Protecting the common good, fighting for human rights, and pressing back on the leaders that stoke anger instead of compassion, is the work we do.

Leaders who know full well the arduous vetting process all refugees go through here in America, yet promote the detention and removal tens of thousands of refugee children and families who have arrived at our borders seeking protection, are destructive.

The rhetoric around refugees, specifically Muslims, including the possibility of a religious test to bar Muslims from entering this country, runs counter to all of America’s fundamental values. Americans have a long, proud history of providing safe harbor for refugees from around the world. Founded by people looking for religious freedom and through the years enriched by those seeking safety, the very fabric of this country was woven by refugees. We disown that history when we demonize them. We forget where we came from and who we are.

The US is not the only place where the memory of the world wars and their aftermath has faded. Refugees are seeing doors closed in their faces all over the world. Many are living in squalid refugee camps in Greece, Kenya, Pakistan, or elsewhere, awaiting the verdict on whether or not they will be able to start over, whether or not their basic human rights will be acknowledged or if they’ll be turned away. No one chooses to be a refugee. It is the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of survival. So many of us were moved by the photo of the young Syrian boy washed up on the beach in Turkey, and yet that sympathy has not translated into policies that preserve and observe the legal obligations that come with the Refugee Convention.

In September, world leaders will come together in New York to agree on a better way to ensure that the world’s refugees can be safe and live in dignity. With the negotiations for the  first ever UN summit to address refugee and migrant issues ongoing now, it represents an opportunity for world leaders to step up and agree on how to share responsibility for refugees in practice. President Obama should take this opportunity push for an ambitious outcome for the UN Summit and use the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees he is co-hosting the day after the Summit to announce a more ambitious effort to resettle and welcome refugees. We must do better and be kinder to each other in this moment of need. Our actions now will be the legacy we leave generations to come. How we speak of each other, the open hand with which we help refugees and all of those in desperate need of assistance, are the examples we give to our children and grandchildren of what it means to be human. To demonize, to tear down people who have already experienced horrors most of us cannot imagine is unconscionable. We owe each other more than that. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+