The global refugee crisis: Where do we go now?

by Mark Hetfield | HIAS
Sunday, 29 January 2017 17:08 GMT

Displaced Iraqis, who fled the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, walk in the mud following heavy rain at Khazer camp, at Khazer camp, Iraq in this 2016 archive photo. REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Under Donald Trump's leadership, America is now once again entering a shameful period of choosing to fear refugees

Every day, we see the faces of innocent children hurrying across land and water toward safety; we hear the voices of displaced parents coming to terms with the loss of their home, their country, their world. Whether someone is fleeing indiscriminate airstrikes in Syria, death threats in Uganda due to sexual orientation, or torture at the hands of gangs in El Salvador, the unexpected and urgent need to find life-saving shelter is affecting more people than at any point in recorded history – 65 million people across the globe.

On January 27 (which, ironically, was International Holocaust Remembrance Day), President Trump signed an executive order which closes down the refugee program in multiple ways.

Becoming a refugee is never a choice, but by signing an executive order banning refugees, President Trump has chosen to abdicate American values and leadership when it comes to welcoming refugees. To deprive refugees from war-torn countries including Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen of safe haven is to scapegoat vulnerable human beings, and to confuse those who flee terror with terror itself. To stop sharing responsibility for refugees by suspending a program that gives hope to the desperate and still vulnerable victims of persecution is cowardly, cruel and un-American. It is an action unworthy of our proud U.S. legacy as a beacon of freedom to the downtrodden and the oppressed. Above all, it is unnecessary.

In Trump's own words, we are facing "deteriorating conditions in certain countries due to war, strife, disaster, and civil unrest." The scale of the refugee crisis is exactly why it is so critical for the United States to show leadership in protecting people fleeing conflicts, and our country was literally founded to provide freedom and safety to the persecuted.

Helping refugees upholds our values as Americans and reaffirms our standing as the leader of the free world, and we have a strong system in place to do it well. Before being resettled to the United States, each and every refugee is interviewed in depth by the Department of Homeland Security and other officials, fingerprinted, and repeatedly vetted by multiple intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Refugees, who by definition are fleeing dangerous countries, are already subject to "extreme vetting" and are more extensively scrutinized than any other individual entering the United States.

Our government has assisted refugees for decades, under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Fulfilling this mission is more than just a humanitarian imperative; it makes our nation stronger. When America demonstrates a commitment to protect the persecuted, we signal a level of international leadership which other countries often look to follow.

Once finally admitted at the end of a typically 18-24 month process, these new Americans immediately restart their lives by enrolling their children in school and seeking employment. With the overwhelming support of local communities, resettled refugees strengthen cultural diversity, boost economies and enrich the social fabric of our nation.

Local communities, and especially communities of faith, welcome refugees to their cities and towns, recognizing that many of their own families and ancestors were welcomed to this country as strangers. In the American Jewish community, the obligation to welcome the stranger is not only mentioned 36 times in our scripture, but etched into our shared experience of thousands of years of forced migration.

In the back of our minds always are the dark periods in our history. During the Holocaust, the United States and other countries shut their doors to vulnerable people. Instead of finding refuge, millions of innocent lives were extinguished because of their faith, their opinion, their sexual identity, or their ethnicity. Under Donald Trump’s leadership, America is now once again entering a shameful period of choosing to fear refugees, rather than to welcome them with safety and dignity.

Now is the time for Americans to state loudly and clearly that this country has always been at its greatest when we have welcomed refugees to our shores, and we won't stand for any other way. Backed by more than 1,700 American rabbis in 48 states and more than 250 congregations across the country, HIAS stands firm in our commitment, as Jews and as Americans, to welcome the stranger and protect refugees – as we have done for more than 130 years. More than ever, we need communities that welcome and people who recognize the life-changing significance of this issue – and join us in our relentless efforts to provide refugees with the safety and freedom they deserve. Together, we will speak up and act to reopen our country’s doors.

Our tradition of welcoming refugees as new Americans is one of the things that has made America great. It is a tradition worth fighting for.

Mark Hetfield is the president and CEO of HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees.