Four steps to protect families at the world's borders

Four steps to protect families at the world's borders

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Michelle Nunn

This piece originally appeared on The Hill website on August 21, 2018.


As tragedy was unfolding on the U.S.-Mexico border this summer, I was thousands of miles away, visiting a very different border.


I met Walaa, a 15-year-old Syrian refugee and aspiring filmmaker, at the Azraq Refugee Camp in northern Jordan, near Syria. Her film about the relationship between her father and her 12-year-old brother won top prize at a camp youth film festival. Her brother calls their father a hero for not letting the bomb that cost him a leg stop him from working at a coffee shop and creating his own repair business. Walaa’s father says his son is the real hero and describes in the film how he is able to find dignity in work only because his son works by his side, doing chores that are impossible for him: “He’s the leg that I stand on.”


Each day’s encounters with families like Walaa’s, many reunited or at least strengthened by America’s investment in humanitarian aid for refugees, were jarringly juxtaposed with television images of American power deployed at our border to separate children from their parents. Nothing less than American outrage at the president’s policy ended the era of family separation.


But Washington still weighs steps that would lead to more refugee children separated from families across a strife-torn world. We know it’s wrong; the question is whether our shame about the policy at our border extends to other American policies that affect borders the world over. I refuse to accept that America’s sense of moral urgency only applies at home when cameras are rolling. The time is urgent not just to turn an abhorrent moment into an activist movement, but to ensure that when it comes to protecting refugee families and ensuring safe migration, American compassion and values prevail. Here are four steps we can take, now.


First, face reality. There are more displaced people on our planet today than at any time in recorded history. And the global refugee crisis is growing, driven by conflict, drought, and famine, all exacerbated by climate change. Children are bearing the brunt. Last year alone, 174,000 separated children registered as refugees worldwide. They are among the staggering 28 million children displaced globally, from Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan to South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and southern Ethiopia.


Record displacement is a challenge of our time. CARE has more than tripled the number of people we reach worldwide through emergency assistance within the past five years. The governments we work with, including Jordan, are being strained under the weight of refugee flows. For every 10 Jordanians there is one refugee — the equivalent of the entire population of Canada moving to the United States. For our interests and those of our allies, we need a family-first policy for the long term. Cutting off assistance to refugees at our borders and those around the world is the wrong answer; the United States should be leading the way to find the right ones.


Second, it would be a tragic mistake for the administration to reduce even more drastically — to 25,000 or less — our annual cap on refugee resettlement. We are on pace in 2018 to resettle the fewest number of refugees since 1977. If the United States, traditionally the world’s leader on this issue, cuts in half our ceiling on refugee settlement, after already cutting it in half when the president took office, this will send a message globally that we are no longer who we have always proudly said we are.


Third, instead of slashing refugee humanitarian aid as the administration has attempted in its two budgets, we need to increase it in concert with our family values and in allegiance with allies who bear the greatest burden. Congress has been the first line of defense against American retrenchment and should be lauded. But we can do more, including in our own hemisphere, by addressing the underlying reasons families head north in the first place: governance, crime and violence. We can help alleviate it for pennies on the dollar of what we spend to triage an ever-unfolding tragedy. Foreign assistance should be deployed as a first resort to create secure borders for the long term.


Last, we should start listening to the refugees themselves. It’s no coincidence that when Walaa had the chance to tell her own story, she turned the lens on the bond between parent and child. One day the lens of history will focus on America’s role in this period of unprecedented human displacement. Let’s hope it shows an America that, rather than cutting the legs out from under refugees, chose to support families in their darkest hours around the world, acting as the leg upon which they can stand.



Refugees from Myanmar arrive in Bangladesh on September 6, 2017. Photo credit: Kathleen Prior/CARE