Global Migration and Refugees

May 25, 2017
By Mari Megias

Adam Hunter MPP 2007 has worked in the immigration space for almost 15 years, most recently as director of immigration and the states at The Pew Charitable Trusts. He moderated one of the alumni-led panels held during Reunion 2017, on global migration and refugees, where he kicked off the session with some numbers and definitions:

  • Among the world’s population of 7.3 billion are 244 million migrants, i.e., people who have left their own country and sought residence elsewhere.
  • Within this group of migrants are 65 million displaced persons, i.e., those who moved due to armed conflict, natural disasters, famine, or other causes.
  • Within the group of displaced person are 21 million who meet the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees legal definition of “refugees,” i.e., people who have been forced to leave their countries because they have a “well-founded fear of persecution” as a result of various characteristics, e.g., race, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

During the hour-and-a-half-long session, panelists and audience members focused on the plight of refugees and displaced persons, along with the obstacles that stand in the way of helping them. Within Syria alone, approximately 6 million people are internally displaced, i.e., they are still in Syria but had to flee their hometowns, and approximately 11 million have left the country altogether.

Panelist Suzanne Sheldon, director of the Office of International Migration at the U.S. Department of State, reminded the group that the crisis in Syria is just one of many heart-wrenching tragedies that continue to unfold across the globe. “Syria is on everyone’s radar, but there are protracted conditions in other places of the world, places like the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America,” she said. She made note of the UN’s efforts to develop a compact on refugees and a compact on migration. “There is already a framework for refugees,” she said, “but not one for migrants.”

Andrea Kerstges MC/MPA 1997 serves as head of office of the committee on human rights and humanitarian aid at the German Bundestag. She said, “In Germany, we have a problem in that we don’t have any migration policy. Everyone who comes has to be an asylum seeker who has to prove they are politically persecuted.”

Hunter noted that polls showed that more than half of Europeans think that refugees increase the chance of terrorism in their countries, to which Kerstges replied, “All the terrorism attacks in Europe have been homegrown except for one refugee from Tunisia who attacked the Christmas market in Berlin. But even then, the German administration had been observing him.”

Sheldon lamented that “everything is so fraught and politicized. What should count is presenting the facts in an objective and dispassionate way. The facts in the United States are as follows: We would never say there is no risk to bringing in refugees, but I believe there has never been an attack by a refugee in the United States. Some plots were foiled, so we’d never say the risk is zero, but the vetting to come to the U.S. as a refugee is incredibly stringent. It’s easy to come as a tourist or student but very hard to come as a refugee.”

Panelist Mark Falzone MC/MPA 2007 has spent the last 15 years or so working on issues related to immigration, most recently as the deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, a group that advocates for immigrants by highlighting the value they bring to the United States. He said polling showed that the majority of Americans believe that immigration strengthens America. “The question is, though, how high this issue rises on the list of issues you care about. For those who are pro-immigrant, it’s not likely to be high on their list. But for those for whom this is their number one issue, they are passionately anti-immigrant, particularly the Republican base.” He believes that these opinions yielded Republican general election candidates who were out of step with the majority and bipartisan viewpoint that immigration is a source of strength for the United States.

Jessica Harrison Fullerton MPA 2012 is director of planning and operations for program quality at the International Rescue Committee, an organization that provides humanitarian aid. She said organizations haven’t necessarily measured effectiveness by looking at outputs. “What outcomes are we actually achieving for people?” Her organization is looking at how deliveries of cash to refugees and displaced people can benefit them more than blankets and the typical kits provided to these individuals.

Plenty of alumni in the audience asked questions ranging from the effects of displacements due to climate change to prospects for truly alleviating the problem. Ultimately, said Sheldon, “It’s easy to sit here in a comfortable room at Harvard and talk about an incredible human tragedy.” Action and funding are needed—yet even with more resources, it is unclear what the way forward is.

Opinions were expressed by the panelists in their personal, not organizational, capacities.

Andrea Kerstges MC/MPA 1997 describes Germany's migration policy.


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