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World Refugee Day Must Be Observed With More Than Words

Today is World Refugee Day and the State of the World’s Refugees has rarely been as precarious in our lifetimes. 

With certain media constantly spreading fear about refugees, politicians calling for cutting off refugee resettlement based on religion, and the United Kingdom threatening to secede from the EU over the issue of refugees from Syria, the modern consensus that civilized nations would protect those fleeing persecution is in danger of breaking down.

The United States and Britain, which had helped to create modern refugee law, are seeing politicians rise to power by attacking the most vulnerable people in the world. After the Orlando massacre at a Gay nightclub, some politicians responded by demanding an end to the already anemic resettlement of Syrian refugees. Those refugees disproportionately consist of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgendered people seeking to escape death at the hands of ISIS. It is certainly beyond ironic to hear office seekers denounce Muslims by pointing out that ISIS throws Gays from the top of buildings, while at the same time insisting that we not protect those who escape this form of murder. 

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 63 million people worldwide have been forced from their homes by war or other forms of violence and persecution. This include a lot of non-traditional refugees. LGBT refugees abound. Child refugees are fleeing the takeover of their villages in Central America by drug cartels financed by American drug users. When the kids arrive in the United States, instead of being treated as we would like our own children to be, we arrest them as though they were the criminals.

And it is not only the refugees who are under attack. Those who stand with the displaced are also being killed. In Syria, we have seen attacks by all sides in the conflict on groups like Doctors Without Borders that serve refugees without taking sides in the conflict. The assassination of British Member of Parliament Jo Cox last week is another example that is closer to home for many Americans. Cox had been a tireless campaigner for human rights and the protection of Syrian refugees. Her murder by a far-right activist serves as a warning that the derangement of normal human values by hatred of “foreigners” endangers the protectors as well as those seeking protection.

President Obama, whose own record on refugees has been uneven, has pledged to host a meeting of world leaders on the subject in September. Today, the president issued a statement in which he said he will:

convene a Leaders’ Summit on Refugees.  In advance of that Summit, the United States is urging other governments to contribute more funding for humanitarian aid operations, to grant more refugees the chance to work and attend school, and to provide more resettlement opportunities for refugees who cannot safely go home or remain where they are.  We are urging our non-governmental partners, including the private sector, to do more as well. 

Sadly, we don’t live up to even that minimal standard set by the president. Long Island school districts made a practice of denying admission to refugees just two years ago. They hoped to save money by keeping refugee children illiterate. In states around the country, conservative governors have tried to keep out refugees from Muslim countries living legally in the United States. Nationally, the Federal government has made a great show of rounding up and deporting Central American children to scare off other refugee children from coming here. .

American leaders need to speak out, as the president did today, and provide a clear rebuke to the “bigotry and brutality” President Obama denounced. But our leaders need to also act on the principles that they urge upon others. Without the president's leadership, our own refugee policy will continue to decay. Without U.S. leadership, the rest of the world's nations will falter. 

Pat Young, Esq. teaches Immigration and Refugee Law at Hofstra and is an attotney at CARECEN on Long Island.

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