Crisis and opportunity
The world’s refugees continue to wait for help
Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini made waves despite failing to qualify for final heats in the women’s 100-meter butterfly, her specialty. The Tokyo Games marked her second appearance on the Refugee Olympic Team, created for the 2016 Games to honor athletes displaced from their home countries. Mardini escaped bombing in her hometown in Syria to find herself for hours swimming a disabled rubber boat with its 20 passengers to safety at the height of 2015’s refugee surge. She now lives in Germany.
Institutionalizing a refugee team threatens to entrench what most hoped would be a temporary problem, as it was after World War II. But the world’s refugee crisis isn’t going away. And like a tidal wave after a tsunami, a surge in global migration may loom as the pandemic’s grip continues.
On July 21, 430 illegal migrants crossed the English Channel, a new daily record at one of the most closely guarded borders in Europe. French and British authorities spend millions patrolling the coast and the 20-mile stretch of water between them. By July more migrants had arrived in the U.K. by boat in 2021 than came in all of 2020.
Meanwhile, 200 migrants’ hunger strike in Belgium neared its two-month mark. The migrants camped in a central Brussels church, some nearing death. Four migrants actually sewed their lips together, a flagrant sign of their desperation.
One reason for large undocumented migrant populations—Belgium has a reported 150,000—is Western nations’ massive shutdown in processing such cases since 2015.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reports that less than 1 percent of refugees are resettled each year on average. By definition, they cannot return to their homes due to war, persecution, and, increasingly, famine. In 2020 UNHCR tracked 20.7 million people fitting that definition. It submitted 39,500 refugees for consideration to resettlement countries. They only resettled 22,800.
The hunger-striking migrants in Brussels seized a moment to end the red tape: Western nations face dramatic labor shortages that migrants can ease. Above their mattresses on the stone floor of the church, they taped signs showing jobs they did in their previous lives: computer technician, electrical mechanic, nurse, hairdresser.
The Belgian government on July 22 reached a temporary settlement allowing the strike to end. It didn’t grant collective status but vowed to give new consideration to each case.
The United States can do more to ease the crisis by processing refugees and asylum-seekers. Yet the Biden administration has been slow to fulfill the president’s campaign promises to do so.
A reluctant Biden raised this year’s resettlement cap to 62,500 refugees from the Trump administration’s all-time low of 15,000 in 2020. Yet as of June the United States has resettled 4,780 refugees—far below its target.
Under Trump, the State Department stopped publishing data on the religious and ethnic makeup of refugees, which is key to tracking persecuted Christians and other religious minorities. Open Doors and World Relief have tracked an 86 percent decline from 2015 to 2020 in the number of Christians resettled in the United States, and that’s worth watching. Yet the Biden State Department has yet to restore the data.
“We’re trying to find the balance in holding the new administration accountable while also being realistic about the challenge in front of them,” one resettlement agency expert told me. The Trump administration, he said, “basically ground overseas processing to a halt, so there weren’t enough people far along into a year-plus vetting process.” No one wants to cut corners on vetting, but officials could jump-start the process for the sake of getting ahead of another crisis.
The refugee crisis drives so many others. As a reporter, I have seen the inhumane conditions we are sentencing people like ourselves to live in, year after year, and I cannot look away. As a Christian, I see the pattern Scripture gives us to see ourselves and others on a journey, with special instructions to help those deprived of family, home, and livelihood. As an American in this fractured moment in our country and our churches, I wonder whether coming around what used to be a bipartisan issue—lifting qualified migrants from the camps, the church floors, and the seas—would help us, too.
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