The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The refugees are here, whether you like it or not

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Refugees have become the object of opportunistic political grandstanding in much of the West. Entire electoral campaigns hinge on the spectral menace they pose. Right-wing politicians and talking heads demonize them as rapists and criminals; others mock their flight from war zones as a lack of courage. Some even go on television and invent massacres committed by refugees that never took place.

What's obscured in this relentless politicization of the refugee crisis is the actual plight of refugees. So here's a brief survey of the situation, such as it is.

According to UNHCR, the U.N.'s refugee agency, there are an unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world who have been forced from their homes — the largest such displacement ever measured by the organization. Of that overall figure, there are about 21.3 million people registered as refugees — that is, people who are in limbo outside the borders of their countries rather than internally displaced. Crucially, over half of all refugees are under the age of 18.

More than half of current refugees come from just three countries: Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan. And the overwhelming majority of these refugees are not living in the West, nor are they on the verge of traveling there.

Despite the hysteria fanned in Europe and North America — consider President Trump's suggestion that refugees are "pouring in" — the real burdens of the crises have always been in the Middle East and Africa. Governments and humanitarian organizations in those regions are straining under the pressures.

Every fifth person in Lebanon is a refugee; in Turkey, there's a controversial plan afoot to naturalize some of the more than 2 million Syrians now living in the country to try and cope with the costs of accommodating them. In both countries, vulnerable Syrians have fallen victim to human traffickers and militant groups.

UNHCR says that about 1.19 million people will need to be resettled in 2017, due either to the dire conditions in which they're currently trapped or specific family needs. The United States, which accepts more resettled refugees than any other country, will take only a tiny fraction of that number — and will even slash the number of refugees it accepts per year by half. Since the war in Syria broke out in 2011, 5.5 million Syrians have fled their country. The United States has taken in just under 20,000 in total.

Now Trump's executive order seeks to suspend the resettlement of Syrian refugees indefinitely. The move horrifies rights advocates and leading officials of international organizations. 

"Resettlement means taking refugees from places like Lebanon, where they are already refugees, selecting the most vulnerable and taking them to other places," said Filippo Grandi, head of the U.N.'s refugee agency, in a statement last week. "If we weaken that program, as has been done in the United States, this is a very dangerous weakening of the international solidarity for refugees."

Grandi repeated the same desperate plea his organization has made since the first wave of Syrian refugees started: "These are people that flee from danger. They’re not dangerous themselves."

Trump and his far-right counterparts across the pond claim there's no way to properly vet refugees and point to earlier security lapses to justify blanket bans. The open borders within the European Union and poor coordination between national governments did enable a few jihadists to infiltrate the refugee exodus. But in the case of the United States, it's simply not true that tough structures aren't already in place.

Just ask a former immigration officer: "I conducted in-person interviews with hundreds of refugees of 20 different nationalities in 10 countries. I saw countless refugees break down crying in my interview room because of the length and severity of the vetting process," wrote Natasha Hall in a piece published by The Post last week. "From that experience and numerous security briefings, it’s clear that the authors of Trump’s order are unfamiliar with the U.S. immigration system, U.S. laws, international law and the security threats facing our nation."

"This is a test for the Western world not just for America," declared David Miliband, the former British foreign secretary who's now head of the International Rescue Committee, in the Guardian. "It’s a test of whether or not we hold fast to the values of non-discrimination and to universal values of freedom from persecution, so the stakes are very high."

By the look of things, it's a test the Western world is currently failing. About 370,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Europe in 2016, most of them by sea. Close to 5,000 died making the passage. Many of the survivors are being processed in various countries for asylum. But at this very moment, tens of thousands remain stuck in frigid makeshift camps in the Western Balkans, marooned after European Union countries such as Hungary slammed the door shut on asylum seekers.

Of course, it's not just the wealthy West that has let down Syrian refugees and those of other nationalities. Influential Arab governments in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have been criticized for not doing more: It doesn't help that the Saudis aren't signatories of the U.N.'s major international convention on refugees, making it hard to track their efforts to aid Syria's displaced.

In the meantime, organizations like UNHCR issue appeals about the positive contributions of refugees — seemingly without any impact on policy.

Ultimately, as my colleague Robert Samuels reports, it's the refugees themselves who can change the minds of those opposed to them.

“I hated Muslims,” said John Dutcher, a 61-year-old Nebraskan who voted for Trump and was initially angry about the relocation of a Syrian family to his town. But that was before he met his new neighbors.

“The Muslims here were all about family and they just loved everyone,” Dutcher told Samuels. “I remember the people who lived here before; they took for granted everything this country gave them. These people, they really changed my heart.

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