Building Contact between Immigrants and Host Communities is Vital to Integration, guest post by Jonas Bergmann

Extensive evidence shows that fostering contact between natives and immigrants decreases intergroup prejudices, anxieties, and perceived threats, which can pave the way for successful integration, social cohesion, and development.

The growing scale of human mobility worldwide has rendered immigration a salient topic with a prominent place in public discourse. European citizens, for instance, currently perceive it as the most critical issue facing the EU overall.[i] Prejudices and anxieties surrounding immigrants have reached a startling scale that fuels exclusion, discrimination, violence and a lack of support for integration policies. The ensuing risks to social cohesion and human development of both immigrants and natives should be a critical concern for policy makers.

New evidence-based action is required to address these anti-immigrant prejudices and sentiments. Policy makers can learn from recent advances in social psychology: Extensive empirical research shows that fostering contact between natives and immigrants decreases prejudices, anxieties, and perceived threats, while increasing empathy and mutual understanding. Building contact can ultimately facilitate more positive group relationships and yield high pay-offs for all involved stakeholders.

Rising Mobility Calls for Effective Inclusion

In 2015, there were 251 million international migrants, 78 million more than in 2000 and including 20 million refugees. At least three times more people migrate within countries than across borders, and about twice as many are displaced internally than internationally. Regional asymmetries, such as economic ones, as well as phenomena such as conflict and climate change will drive voluntary and forced migration further in the future. As more people move internally and internationally, better integration could yield significant benefits to migrants, host societies and governments (and even to sending regions)[ii]: Inclusion facilitates self-sufficiency and human development, which in turn reduces welfare costs, raises tax income, and improves social cohesion.[iii]

Successful integration, however, is a challenging two-way street between immigrants and host communities. Immigrants have different capacities to integrate, and host communities have different abilities and willingness to absorb them. The ability of host communities depends on various economic and institutional variables; their willingness or social receptiveness, in contrast, is shaped by beliefs and attitudes about immigrants. Thus, perceptions and social attitudes held by natives are highly important for integration dynamics; they form one of the two pillars of a host society’s absorption capacity.

Among many misperceptions, host societies tend to err by wide margins in the pace, scale, and impacts of immigration. Even if data proves different,[iv] this can elevate a sense of anxiousness and perceived threats. Such feelings complicate integration needlessly for two reasons. First, they directly fuel exclusion, discrimination, and violence that undermine social cohesion, as witnessed in various regions of the world. In Germany, for instance, more than 200 asylum seekers were injured in attacks in the first half of 2016 alone, a more than threefold increase as compared to midyear 2015.[v] Such violence and less manifest exclusion threaten integration drastically. Second, negative perceptions and sentiments can indirectly lead to restrictive policies that obstruct more positive immigration outcomes. For instance, studies by the OECD and EU show how restrictions can prolong labor market integration of refugees by years. Similarly, harsh asylum policies not only violate human dignity, but can also largely increase financial costs for governments.[vi]

Thus, intergroup prejudices and negative sentiments resulting in exclusion and inhospitable policies ultimately impose costs on all societal stakeholders. They imperil social cohesion as well as human development. Mitigating prejudices and anxieties should therefore rank high on the agenda of policy makers, which holds also true from a legal viewpoint: Public international law establishes inclusion rights for both displaced persons and migrants.[vii]

Contact as a Potent Win-Win-Win Tool

While a variety of factors shape attitudes towards perceived ‘outgroups’, extensive empirical evidence shows that contact is one of the most effective entry points to counter prejudices and negative emotions. A meta-review of 515 experimental studies involving 250,000 participants in 38 nations finds that intergroup contact significantly lessens prejudice across nations, genders, and age groups, by reducing anxiety and enhancing empathy. The synthesis of 50 years of research shows how individuals generalize their positive contact experiences to the entire perceived ‘outgroup’ and even other ethnic groups. Contact also positively changes attitudes towards social policies critical to integration.[viii]

These laboratory findings are confirmed in a meta-review of 123 real-world contact interventions with more than 11,300 participants, showing that contact effectively reduces prejudices and tensions between ethnic groups.[ix] Contact works in direct face-to-face settings, but also in indirect formats, such as through a friend knowing immigrants, observing how others interact with, and even reading about or imagining contact with immigrants. Optimal conditions such as institutional support for the contact facilitate particularly positive outcomes, yet are not necessary prerequisites for success. That said, negative contact in involuntary and threat-producing encounters can exacerbate prejudices and anxieties and need to be avoided as much as possible. Yet even where negative contact cannot be averted, it can be neutralized by previous experiences of positive contact.[x]

To illustrate these findings, a UNHCR study showed that only 20% of Austrians in personal contact with displaced persons described their experiences as negative, as opposed to 68% of the rest of society.[xi] Thus, while no panacea, evidence shows that contact can be a powerful tool for increased trust and reduced anxieties for both immigrants and natives. For policy makers, building contact is a win-win-win tool: It simultaneously helps immigrants, natives, and governments by providing more fertile grounds for integration that ultimately yields pay-offs for the whole society (and even sending regions).

Building Contact

Creating contact constitutes a powerful, flexible, and highly adjustable policy tool that has proven successful in many real-life interventions. To tap the potentials of contact, a three-pronged approach is detailed below. Civil society, donors and interested public institutions should jointly pursue a multi-level approach to create more contact between natives and immigrants. Interventions should be adapted to local contexts, build on good practices, and embrace sound sequencing and timing.

First, contact strategies should aim to ‘tap the untapped’, i.e. to map and cater to existing interest in contact through tailored matchmaking efforts. In Germany in 2014, for instance, as much as 42% of natives were interested in getting to know asylum seekers and 66% ready to support them; yet only 22% were in relevant contact with, while 47% had never met asylum seekers.[xii] Established good practices to foster direct contact include early integration at community-level, equal access to education, language training, productive activities, and integrative housing, as well creating platforms for structured intergroup contact. Conditions known to enhance the benefits of such contact include institutional support for the contact, pursuing joint goals, cooperation, and equal status in the encounter.[xiii]

Second, prejudices, anxieties, and perceived threats lead to the avoidance of direct contact. Where strong biases exist, structured direct contact techniques have proven beneficial. In these cases, it is also highly important to ensure that indirect contact is positive. Indirect contact may be increased by educational and community interventions, information campaigns, supportive public framing and media reporting, as well as giving immigrants voice and visibility themselves. Indirect vehicles have a wide reach across society, and public institutions hold significant leverage in shaping them. Providing accurate data and information is a proven policy instrument to counter misbelieves, as embraced by the World Bank’s Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development (KNOMAD), IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC) and others.

Third, segregation is often perpetuated by systematic barriers. Lifting such institutionalized obstacles could broaden contact opportunities across the board. Barriers to contact include segregated housing such as large asylum reception facilities, time spent in isolating reception processes, and constraints on employment. Such obstacles can (re-)produce detachment on the side of natives, but also exacerbate impediments on the part of immigrants, such as linguistic and cultural barriers. These systematic barriers thus constitute key entry points for policy makers seeking to break cycles of segregation and alienation.

Conclusion and Outlook

In conclusion, with human mobility likely to increase further and surrounding prejudices and anxieties reaching a startling scale, new evidence-based action is needed. Building contact between natives and immigrants has a strong empirical track record in improving attitudes and in creating demand for better policies. It is adjustable to numerous contexts and allows for a flexible multi-level implementation. Ultimately, contact can be an effective win-win-win-tool yielding benefits for all stakeholders.

Recognizing the need for better approaches to large movements of refugees and migrants, the UN will convene a summit on 19 September 2016. In line with the recommendations given here, the UN Secretary General has launched a global campaign ‘emphasizing direct personal contact between host communities and refugees and migrants.’[xiv] In the latest Draft Declaration, all heads of state pledged support to this contact-building strategy and promised ‘a range of steps to counter [xenophobic] attitudes and behavior’.[xv] It would be an important and much needed leap forward if tangible action followed.


[i] European Commission, ‘Standard Eurobarometer 83: Public Opinion in the European Union’ (2015).

[ii] Daniel Cervan-Gil, ‘Host Society Integration as a Development Vector: A Literature Review’ (2016). KNOMAD Working Paper 9.

[iii] Oecd, Making integration work: Refugees and others in need of protection (2016).

[iv] Ipsos MORI, ‘Perceptions and Reality: Public Attitudes to Immigration’ (2014); GMF, ‘Transatlantic Trends: Mobility, Migration and Integration’ (2014).

[v] Amadeu Antonio Stiftung and Pro Asyl, ‘Neue Dimension der Gewalt’ (30 June 2016) <; accessed 25 July 2016.

[vi] Oecd (n 3); E. R Thielemann, Richard. Williams and Christina Boswell, ‘What System Of Burden-Sharing Between Member States For The Reception Of Asylum Seekers?’ (2010).

[vii] UN General Assembly, ‘In safety and dignity: addressing large movements of refugees and migrants: Report of the Secretary-General, A/70/59’ (2016).

[viii] Thomas F Pettigrew and Linda R Tropp, When groups meet: The dynamics of intergroup contact (Psychology Press 2011).

[ix] Gunnar Lemmer and Ulrich Wagner, ‘Can we really reduce ethnic prejudice outside the lab?: A meta-analysis of direct and indirect contact interventions’ (2015) 45(2) EJSP 152.

[x] Stefania Paolini and others, ‘Positive and extensive intergroup contact in the past buffers against the disproportionate impact of negative contact in the present’ (2014) 44(6) EJSP 548.

[xi] UNHCR, ‘Stimmungslage der österreichischen Bevölkerung in Bezug auf Asylsuchende’ (2011) <; accessed 21 July 2016.

[xii] Robert Bosch Stiftung, ‘Asyl und Asylbewerber: Wahrnehmungen und Haltungen der Bevölkerung 2014’ (2014).

[xiii] Pettigrew and Tropp (n 8).

[xiv] UN General Assembly, ‘In safety and dignity: addressing large movements of refugees and migrants’ (n 7) 11, 15.

[xv] UN General Assembly, ‘Draft Declaration For High-Level Meeting To Address Large Movements Of Refugees And Migrants’ (12 July 2016) Para. 1.11 <; accessed 25 July 2016.

Jonas Bergmann is a consultant for the KNOMAD Thematic Working Group on Migration and Environmental Change as well as for the Climate Policy Team at the World Bank. Prior to this, Mr. Bergmann worked and interned with the Institute for the Study of International Migration, Human Rights Watch, the Berkeley Center, the Global Public Policy Institute, the International Human Rights Unit of the German Foreign Service, and the Chilean National Human Right Institute. Mr. Bergmann has also participated in various refugee and migration networks and co-founded two local empowerment NGOs in Germany and the USA. Migration, Human Rights, and Sustainable Development have constituted key areas of interest in both his graduate studies as a Fulbright/DAAD fellow in the M.Sc. in Foreign Service at Georgetown University and in his B.A. in International Affairs in Dresden, Valparaíso, and Lyon.

The author wishes to thank Dr. Sylvie Graf, Dr. Stefania Paolini, and Prof. Dr. Uli Wagner for their helpful comments on an earlier draft.

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The U.S. Refugee Resettlement System: A Different Kind of Integration Challenge

This is a blog post of mine published on the Sussex University website in conjunction with a recent conference on refugee resettlement.

The U.S. refugee resettlement system is the largest in the world. Since 1975, over 3 million refugees have been resettled in the United States. It has garnered bipartisan endorsement in Congress as well as local support, particularly by faith communities. It is often said that the U.S. refugee resettlement program reflects the United States’ highest values and aspirations to compassion, generosity and leadership. But let’s not be too Pollyannaish: tensions between newly arrived refugees and local communities have always existed. Learning a new language and culture and becoming fully integrated take time and can create friction between the new arrivals and established residents in the community. In the past few years, a number of communities have expressed concern about the local impact of resettlement, and there have been statewide legislative and executive efforts to restrict and deter refugee resettlement. And let’s not forget the anti-refugee sentiments expressed by the current Republican presidential nominee and his supporters.

But I do not want to dwell on the raising anti-refugee and anti-immigrant sentiments. Rather, I want to focus on refugee integration. Most scholars and policy makers define integration as the process by which refugees become accepted into society, both as individuals and as groups, emphasizing the notion that the responsibility for integration rests not with one particular group, but rather with many actors—the government, local communities, and the refugees themselves. When assessing integration, researchers analyze a wide range of measurable outcomes: attainment of early economic self-sufficiency, income levels, participation in public benefits programs, and English language proficiency, to name a few. Studies also look at how the mainstream society welcomes refugee newcomers, at the social connections, social bridges, and social links between the host society and refugee communities.

What seems to be missing in these analyses is the emphasis on integration between and among different newcomer groups. The 2012 GAO (Government Accountability Office) report on the U.S. resettlement system– that includes analysis of several studies on integration of refugees– talks about integration solely in terms of relationships between established residents and newcomers, without really discussing the diversity of both populations and the need for refugees to integrate into a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious society.

Integration into a multicultural environment is particularly important since refugees arriving in the United States often find the country more diverse than the lands they left behind. The American society is composed of different waves of immigrants, some more empathetic than others to new refugee arrivals. But the refugee populations resettled in the U.S. are also very diverse. Between 2009 and 2014, the U.S. resettled 402,000 refugees from 106 countries. Among the most numerous groups were refugees from Iraq (98,000), Burma (97,000), Bhutan (73,000), followed by Somalia (34,000), and the Democratic Republic of Congo (14,000). A great deal of intra-group diversity is also present. For example, the people of Burma consist of eight main ethnic groups that can be further divided into more than 130 distinctive subgroups and this multiplicity of backgrounds is reflected among the arrivals from Burma as the United States accepted the Chin and Kachin as well as Karen refugees. Many advocates are also urging the US to increase the number of Rohingya refugees. Similarly, among the Iraqi refugees who have been coming in considerable numbers to the country since the Gulf War there are Iraqi and Kurdish Muslims as well as Chaldean Christians. And a last example: The Somalis Bantus are ethnically, physically, and culturally distinct from the Cushitic majority. As such, they have long been considered second-class citizens in Somali society – exploited as laborers, and excluded from education, land ownership, political opportunities and representation–and yet in the United States they often live side-by-side with their Cushitic compatriots.

Because refugee status is determined on an individual basis, it is not totally outside the realm of possibility that families or individuals that have been mortal enemies during the armed crisis that made them flee their homeland and seek refuge in the U.S. are now neighbors.  I am reminded of my time in the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) where two of my grantees brought the war from the Balkans to Boise, Idaho. The animosity between the groups that were of the same ethnicity and lived in the same village but supported different sides in the war continued in Idaho. Sometimes the antagonisms took on humorous forms and expressed themselves in fierce folk song competitions, but at other times the continued bickering and bullying threatened the neighborhood’s social cohesion. I worked hard to make both groups set aside their politics and concentrate on the problems that faced them and other refugees and immigrants living in the community: quality of education for their children, domestic violence, and petty crime that was rampant in the neighborhood. I could plead but I had no resources to support different groups of refugees and immigrants to get together to solve common problems.

According to the stipulations enshrined in the Refugee act of 1980, ORR’s budget for refugees has always been split between 85% of the federal monies going to employment-related services (after all, early economic self-sufficiency is the main goal of the U.S. resettlement program) and 15% to social services. There is also a smaller discretionary fund pot. However, without exception, ORR directors have used their discretionary funds mainly to support activities of discrete groups of refugees. I used to call it “funding by ethnicity.” When the first cohort of Iraqis came, the Office of Refugee Resettlement funded a three-day conference for the community. It was a wonderful event! We even funded childcare so Iraqi women with childcare responsibilities could participate. The same type of conference was organized for other groups: the Somalis, the Bosnians, and the Sudanese. When I questioned the rationale for supporting the same type of activities for diverse groups of people who often had very different needs, the powers that be invoked equity. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for equity, but tailoring funding and activities to the special needs of different groups is also very important, isn’t it?

My main criticism, however, related to the propensity of the federal government to focus on one ethnic community at a time. Newcomers interact with established residents—U.S.-born folk and refugees and immigrants who came before them—in many different social arenas. Community boundaries are created through exchanges between these groups in schools, workplaces, government offices, law enforcement, and health care facilities. It is this social space that fosters integration and change, on one hand, or isolation and conflict on the other. Successful integration often requires both newcomers and establishes residents to expand their notions of community.

Even among long-standing residents, establishing a sense of community is often a challenge. “Community” refers both to where people live and how they feel and act. In one sense, it evokes a feeling of collectivity that is linked to a specific geographic area or physical space such as a city, a town, a school, a place of worship, or a city block.  In another sense, it transcends geographic limitations to unite a group of people sharing common behavioral patterns, values, and social ties related to traits such as ethnicity, religion, and nationality.  It often takes time to feel comfortable when moving to a new city or town, entering a new school or changing jobs.  This challenge is heightened for both newcomers and established community members when the newcomer’s cultural and linguistic background is different from that of the majority.

Many localities create action plans to promote positive social interaction between newcomers and established residents and ensure that all residents receive quality service.  These plans often emerge from the grassroots level as concerned residents, businesses, and public officials join forces to respond to rapid population change.  In other instances, local governments take it upon themselves to create committees or task forces dedicated to incorporating all residents into community life. One approach is bottom up; the other is top down.  The two often work in unison and can both be effective in solving challenges pose by rapid new settlement of foreign-born populations.

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Mobile Lives: Musings about ethnographic research on migration

My blog post with Marek Pawlak on ethnographic research and migration. This is a blog related to a project on Polish female migration to Norway.

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Brexit…. Precursor to PLexit and Trumpdom?


Like the rest of the world I woke up to the shocking news about Brexit. On a more personal note, the first thing in my Facebook feed was a blog by a colleague, Nando Sigona, on his feeling the morning after … I have no words, in any language, to console Nando.

I have not lived in Europe for many years, but I am Polish by birth and American by happenstance. I fear both for my motherland and for my adopted country. I am afraid that Poland is not far away from wanting to exit the European Union. The ruling party of Law and Justice (sic!) is already making waves about being “put on its knees” by the EU! The All Polish Youth, a nationalistic youth organization, wants freedom and independence, argues against accepting refugees and immigrants. Poland after all should be for Poles! — they shout as they march through cities and towns wrapped up in Polish flags and adorned with nationalistic symbols. God, Honor, and Fatherland are their values, not diversity and acceptance. As Daniel Passent wrote on his blog this morning, the effects of Brexit will adversely affect Poles, both those living in Poland and those residing in the UK. Ironically, many of the latter ones expressed their dissatisfaction—often in uncertain terms and vulgar language—with the growing diversity in Great Britain. Now the shoe is on the other foot: 75 percent of Boston—one of the largest concentrations of Poles in the UK—residents voted to leave the EU.

On my side of the Atlantic Ocean, the Donald prized Brexit. No surprises here: The fear mongering that led to Brexit has been part of his modus operandi during the ongoing presidential campaign. UK is leaving EU, the US might become a Trumpdom, surrounded by a tall fence, and living in “splendid isolation” from the outside world. Today, the Donald calls for deportations of Mexicans and barring all Muslims from entering the United States. Who will he target tomorrow? Polish Catholics? Mixed race Americans? Who else?

We, the American voters, should not dismiss Brexit, we should fear that it will only fuel the appetites of Drumpf’s supporters. What? You say they don’t follow international politics! Perhaps not, but they certainly listen to their Fürer!

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Guest post on the Oxford U Press Blog

Happy to share my guest blog post on the Oxford University Press Blog. You can read it here

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Catholic Poles react to Pope’s washing the feet of refugees


On the evening he was betrayed, Jesus “poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (John 13:5).

On Holy Thursday Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of Muslim, Orthodox, Hindu and Catholic refugees, declaring them children of the same God. The root of this tradition can be found in the hospitality customs of ancient civilizations, especially where sandals were the main footwear. Many people watching Pope Francis washing the feet of refugees perceived this ritual as a gesture of welcome and brotherhood at a time when anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment has spiked following the Brussels attacks.

While the Pope’s gesture brought tears to the eyes of the migrants, the reaction in Catholic Poland was the opposite of what the Pope intended. The Pontiff wanted to sharply contrast the gesture of fraternity with the gesture of war and of destruction committed in Brussels just three days before Holy Thursday.

The reactions of the Polish faithful? “The Pope (if you can call him that) desecrated the Holy Thursday, ” “Francis! Sorry, but you keep on losing the respect of the faithful,” “It’s a gesture of submission, weakness, and stupidity,” “I wonder whether he will be washing the feet of jihadists when they bomb Vatican,” “The Pope lost his marbles!”

Who are these commentators? Hooligans? Nationalists? PEGIDA members? Unfortunately, similar sentiments are expressed by some of the Polish clergy, often from the pulpit, and politicians. Conservative Catholic politicians have denounced the key issue of the Gospel, so near and dear to the heart of Pope Francis, of welcoming the stranger and loving thy neighbor. Instead, they accuse Muslim refugees of spreading diseases, being barbarian, murdering and raping European women, and wanting to introduce Sharia law in Europe. Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the Law and Justice Party, said Poles should be afraid of parasites and other diseases refugees and immigrants bring with them. Some journalists hoped that Andrzej Duda, the President of Poland, would want to distance himself from the opinions expressed by Kaczyński, but sadly he only reinforced these fears.

Polish citizens share sentiments expressed by politicians. According to a survey conducted by the Public Opinion Research Center in Warsaw, the majority of Poles opposed resettlement of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. After the attacks in Paris, two-third of Poles (64%) opposed resettlement of Muslim refugees. The same cannot be said about attitudes to Ukrainian refugees from areas of armed conflict. They have always enjoyed higher support than refugees from Africa and the Middle East. At present, three-fifths of Poles (60%) support giving asylum to refugees from Ukraine, while a third of respondents (33%) oppose this policy.

So what is at work here? On the one hand, Poles and the Polish government extol the virtues of adhering to the teachings of the Catholic Church, but on the other hand seem to be very selective in choosing Gospel messages to follow. It seems that a primordial ideal of national identity—ironically often equated with being a Catholic—trumps the card. Poles think that Muslim refugees would always be loyal to their countries of origin and could never be counted on defending Poland.

Poland is not a country for Catholics in the style of Francis. When the Pope visits Poland this summer, government representatives and politicians will shamelessly kiss the papal ring, promote papal masses , and maybe even pose for a selfie with the Pope, but when the Pontiff will call for building bridges, the Poles will continue to call for sealing borders.



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Miresevini ne Amerike! or Welcome to America!

Those were the words that welcomed weary Kosovar Albanians airlifted out of Macedonia to Fort Dix, New Jersey in 1999. I remember May 6, 1999 when the first plane carrying 453 Kosovar refugees arrived on a nearby McGuire Airbase as if it was yesterday.


These Muslim refugees were greeted warmly and compassionately not only by us—the civil servants from the Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement—but also by Christine Todd Whitman, the Governor of New Jersey at the time. Governor Chris Christie has conveniently forgotten that his predecessor, a fellow Republican, and the people of his state welcomed the Muslim refugees in peril with open arms and hearts. The First Lady, Hilary Rodham Clinton, also came to Fort Dix to personally welcome arriving refugees, as did Donna Shalala, the then Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Young Albanian Americans took off from work and school to volunteer and provide interpretation services during the three months of Operation Provide Refuge. Local, Albanian speaking Imam came to the Refugee Village–as we called the camp–every Friday to lead the refugees in a jummah prayer saying “God is compassionate. God is merciful.” They were not alone. Fifty nine percent of Americans felt the airlifts were the right thing to do and a further 22 percent hoped more would be done.

Were there suspicions of infiltrators? Of course! Many of the families that arrived in Fort Dix had sons and husbands fighting in the Kosovar Liberation Army. There were fears that Milosevic sympathizers might have followed them to the United States. Those fears were short-lived. We trusted the national security agencies to do their job to protect the country as well as we did ours to protect and alleviate the suffering of the Muslim refugees. It all worked out in the end: some 3,000 Kosovars found safe haven in the U.S.. Refugees spent just a couple of weeks at Fort Dix before they were resettled in local communities. After fighting ended in Kosovo, most returned home but others stayed on to attend university, gain professional experience or simply enjoy peace. I remember them all fondly.

Three years prior to Operation Provide Refuge, there was Operation Pacific Haven during which some 7,000 Iraqi Kurds arrived at Anderson Air Force Base on Guam. There they were screened, processed for asylum, and assigned sponsors in an effort that involved more than a thousand American soldiers and civilians. Almost all of the evacuees ended up Stateside within seven months. The Kurds were mostly Muslim. Even though in both cases the screening was done in a much shorter time that it takes to vet refugees coming from overseas refugee camps, none proved to be terrorists ready to launch attacks on Americans who welcomed with opened arms. Both groups proved to be valuable additions to the multicultural and multi-religious American society. There are thriving communities of Kosovars and Iraqi Kurds in many cities in the United States.

Call me naïve, but I hope that when the Syrians arrive in America they too will see the sign: مرحبا بك في امريكا marhabaan bik fi ‘amrika (Welcom to America!) despite the fear-mongering attempts to stop their resettlement.

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by | November 20, 2015 · 1:14 am

Locked in paradise: The paradox of protecting trafficked victims in Thailand

FullSizeRender (2) IMG_2034

The 20015 TIP report has been issued last week and, as predicted, Thailand landed in Tier 3 again. But I don’t want to dwell on the reactions to the Tier 3 ranking, rather I want to share a few thoughts about the changes Thailand might consider to revise their anti-trafficking efforts, especially when it comes to protection of survivors.

Thailand’s conceptualization of victim protection seems to be very narrow. It focuses mainly on physical safety of victims. In order to ensure the safety of victims, the Thai government runs several shelters where survivors are kept during the so-called ‘identification process.’ The term seems to be a misnomer. The victims have already been found—identified–but now have to go through a legal process, often very lengthy, which determines whether they will receive their back wages or damages. The payment of back wages or assessment of damages hinges very much on the strength of the court case against the traffickers. It seems that “identification” really means prosecution. Survivors—regardless of age–must collaborate with law enforcement to get a change to receive any money the courts might decide is owed the survivors.

I had a chance to visit some of the shelters this past month. The shelters are located on the outskirts of Bangkok, far away from any modes of public transportation. One is situated on a small island in the middle of a river and can only be reached by a boat. All of the shelters I visited were spacious, clean, and well maintained. The sprawling gardens surrounding them are luscious and beautifully landscaped with birds of paradise flowers and other breathtaking flora. While the residents can walk around the gardens to their hearts content, they cannot leave the premises unless accompanied by a government officer or guard. In one of the shelters, the Rohingya men worked and could go shopping, but never without a watchful eye of the shelter official. Women do not have the same priviledges. They have no means of transportation for one, but the shelter authorities are also worried that their charges–adults or children–may not return to the shelter if allowed to go anywhere on their own.

When I asked why the boys residing in one of the shelters could not go to school one a school bus, the director said: “They would escape in no time and return to begging in the streets.” At a shelter for women, I was told that the women don’t want to leave the premises because they are afraid of the pimps and madams that might be lurking around. Perhaps…. But there was no proof of anybody skulking around the island.

According to the shelter staff, most survivors do not identify as victims of trafficking. “They don’t know any better,” said one shelter director. “We have to convince them that that’s who they are,” she said. Most survivors eventually agree to the designation as trafficked victims. This is their only chance to attempt to recoup the back wages.

Shelter residents are provided with three square meals, comfortable beds, clean clothes, but little else. Mental health counseling and occupational therapy do not lead to development of new skills. The Thai anti-trafficking law does not provide for any immigration relief or temporary residency permits outside the government-run shelters. Work permits are also limited. The only option at the end of the long legal process is to return home—to Burma, Laos, Cambodia–to the poverty that the men, women, and children tried to escape. If they are lucky they return with a few hundred dollars at most. If they are Rohingya, they have no home to which to return.

It seems that issuing residency and work permits—even temporary ones—would go a long way towards ensuring protection of victims. The concept of protection ought to be expanded to include rights: a right to exercise one’s agency, a right to free, unescorted movement, and a right not to be locked up. Expansion of rights is also the best mental health remeay for the trauma these exploited workers endured.

The notion of protection needs to be also extended to safe return home, but that is a topic for another blog.


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Thailand waits with baited breath for the release of the 2015 TIP report

It is almost the middle of July 2015 and the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which is usually released in June, has not been issued yet. Many countries are waiting with baited breath to see their ranking. Thailand is one such country.

In 2014 Thailand was downgraded in the TIP Report to the bottom-of-the-pile Tier 3 ranking the “Global Sheriff,” as Janie Chuang aptly calls the J/TIP office in the U.S. State Department, established to judge countries on their anti-trafficking activities. Many criticisms have been leveled against the TIP Report in the past: in opinion pieces and blog posts[1] as well as journal articles.[2] One of the most common criticisms of the TIP Report is that it exists to serve the political interests of the United States. Researchers, however, also emphasize a flawed methodology that is used to rank countries.

I am not sure if the methodology is good or bad since it’s hard to assess what methodology the J/TIP uses. The 2014 TIP Report included five sentences on “methodology.” The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) doubted whether these sentences even qualify to be called a methodology section. Indeed, the report lists the types of organizations from which it gets information without mentioning specific government departments or agencies. There is also no information whether or how the received information is vetted, whether it is based on empirical research or administrative data or opinions expressed by those that submit the information.

 The U.S. Department of State prepared this Report using information from  U.S. embassies, government officials, non-governmental and international    organizations, published reports, news articles, academic studies, research This email address provides a means by which organizations and individuals can share information with the Department of State on government progress in  addressing trafficking. U.S. diplomatic posts and domestic agencies reported on the trafficking situation and governmental action to fight trafficking based on thorough research that included meetings with a wide variety of government officials, local and international NGO trips to every region of the world, and information submitted to representatives, officials of international organizations, journalists, academics, and survivors. U.S. missions overseas are dedicated to covering human trafficking issues. The   2014 TIP Report covers government efforts undertaken from April 1, 2013 through March 31, 2014. [3]

My discussions with government representatives and NGOs in Bangkok indicate that neither the Thai civil servants nor the civil society understand how the ranking system works and against what criteria the information they provided is evaluated. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example, did not receive a satisfactory answer to their query why J/TIP assessed the prosecutions that the Thai government launched in 2014 as low. Were these numbers assessed against previous year’s prosecutions (indeed the number of persecutions in 2014 was lower than in 2013), against the number of identified survivors of trafficking or against estimates of trafficked victims?

Solid data on trafficking is hard to come by in Thailand. The Ministry of Social Development that is responsible for funding and providing services to survivors of human trafficking does not release the data that government-run shelters for victims report to the Ministry. I visited the Kredtrakarn Protection and Occupational Development Centre (Nonthaburi Province) last week and asked the director how many victims she served last year. She wouldn’t tell me; she said this is confidential information. She did mention, however, that she could house as many as 200 victims at any given time and that 180 survivors of trafficking were living in the shelter on the day visited. I tried to play simple math with her and asked average number of victims served every year, the number of months victims stay in the shelter, but to no avail. I asked a similar question of an intergovernmental organization that provides assistance to victims and the silence was deafening. Why this fear of sharing information? Obviously, I was not asking for names of victims or any other type of data that should be protected by privacy laws.

Local NGOs were more forthcoming with information. The Human Rights and Development Foundation (HRDF) and the Labor Promotion Network (LPN) told me they had served about 500 victims each in the last 10 years. Is that a lot? Again, it is hard to make an assessment, as we don’t know to what to compare these numbers. Given the limited resources each organization has—foreign donors exclusively fund both—it seems that the caseloads are substantial. However, given the challenges of estimating the number of trafficked persons in Thailand—see a rather robust attempt by Courtland Robinson of the Johns Hopkins University, in collaboration with Sompong Srakaew of LPN, to assess the number of trafficked victims among Burmese labor workers in Samut Sakhon[4]–these numbers are really meaningless.

Thailand is waiting for the TIP Report in an empirical vacuum and worries as it follows testimonies of people such as Mark Lagon, the former Ambassador at Large in the J/TIP office, who urged the U.S. government to sustain a tier-three ranking should the government of Thailand not show strong will to take corrective action to address human trafficking in short order.[5]

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think there is no trafficking in Thailand. Even during my short visit, supported by the Fulbright Program, I have seen and heard advocates and scholars alike talk about egregious labor exploitation in many industries, but especially in the fishing industry. Earlier this year—in May 2015—the Thai police discovered a few dozen graves on the Thai-Malaysia border of Muslim Rohingyas, who according to the police reports were “starved to death or died of disease while being held by traffickers who were awaiting payment of ransoms.”[6]

The Thai government is making improvements to its response to human trafficking. On July 8, 2015 the Bangkok Post reported that authorities are setting up a special inter-agency body to strengthen investigations of human trafficking cases. The new unit includes representatives of the Royal Thai Police Office, the Department of Special Investigation, and the Social Development and Human Security Ministry.[7]

As Thailand waits for the TIP ranking, Reuters reports that its neighbor—Malaysia—has been upgraded to Tier 2 Watch List. Some human rights advocates and U.S. lawmakers expected Malaysia to remain in Tier 3. If the number of prosecutions and convictions of traffickers is a measure of complying with the minimum standards of anti-trafficking activities, Malaysia had reported 89 human-trafficking investigations in 2013, down from 190, and nine convictions compared with 21 in 2012.[8] If indeed Malaysia appears on Tier 2 Watch List in the coming days, we will know that foreign and trade-policy drive the U.S. ranking system more so than empirical data. Malaysia is the current chair of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It is seeking to promote unity within the bloc in the face of China’s increasingly assertive pursuits of territorial claims in the South China Sea, an object of U.S. criticism. Malaysia also hopes to be a signatory to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). TPP would link a dozen countries, cover 40 percent of the world economy and form a central element of President Obama’s strategic shift towards Asia.

[1] See Laura Augustin’s op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer (July 1, 2007) or a blog posted from 2009

[2] See Janie Chuang (2006), The United States as Global Sheriff: Using Unilateral Sanctions to Combat Human Trafficking. Michigan Journal of International Law 25: 437-494.

[3] See

[4] See the report

[5] See the full testimony here





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Yes to Kebab, no to Muslim migrants

The Polish blogosphere has been overtaken by ‘discussions’ about–or should I say, expressions of hatred towards—Muslim refugees and migrants. The debate intensified when the European Union proposed binding quotas on asylum seekers for its 28 member states. Poland vehemently opposed these plans.

Poles took to the Internet to express their outrage about the possibility of admitting Muslim refugees and migrants. The better mannered commentators pointed out cultural and religious difference between Catholic Poles and Muslim migrants that would prevent integration of the latter into the Polish society. Those with less restraint called Muslims ‘’lazy, passive and intolerant savages who treat women poorly, ruin whole neighborhoods, behead passerbys, and comit terrorist attacks.”[1]

Many Poles see Muslims as a threat to European identity. They are afraid that Sharia laws will replace the Polish legal system and cite Nigel Farage who has claimed “that ‘ghettos’ in parts of the UK are being run according to Sharia law as authorities ‘turn a blind eye’ because of their ‘moral cowardice’.”[2] I know that hatred and racism are not rational feelings, but I often wonder whether a bit more education about Islam and Muslims would positively affect the Poles’ attitudes toward Muslims. Perhaps the education should start with a historical look at Muslim minorities in Poland.

Yes, there are Muslims in Poland. The presence of Muslims in Poland dates back to the 14th century when Tartars settled in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In northeastern Poland there are villages where Muslim Tartars have lived peacefully alongside their Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brethren for a long time. I remember taking my anthropology students to Sokółka and Bohoniki to see the peaceful co-existence of different religions and cultures in the late 1970s. Konrad Pędziwiatr estimates the number of Muslims in Poland between 25,000 and 40,000 people.[3] At a conference at the Józef Tischner European University in Krakow in July 2011 panelists talked about Poles of Syrian, Egyptian and Turkish origin—whose families arrived after 1970–who play an important role in civic and community organizations in different parts of the country. The consensus was that Muslims are contributing members of the society and should feel welcomed in Poland.

What a difference 4 years makes! When Ewa Kopacz, the Polish Prime Minister, announced in the summer of 2015 that the country would take in 60 Syrian refugee families[4] of Christian faith, Poles breathed a sign of relief. The debate leading to the announcement was anything but welcoming. In my hometown of Poznan—that would take 10 of the 60 families—the local TV show aired a discussion between Krystian Golec of the All-Polish Youth (Młodzież Wszechpolska), a Polish youth organization based on nationalistic doctrine, and Dr. Mariusz Marszewski from the Eastern Institute (Instytut Wschodni) of the Adam Mickiewicz University.[5] In the discussion Mr. Golec showed a great deal of ignorance about Christianity in Syria and was shocked when Professor Marszewski talked about Christian Syrians being culturally Arab. Somehow the Arab identity of Christian Syrians did not fit into Mr. Golec’s visions of cultural similarities between them and the Catholic Poles.

The ignorance of many Poles shows also in total lack of understanding of how the international refugee regime works and who bears the financial responsibility for refugees. The opponents of admitting Muslim refugees to Poland shout loudly about the financial burden refugees would place on the Polish society. In reality, ¾ of the funds needed to resettle refugees would come from the European Union’s Asylum, Migration, and Integration Fund, while ¼ would come from the Polish government. In the case of the 60 families, the total cost would be four million PLN or a little over one million US dollars. The Estera Foundation, a Polish non-governmental organization, claims that they are able to guarantee to maintain and care for 1,500 persecuted Christians from Syria. They refugees would receive a Polish language training, case management, and integration assistance. All of these actions would be financed with private money, not taxpayers’ money.

Sadly, reason and mathematical calculations fall on deaf ears. The nationalists are eager to welcome the descendants of Poles sent to Kazakhstan and Siberia in the previous century. They united in their desire under the slogan: We don’t want immigrants, we want repatriates! When Poles appreciate multiculturalism, they limit their appreciation of diversity to culinary offerings people from other countries can provide. As my friend and colleague, Professor Michal Buchowski says: They say yes to kebab, but no to Islam.

[1] See commentaries to an article written by Roza Thun, a Polish politician, in the Polish Daily Gazeta Wyborcza where she invites Catholic Poles to follow the Bible and welcome the stranger.



[4] Estera, a Polish non-governmental organization, asked the government to allow 1,500 Syrian Christians to live in Poland. The NGO said charities, businesses and churches could cover living costs for the refugees.


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