Category Archives: Refugees

Waiting for another executive order

In the first week since his inauguration, Donald Trump has signed several executive orders. According to various reports, the next executive order suspending the U.S. Refugee Resettlement program for four months will be signed as early as this afternoon. Signing this order  on January 27—the Holocaust Remembrance Day—is indeed cruelly ironic.  In 1939, the United States turned away the St. Louis, a ship carrying more than 900 passengers—mainly Jewish refugees fleeing the terror of Nazi Germany—after it was first turned away from Havana, Cuba. Are we about to turn away thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan?

Mr. Trump–it’s hard to call him Mr. President (#notmypresident)–does not seem to understand the ramifications of the executive order he is about to sign. Coupled with an additional ban on issuing visas to nationals from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Libya, Sudan, and Yemen, these orders will undermine America’s position as one of the world’s leading refugee resettlement countries. They will also affect thousands of Iraqi interpreters and soldiers that served alongside U.S. troops who have applied for visas to come to the United States. As of June 2016, 800 applications for the Special Immigrant Visa were submitted by Iraqi interpreters and their families.

I wonder if Mr. Trump has put any thought into what the suspension of the resettlement program will do to the resettlement regime. The refugee resettlement program was one of the biggest casualties of 9/11. Within days, the refugee resettlement program that had brought some 2.5 million refugees to the United States since 1975 was shut down. Three years later, the program was still running at only about two-thirds of its previous capacity and it took several years to bring it back to the 70,000 admission levels.The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) kept the program going and continued to fund their partners because they understood that the resettlement system had to be operational to serve refugees once they were allowed to come to this country again. Will ORR be able to do the same this time? The agency is stretched to maximum serving refugees, unaccompanied children and youth, torture survivors, and victims of human trafficking. We have to keep it going!

I know how important the work of ORR is. I worked there during the Clinton administration. I know how much refugees appreciate the assistance programs ORR funds and how much refugee community members and leaders value the partnership with the agency. I also know how important it is to maintain the premiere refugee resettlement system. I am a refugee. I fled my native Poland in 1984, shortly after martial law ended, but persecution of scholars and college professors continued. I know that this division of society into “Them” and “Us” is dangerous. It breeds hatred and misery. Let’s remember that on the Day of Remembrance.


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Filed under Refugees, Trump

Bicske refugee camp to close at the end of December

Just a quick trip to the refugee camp in Bicske, a small town outside Budapest, before the camp closes at the end of December.  Bicske, which has been operating as a refugee facility for over two decades, is being shut down as part of a government-mandated wave of camp closures.

It is difficult to say what will happen to the refugees who live there—on the day of my visit there were 75 individuals in the camp, hailing from Cuba, Nigeria, Cameroon, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan—or for that matter to the camp director and the social workers taking care of the camp residents. Human rights advocates and some NGOs believe that the Fidesz government’s decision to close the camp is not simply a matter of allocation of resources but part of a broader political strategy to push refugees out of Hungary.

Bicske, which could house as many as 460 refugees is operating well below capacity. The number of asylum applicants in the country has decreased dramatically over the past months. According to data from the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, in October 2016, 1198 refugees registered for asylum in Hungary compared with 5812 in April 2016. As of October 2016, there were 529 asylum-seekers staying in Hungarian refugee reception facilities: 318 at open reception centers such as Bicske and 211 in detention centers.

The Budapest Beacon reported that the refugees will be relocated to a camp in Kiskunhalas in southern Hungary, some two and a half hours by train from Budapest.

The Bicske camp’s location has offered its residents opportunities to access a variety of educational and recreational activities that help them adjust to life in Hungary. Some refugees commute to Budapest to attend classes at the Central European University as well as language courses provided by NGOs. Bicske residents often attend events and meet with Hungarian mentors from groups such as Artemisszió multicultural foundation and MigSzol. Christian refugees are bused to an American church each Sunday morning. Moving the residents to Kiskunhalas will deprive them of these opportunities.

The Hungarian government offers very few resources to refugees — both to those in reception facilities awaiting decisions on their cases and those who have received asylum in Hungary. Access to the civil society organizations helping refugees prepare for their new lives is key.

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Filed under Hungary, refugee camps, refugee crisis, Refugees

We too have got pens and phones….


The right-wing (they claim to be non-partisan sic!) research organization known as Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) has reacted to the now famous quote by President Obama–“I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone, and I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive action”–with a long backgrounder outlining 79 immigration actions the next president should take. The recommendations suggest, among other things, denying asylum to any forced migrants (my terminology; CIS calls them aliens) who could have sought asylum in countries through which they traveled en route to the United States; limiting Temporary Protective Status to one year; and prosecuting relatives of unaccompanied minors who paid smugglers to get their children to the United States to reunite with families.  These are just a few examples of issues that are part of my own research agenda.You can read the full list of the proposed immigration actions here

At this point it is difficult to say which of these points the President-Elect will act on immediately. As the election results were coming in, I was thinking about DACA. It is a low-hanging fruit, and the new president will undoubtedly reach for it. As a  professor at a university that educates DACA recipients,  immigrant students, and foreign students (many of the latter ones are Muslim), I also worry about their educational prospects, physical safety, and emotional well-being.

As a migration scholar and a migrant myself, I am worried that the new president will listen only to those who want to come down on the immigrant communities like a ton of bricks and destroy any progress in integrating diverse groups of refugees and immigrants into the fabric of the American society. When I sought refuge in the United States some thirty years ago from a Communist Poland, I came to this country because I wanted to be part of a multiracial, multicultural, and multi-religious society.

I still do! But I also see that the diversity of America is under a serious threat. So what are we do do? Like President Obama, we’ve also got pens and phones and can start writing and calling to make sure that we take back Congress in two years–the way Republicans took it in 1994 and 2010–to preserve the American values and fight racism, misogyny, and injustice.

As Thomas Lacroix, a French migration scholar, wrote yesterday, we need to fight the hysteria about migrants and migration with our knowledge about migratory processes and migrant communities. Thomas call us to action: to visit schools, community centers,  and publish in local newspapers instead of esoteric migration journals, appear on radio talk shows instead of conference panels.  Each reader, each listener, each viewer we can convince that migration is not a plague will bring about a paradigm shift and hopefully change people’s views about us, the migrants.

So let’s reach for our pens and phones to write, to make arrangements to visit schools and preschools, to show solidarity with the Others because they are US!


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Filed under attitudes towards immigrants, immigrant integration, Refugees

Become a border hunter…


The Hungarian police is recruiting 3,000 “border-hunters” to join some 10,000 police and soldiers patrolling a razor-wire fence built to stop refugees crossing the border from Serbia. The recruitment posts are scattered all over Budapest, including the Keleti Railway Station that became a de facto refugee camp for tens of thousands of people fleeing violence in the Middle East and Afghanistan in the summer of 2015.

Ten thousand police and three thousand “border-hunters” to deal with fewer than 200 refugees that are reaching Hungary’s southern border with Serbia every day. As we travel from Keleti to the refugee camp in Bicske, I ask my research assistant to find out more about the “border-hunters.”peterThey have to have a high school diploma and will receive a six months training that will prepare them for the job. They  will apparently  be earning approximately 200,000 HUF (or $709) a month, and there will be other perks: housing and clothing allowance, and discount on travel and cell phones. The recruiter cannot–or does not want–to answer how many people he managed to recruit today.

During a recruiting fair in early October, a pack of teenagers ogled a display of machine guns, batons, and riot gear. A glossy flier included a picture of patrols in 4x4s, super-cool equipment to detect body heat, night-vision goggles and migrant-sniffing dogs.

Because that’s how Hungary’s new “border-hunters” roll.

The country that once sat behind the Iron Curtain is offering a glimpse into a world where the build-a-wall mentality to keep refugees out rules the land.

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Filed under attitudes towards immigrants, Hungary, refugee crisis, Refugees

Brussels or Budapest, that was the question…


Foto by Elzbieta M. Gozdziak

Caption Translation: Do not take chances, vote “No”

In October 2 referendum Hungarians were asked a simple question: “Do you want the European Union to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the consent of the National Assembly?” Voter turnout was only 39 percent, far short of the 50 percent participation required to make the referendum valid under Hungarian law. Never one to let facts get in the way of politics, the Prime Minister, Victor Orbán, whose Eurosceptic Fidesz party has more support than all opposition parties combined, said in a televised speech: “The European Union’s proposal is to let the migrants in and distribute them in mandatory fashion among the member states and for Brussels to decide about this distribution. Hungarians today considered this proposal and they rejected it. Hungarians decided that only we Hungarians can decide with whom we want to live. The question was ‘Brussels or Budapest’ and we decided this issue is exclusively the competence of Budapest.” Orbán, the Victorious, as he is called by the opposition, decided that the 3.3 million Hungarians who voted “No” in the referendum speak for the whole country of 10 million Hungarians. After his speech, there were fireworks over the Danube River in the colors of the Hungarian flag. The EU asked Hungary to find homes for 1,294 refugees who fled war. But rather than accept it, the Hungarian Government spent 16 million euro on a xenophobic anti-immigrant campaign. This is over 12,000 euro per refugee! This amount would have gone a long way towards providing refugees with livelihoods in a country where people live on about 257,000 HUF or $857 a month. In order to prevent the European Union from sending refugees to Hungary, Mr. Orban has proposed a constitutional amendment to reflect “the will of the people.” It was presented to the Parliament on October 10, and, if approved, it would come into effect on November 8. I wonder if any of the other Visegrád Four countries—Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia–could seek to emulate Hungary and concoct a moot referendum of their own. Anti-immigrant sentiments and xenophobic rhetoric are on the rise in Poland where Mr. Orbán’s friend, Lech Kaczyński, the Chairman of the Law and Justice ruling party, spews the same hatred of Muslim refugees. Sadly, EU institutions, including the European Commission and Council, have remained virtually silent on the Hungarian government’s hate campaign and the referendum.

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Filed under attitudes towards immigrants, Hungary, refugee crisis, Refugees

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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Filed under immigrant integration, refugee resettlement, Refugees

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