Based on US President Donald Trump’s recent executive order, you might think that refugees are a treacherous group. After all, he’s wholesale blocked them from entering the US for 120 days, with a special indefinite ban on Syrian refugees.
But as Angelina Jolie recently wrote in The New York Times, “refugee policy should be based on facts, not fear.”
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So what are the facts? Who are these refugees?
There are 21.3 million refugees living in the world today, according to data from UNHRC. Another 44 million people have been displaced from their homes, but remain within their home country.
Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and South Sudan are the four biggest sources of refugees in the world.
Syrians are fleeing a brutal civil war that has lasted for more than five years. Throughout the war, cities have been pulverized by bombs, people have been indiscriminately abducted and tortured, militias roam in a near anarchic state, and life has become unbearable for millions.
Yet, people don’t want to leave until they absolutely have to. It’s their home. This was painfully clear in the story of Bana Alabed, the 7-year-old girl stuck in Aleppo as the government battered the city with bombs.
Somalia has a long history of civil war and insurgencies and today the government battles large Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab terrorist franchises; Afghanistan’s government has little control over the country as the Taliban regains power following the retreat of the US; and South Sudan is close to descending into a genocide as the government wars with rebel groups.
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While refugees come from different parts of the world, they share at least two characteristics: a desire to live and a desire to improve their lives. That’s why they flee their homes and countries into an uncertain and often hostile future.
What happens when you become a refugee?
Refugees flee their homes, which means they’re also leaving behind their jobs, their livelihoods, their social networks, their possessions. Oftentimes, they leave their families behind, too, because leaving alone is safer.
Because they’re leaving war or persecution, they often flee in clandestine circumstances to avoid detection, crossing borders at night or through smugglers or couriers.
Or they leave in large exoduses, whole communities abruptly rushing to a neighboring border to clamor for help.
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Once they get into another country, refugees try to integrate into the new land, but many barriers stand in their way — they usually do not have citizenship or work licenses in this new country; they may not speak the language; they may not know anyone who can help them; they may not have any money to invest in resources.
Countries neighboring war zones often have systems in place for handling refugees and mitigating their effect on society. Many refugees are guided into large, bare-bones, temporary resettlement camps or shanty towns. They work in underground markets, they get food and supplies from aid agencies, and they wait, sometimes indefinitely, for better options to arise.
Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia, and Jordan host the most refugees in the world, mainly because they share borders with the countries producing refugees. These countries have vast refugee camps and shantytowns.
The Da’daab refugee camp in Kenya, for example, is the quintessential example of the refugee camp as hellish limbo. Somali refugees in the camp are unable to leave the camp and are given no way to integrate into the broader society.
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Faced with a stagnant future, many refugees try to go to more prosperous countries where the possibility for settling down and finding steady work exists.
In recent years, mass refugee flight to Europe has captured the world’s attention — refugees stuffed onto flimsy boats, attempting to make it from the shores of Libya or Turkey to Greece or Italy, and then, if they are lucky enough to arrive on shore, travel upward through Europe.
While this is often overwhelming for Europe, strong processing mechanisms are in place to handle the influx. Refugees are received in Greece or Italy where they undergo lengthy background checks that can drag on for months or years.
The US, meanwhile, isn’t caught off guard by hordes of refugees — there is simply no way for most refugees to get to the country by sea or land. Refugees from Latin America, meanwhile, are often captured and held in detention centers before being deported.
For the bulk of refugees who want to come to the US, the process for getting to the country is formidable.
How do refugees make it to the US?
There are normally 20 steps that a refugee must go through before admission to the US, but Syrian refugees often face more.
“Refugees are anxious, confused and heartbroken at this suspension in what is already a lengthy process,” the UNHCR said in a press release.
“Those accepted for resettlement by the United States are, after a rigorous US security screening process, coming to rebuild their lives in safety and dignity,” the release added. “UNHCR hopes that they will be able to do so as soon as possible.”
First, refugees have to register with the UN, which runs background checks with whatever information is available.
The UN, knowing how stringent the road ahead for refugees trying to get to the US is, only permits the most vulnerable people to proceed, less than 1 percent of all refugees — women and children, people with disabilities, the sick and wounded, and those who face immediate risks to their life.
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Then the candidates interview with the UN. If the person seems like she will be a good fit for the US, then her refugee status will be approved and she’ll be forwarded to the State Department.
A series of background checks, fingerprints, and other physical cataloguing from numerous security agencies — the State Department, Homeland Security, Defense Department — then ensues.
Any trace of a problem will lead to rejection. For instance, if a mother of four has a cousin who is thought to have been loosely affiliated with a rebel group in Syria, she may be rejected even if she barely knows this person.
Then a candidate is passed onto the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services office, which conducts its own background check and processing. If any red flags appear, then Homeland Security conducts a more rigorous background check. This process takes whatever amount of time is necessary.
If all goes well, then an extensive, in-person interview with Homeland Security takes place.
If approved, the candidate must be screened for contagious diseases, take a cultural orientation course, and be assigned to a refugee resettlement program.
Before they can come to the US, security agencies perform a final, rigorous security clearance.
This process generally takes around two years and often goes much longer. Some perfectly ordinary people never make it beyond certain steps.
Humans of New York told the story of one young refugee’s family who was denied by the US.
When a person arrives in the US, they receive housing and food stamps for a very short period and then rely on non-profits, the generosity of others, and their own ability to survive in and navigate a new world.