Op-Ed: Refugee reality check

In this Sunday, May 29, 2016, photo, Syrian refugee sisters play near their family's tent at an informal tented settlement near the Syrian border on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

By Bill Clapp, co-founder of Global Washington and Seattle International Foundation
and Dan O’Neill, co-founder of Mercy Corps

More than 65 million people today, more than one out of every hundred on the planet, are on the run as refugees or otherwise displaced from their homes and communities. More than half are children.

These are stunning numbers, representing a refugee crisis the likes of which the world hasn’t seen since World War II. But this crisis also represents an opportunity for all of us living in comparative safety and wealth to take actions that truly embody our values and responsibilities as global citizens.

The two of us combined have spent close to six decades working on refugee issues. We know how difficult and complex these crises can be. We’ve known and loved people who have been killed in conflict zones. We have looked in the faces of desperate families fleeing untold horrors.

We also know solving these issues cannot be done with guns or walls; it must be done through thoughtful, long-term strategies that address underlying problems, even as they help alleviate the present suffering.

While Syrians currently represent the largest percentage of those displaced, with 13.5 million people in need of humanitarian aid, over the last five years wars have broken out in Yemen, South Sudan, Burundi, Ukraine and Central African Republic. Additionally, thousands more people have fled gang violence and other conflict in Central America.

Recently, global leaders met in New York in and around the United Nations General Assembly to discuss a more pragmatic and humane response to the overwhelming migrant and refugee crisis. At the U.N. gathering, together with the White House Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, global business and political leaders agreed to take concrete steps toward addressing the issue: Increasing funding for humanitarian efforts; expanding refugee resettlement; and increasing refugees’ ability to be self-reliant in their host countries.

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While Washington state has been relatively generous in its acceptance of refugees, regularly making the top 10 list for resettlement in the nation, many aid organizations based here know that much more must be done to ensure people do not become refugees in the first place. Conflict mitigation training within communities, for example, can help leaders find nonviolent solutions to long-simmering disputes. And early warning systems can enable organizations to ramp up food aid and other support strategies before people become truly desperate.

Experts know that the front-line countries, which take in the majority of refugees, must be supported so that they, too, do not become destabilized. The majority of Syrian refugees, for example, have been taken in by Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq – countries that already face huge economic and political challenges of their own.

Finally, for those refugees who do make it to our shores and are invited to start their lives anew, we have a moral obligation, and indeed a financial interest, in seeing them set up for success. Contrary to fears that refugees would take the jobs of native workers and be a burden on our country, the actual experience of refugees in this country is quite the opposite. While welcoming refugees does involve a financial cost up front, studies have found that over the long-term refugees have a net positive effect on the economy.

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In the Pacific Northwest, there are numerous organizations working to assist refugees and immigrants in crisis. Working to facilitate collaboration between these groups, the umbrella organization Global Washington supports its members working across this continuum – from delivering life-saving medical aid and training to healthcare providers in crisis zones, to training communities in how to peacefully resolve disputes, to helping refugees both here and abroad get settled in their new communities and gain legal access to jobs and education.

Everyone can, and should, help support this work. A failure to act with urgency and resolve, a failure to recognize that this is a global crisis, translates into a much more destabilized, unsafe and desperate world. If we haven’t learned anything else in the past few decades, it should be clear by now that suffering anywhere – if ignored, allowed to fester and grow – threatens everyone.

Bill Clapp

Bill Clapp is co-founder and board president for the Seattle International Foundation, for Global Washington and a businessman with more than 30 years of experience. Bill retired from Matthew G. Norton Co., an investment holding company where he is still chairman, and became the CEO of Global Partnerships in early 2001. Bill also co-founded the Initiative for Global Development.

dan-oneill-mercy-corpsDan O’Neill has committed his life to international service since 1972. In 1979, Dan co-founded Save the Refugees Fund, an emergency relief task force assisting Cambodian refugees following the infamous “Killing Fields” catastrophe. In 1981, Dan incorporated Mercy Corps with a mission to alleviate suffering, poverty and oppression by helping people to build just, secure and productive communities.

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