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Elliott School Dean Brigety Shares Insight on Refugee Crisis

GW Today
October 19, 2016
By Julyssa Lopez
Exacerbated by conflicts in the Middle East, today’s refugee crisis has generated the highest numbers of displaced people on record. There are more than 21.3 million refugees worldwide, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees.
As the crisis becomes an issue of contention in the U.S. presidential election, the globe is grappling with how to address these alarming figures. Last month, 52 countries participated in the White House’s Leaders' Summit on Refugees to discuss the matter. President Barack Obama also announced that he would raise the number of refugees admitted to the United States to 110,000 in the fiscal year 2017, which began Oct. 1.
Before joining the George Washington University as the dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs, Reuben E. Brigety II served as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, where he supervised U.S. refugee programs in Africa, managed U.S. humanitarian diplomacy and developed international migration policy. Most recently, he was also the U.S. representative to the African Union and the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.
Dr. Brigety spoke with George Washington Today about what his years of experience have taught him about refugee policy, what we should know about refugees and what the U.S. is doing to abate today’s crisis.
Q: As the deputy assistant secretary of state in the U.S. Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, you managed U.S. humanitarian diplomacy. What were some of the insights you gained about refugee populations, and how has this helped you understand the crisis we’re seeing today?
A: The first thing is that, in some ways, this is a personal topic for my family and me. In 1978, my wife came to the United States as a refugee from Ethiopia, following the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie during the communist Derg regime’s takeover. When I would travel to African refugee camps as the deputy assistant secretary in the refugee bureau, I would meet with refugees across the continent and I would say, "My children have the blood of African refugees flowing through them, so I take this very seriously." That is the starting argument that I make: This is not a policy issue; it's a personal issue—not just for me, but also for all of the people who are affected.
The second thing is that all of us in the field can say humanitarian challenges don't have humanitarian solutions—humanitarian challenges have political solutions. The genesis of almost all refugee circumstances have their roots in political violence and armed conflict that will ultimately require political solutions in order to find refugees more permanent settlements. Whether one talks about the war in Syria, which is generating a large numbers of refugees; the absence of a permanent settlement in Somalia, which has left Somali refugees across the Horn of Africa; or the failure to come to a final status in western Sahara, which has led to one of the longest refugee situations in Algeria, the ultimate way to solve all of these crises has to involve a very strong political component.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges in refugee resettlement processes?
A: One major challenge and human tragedy we know from many refugee populations around the world is the average length of time that people will remain in a refugee status before they find one of three permanent solutions of return, resettlement or political integration is about a decade. I've been in refugee camps where I've met children who are third-generation refugees—children of children of people who fled—and that's a tragedy.
The terminology for that is "protracted refugee situations." These are people who are in a situation of permanent displacement across the border without access to permanent solutions. So, when one sees young people who have fled Syria and they're in refugee camps in Turkey, the statistical likelihood is small that they will be returning home within a matter of years. Thus, it's vitally important to ensure their livelihood and continued development where they are but also to try and find some sort of political pathway through the crises that led to their displacement in the first place.
Q: For Syrian populations who have largely contributed to the current 21.1 million refugees around the world, what does that political pathway look like?
A: It's an end to the war, and right now the question is how you end the war. That is a strategic question of the highest order that is occupying many of the most senior leaders in the world without success at the moment. Either one side comes to a definitive military victory, and it looks like Assad’s military and Russian forces have the upper hand in that regard, or the political calculus of the conflict changes such that they will come to a political settlement—and that looks unlikely from the news. Earlier this month, the United States said they no longer believe, at least for the foreseeable future, that a diplomatic solution involving the Russians is viable.
Q: As people fleeing war-torn Middle Eastern countries seek asylum in higher numbers, what has happened to displaced people in areas like the Balkans and Africa?
A: One of the things I have said from the beginning is that while I admire the focus on Syrian refugees, we must not forget that there are lots of other refugee populations who, frankly, have been in refugee situations much longer. I would hope that the passion and attention around displaced people in Syria addresses these other populations.
It's hard because the global resettlement program is dependent on burden sharing. We've seen, regrettably, that there are some countries, like Hungary, that refuse to even take any refugees. So, this is clearly a matter of great political sensitivity. It's one of the things that is challenging the unity of the European Union as a whole, and we clearly have seen the challenges of refugee resettlement playing in our own election debates. It's not easy. Immigration is a challenging political issue for what it means in terms of identity and, inarguably, for security in every country in the world. It challenges the very notion of national sovereignty, to the extent to which a state can control who comes across its border. But it also butts against our more common standard of human decency and solidarity and also our collective responsibility to address matters of security that may be far beyond our shores but nevertheless impactful.
Q: How is the U.S. helping? Is there more that can be done?
A: The United States is now, and has been for years, the largest single national contributor to the UN High Commission for Refugees, which is the point organization for refugee response around the world. Certainly up until this crisis, the U.S. has resettled more refugees within its borders on any given year than the rest of the world combined. And still, it has the largest official quota of resettled refugees than any other country in the world—although Germany is accepting more now. Even with that, the president just announced an increase in the quota of refugees the U.S. will accept.
I have been on the other end of these refugee resettlement prompts. I can tell you that the level of vetting these people go through is unlike any visitor in the United States, bar none. There is a great understanding within U.S. resettlement agencies that the program must be fail-safe secure to ensure support. The issue is not that the U.S. is not leading—we are doing more than any single country both in financial contributions and in terms of settlement, and arguably, at least if not more, in terms of political engagement. The problem is that it's a wickedly big and stubborn problem.