World events frequently cause flows of people that are unanticipated. Both between nations and within nations, people are displaced for political, religious, and environmental reasons. Refugee Status Determination (RSD) has been the purview of both the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and governments around the world. University of Law professor Michael Kagan has suggested that the UNHCR now lacks the capacity to adequately identify potential refugees. Further, he suggests that individual governments also lack this capacity. He directs an on-line forum presenting position papers and shorter discussions of refugee issues at the University of Michigan. In a recent posting, he called for the UNHCR to seriously address its capacity to engage in RSD asking:
Does UNHCR RSD lead to meaningful protection for refugees? Is individual RSD the only way to achieve this protection? Is UNHCR more likely than the host government to conduct RSD fairly and effectively in the context where it would be undertaken?
One example of a country deeply affected is Syria. According to the UNHCR, more than three million Syrians are registered as refugees. One and a half million of these are children. A poignant UNHCR meme asks Facebook readers to imagine what would happen if all of Manhattan’s 1.5 million inhabitants were suddenly displaced. In addition to the refugees who have left the country (most of whom have resettled in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey) close to six and half million Syrians have been internally displaced, as this Infographic illustrates. According to UNHCR Reliefweb the Muslim nations close to Syria have born most of the burden, with Lebanon and Turkey accepting over a million refugees, Jordan 619,000, Iraq, 215,000 and Egypt nearly 140,000.
Fighting has displaced millions of people and recently forced the government to withdraw a fatwa preventing people from eating cats and dogs. People are in such dire need of food that they now consume these animals.
Roughly one month ago, the World Food Program of the United Nations announced it no longer had the funds to continue its food program to Syrian Refugees. Luckily, an intense on-line campaign allowed the restoration of the program within the month.
It behooves us to allow more refugees to resettle here in the U.S. We have the capacity and this would fulfill one of Professor Kagan’s calls for nation states to assist a beleaguered UNHCR to work through the backlog of RSD applications. Sweden is an example of a smaller country with a big heart and capable infrastructure which has chosen to allocate fully 1/3 of its refugee quota for 2014 to 600 Syrian and Syrian-Palestinian refugees.
How are those of us outside the Middle East connected to this flow of people? Most frequently we engage with these events through the last pages of the front section of our local newspapers. A more appropriate connection may be to track more carefully who has been displaced and what assistance globally engaged citizens can actually provide.
Professor Kimberley Brown, Portland State University