Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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The Migrant Crisis Trump Never Mentions
Donald Trump’s ugly bluster about Mexicans who come to the United States to escape poverty and violence has plunged the political debate over immigration policy to a new low. That’s quite an accomplishment given the depressing level of the rhetoric before he entered the Presidential race. Lost, however, for the vast number of Americans in the furor over migration across the southern border is the magnitude of the challenge facing migrants throughout the world.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that at the end of 2014 there were 13 million refugees in the world, not counting an additional 5.1 million Palestinians displaced in 1948 by war and partition who now live in refugee “camps” in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, and Lebanon. Half of the 13 million people are in Asia, another 28% are in Africa. Their living conditions range from well-established camps to makeshift shelters to open terrain. At best they live lives of profound uncertainty, dependency, and deprivation.
The largest number of people on the move are refugees from violence who are categorized as internally displaced persons (IDPs) because they have not crossed an international border. A record breaking 38 million people are internally displaced, a shocking 11 million of them uprooted in 2014 alone. Violence and human rights abuses in the Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, South Sudan and Syria accounted for 60% of this IDPs. Forty percent of Syria’s population, or 7.6 million people, have been displaced, the largest number in the world. The violence in eastern Ukraine has left 640,000 displaced.
Asylum seekers account for another 1.2 million migrants. These are people on the move who have not yet been formally classified as refugees. In addition, an astonishing 10 million people in the world are officially “stateless.” Because of shifting borders, ethnic discrimination, and gaps in nationality laws, these people can claim no nationality and face a lifetime of obstacles securing a stable place or community to call home.
Add these together and the number of people on the move and seeking a secure home, based on UNHCR figures, is over 67 million right now. Not counted are the thousands who die every year in dangerous transit across borders and oceans, or who are forcibly repatriated to the dangers they had fled. In 2014 alone at least 3,500 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe. Additional thousands are exploited by traffickers and smugglers.
But here’s the really shocking news that neither Trump nor any other candidate ever talks about. In the face of this global humanitarian crisis, the United States has virtually closed its borders. For the last four years the United States has accepted less than 70,000 refugees annually. If there is a shocking statistic in the heartbreaking story of migration in the United States it is this callousness, not that in our wealthy nation we have 11.3 million undocumented migrants, many going to school or working and paying taxes.
The dirty little secret is that the United States largely leaves the plight of the world’s migrants to the most impoverished places in the world – poor nations in Africa and Asia, violence torn countries in the Middle East, the Balkans, Greece, and Italy in Europe. The US is the most generous government donor to UNHCR, but it arguably also has the most resources and the cynic might suspect that giving money is a far more politically palatable option than actually welcoming refugees here. Better to keep migrants in camps far from our shores, even if it takes a bite out of the federal budget.
None of this registers in the political debates in the United States. The uncertain plight of millions of undocumented neighbors here is, of course, a critical concern that demands thoughtful attention rather than mere political posturing. Don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. But the truth is that our migrant “problem” is only a small piece of the global crisis. The fact that no candidate, Republican or Democratic, gives this reality the time of day may be even more obscene than Trump’s irresponsible and obnoxious tongue.
John H. Thomas
August 27, 2015