June 20, 2019, was World Refugee Day, which is dedicated to raising awareness of the situations of refugees throughout the world. Refugee is a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution or natural disaster.
A refugee is different than a migrant, who is a person who chose to move from one country to another, albeit often to seek better living conditions.
On June 20, 2019, I read multiple articles and social media posts “raising awareness” for World Refugee Day by declaring that the United States “should accept no refugees.” Most of these posts were plainly xenophobic and were based on an example of one refugee who committed a crime. Xenophobic means the dislike, fear, or hatred of or prejudice against people from other countries purely because they are from other countries.
I grew up in northeast Indiana, but accepted a job elsewhere with the federal government last fall. That job involves evaluating the cases of individuals applying to live in America and advising immigration judges on the outcomes of those applications. Thus, in response to the articles and posts I read, I felt compelled to share just a few things that I have learned in that job.
I learned that the government of Eritrea has a “shoot-to-kill” policy for Eritrean citizens who attempt to leave or travel outside of Eritrea without the government’s permission.
I learned that it is illegal to practice most denominations of Christianity in China, and doing so can result in torture, physical harm or arrest by the Chinese government.
I learned that a man raping his wife is legal in at least 10 countries, and in several countries a man is deemed to have “not raped” a woman if he marries her after he rapes her.
I learned that, since 2017, the military of Myanmar/Burma has participated in the deliberate killing of thousands of individuals based solely on their ethnicity.
I learned that 11-year-olds in Nigeria can be found to have legally consented to sexual activity even if the other person is an adult.
I learned that government-run hospitals in El Salvador administer electroconvulsive therapy, or electroshock therapy, on mentally ill patients without their consent and without anesthesia.
I learned that due to a civil war started between South Sudan’s president and his then-vice president, more than 4.4 million citizens in South Sudan have been forcibly displaced from their homes.
That knowledge aside, is every individual who seeks to live in the United States a refugee? No. In fact, the law says that when individuals apply for asylum from the United States they have to submit evidence to demonstrate and prove their refugee status. My job also involves advising immigration judges that an application should be denied because the individual did not demonstrate that he or she is a refugee.
Also, is every individual who proves he or she is a refugee accepted to live in America? No. There are a large number of factors, such as having committed certain crimes or supported terrorist organizations, that make individuals ineligible to live long-term in America even if they can prove their refugee status. In fact, between 45 to 65% of asylum applications are denied every year due to ineligibility or failure to prove refugee status.
Is it possible that within the 35 to 55% of approved asylum applications each year the government approves the application of a refugee who ends up committing crimes or engaging in other abhorrent behavior after being allowed to stay and live in the United States? Absolutely. But statistics overwhelmingly show that for each such approval there are dozens of approvals of the individuals listed above who go on to live as productive, law-abiding residents of the United States.
Repeat. They go on to live. They weren’t shot for trying to travel outside their country. They weren’t killed for practicing Christianity. They no longer had to endure rape. They weren’t killed because of their ethnicity. They didn’t spend their childhood “consenting” to sex with adults. They received real treatment for their mental illness. They were able to have a permanent home.
And those are the refugees that World Refugee Day should have been used to raise awareness for.