By THO Team Member, Samantha Ellard
As of mid-2020, there are “26.3 million refugees” among the “80 million displaced people worldwide,” according to the UNHCR, while civil wars and forced displacement of people continue (Refugee Data Finder, 2021). The subsequent movement to host countries brings uncertainty for refugees and hesitancy by host countries to increase their allotted quota of refugees. Some social dynamics encourage hosting of refugees while others are deterred due to the economic and social challenges that can ensue. However, universal situations, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, alter the willingness to open borders to refugees and alter the meaning of World Refugee Day 2021.
The pandemic exposed social, economic and political disparities between countries and their communities, and further revealed the contrast refugees face. The Brookings Institute highlighted, “the pandemic has forced refugees, who often live in densely populated areas with little access to healthcare and whose economic condition is fragile at best, into a ‘double emergency’” since developing countries host the majority of refugees (Kirişci & Denney, 2020). The rise in refugees as well as the social and political desperation host countries face has forced wealthy countries to confront the burden-sharing needed to help the host countries and refugees. In doing so, examining the refugee policies in the United States and Turkey along with international organizations will provide insight into how to improve the situation.
The United States is a global superpower and wealthy nation, giving it the bandwidth to extend help to refugees. Hence, President Biden raised the “refugee admissions cap to 62,500 for this fiscal year” with an additional “commitment to the goal of 125,000 refugee admissions in the first fiscal year” (White House, 2021). The increased refugee ceiling follows worsening situations, including COVID-19, social and political circumstances. According to the US Department of State, “Total U.S. humanitarian assistance worldwide was more than $10.5 billion in fiscal year 2020, including funding from the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance,” highlighting their monetary support (Refugee and Humanitarian Assistance, State Department). This renewed commitment to refugee admissions emphasizes the integral role of refugees in social and economic environments in the United States.
American involvement in supporting refugees has brought economic and social benefits to the US and provided support for refugees. According to the National Immigration Forum, “in 2015, refugees possessed $56.3 billion in disposable income that could be spent at businesses in their communities, making local economies stronger.” The National Immigration Forum also found that in 2013 “refugees in Akron held $23 million in household spending power and paid over $3 million in state and local taxes;” “Akron refugees also contributed $3.6 million to Social Security and over $840,000 to Medicare;” and “86 percent of refugees were of working age, compared to just 66 percent of the U.S.-born population” (National Immigration Forum, 2018). The impact made by refugees in the United States deserve highlighting, as the topic has become hyperpartisan. Furthermore, the social developments between refugees and Americans allows a mutual understanding to be established, but the common change in caps hinders the ability to further those developments.
Turkey’s relationship with refugees differs from the United States’ relationship with refugees. Due to Turkey’s geographic proximity to Syria, Turkey has taken a significant role in housing and supporting refugees. According to the Guardian, “Turkey is far and away the world’s biggest refugee host nation, with 3.7 million registered Syrians already, and a population that keeps growing – about 500,000 Syrian children have been born here since the crisis began” (McKernan & Akoush, 2021). The tremendous dedication to support and house refugees certainly places economic and political strain on Turkey, and a lack of external assistance makes their mission difficult – resulting in inadequate aid for the refugees. The collateral damage refugees face is heartbreaking to witness.
To support Turkey’s efforts of taking in refugees and providing aid, the European Union (EU), who also faced high rates of refugees coming into their member states, “agreed to resettle Syrian refugees from Turkey on a one-to-one basis, reduce visa restrictions for Turkish citizens, pay 6 billion euros in aid to Turkey for Syrian migrant communities, update the customs union, and re-energize stalled talks regarding Turkey’s accession to the European Union” (Terry, 2021). The mutual aid presented allows for the refugees to have support while also providing an incentive to Turkey to take in more refugees. This deal has brought success for the EU and Turkey, and it may be renewed. Despite the gratitude from the EU to Turkey, “Turkey’s economic downturn in 2018 led to a backlash against Syrians which culminated in an illegal deportation campaign the following summer” (McKernan & Akoush, 2021). The flow of refugees into Europe and the illegal deportations highlighted the pressure campaign against the EU to increase support and aid. Recognizing the economic, social and political strains faced in host countries that support refugees is imperative..
The bi-directional support ensures that the refugees get essentials, while the host country can supply the necessities, and ensure stability for their citizens. The rollercoaster of stability experienced in Turkey has been met with aid at various stages, but the social and political ramifications cannot be fully dealt with by external support. International cooperation and burden-sharing may need to be fostered in a more equal manner.
With Turkey’s placement as the largest supporter of refugees and the American hesitancy to dramatically increase admissions, the bilateral relations regarding refugees can create an awkward discord over burden-sharing. Especially with the economic and political agreement formed between the EU and Turkey, US-Turkey relations do not face the same circumstances. Additionally, the US has not faced the same influx of refugees as several European countries have. The lack of a similar agreement with the rise of Syrian refugees into Turkey is a serious point of contention and tension between the US and Turkey. To urge increased support by the US Congress, UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Ben Stiller conveyed the stress placed on hosting countries like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Further, in a recent trip to Turkey, a US envoy examined the shipment of aid to refugees in Syria through the United Nations humanitarian aid program. A significant amount of aid by the US to Turkey in supporting their efforts to house refugees has been through international organizations such as the UN and its sub-agencies.
Regardless of where refugees are located, they face adversity from members of a host nation and external sources due to the rise of xenophobia and nativism. Language barriers, preconceived notions about refugees and their country of origin, and lack of connections in their host country halts their ability to adjust while maintaining cultural independence. Phillip Leclerc, the Representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Turkey, spoke at a recent THO event, and spoke on how to combat attacks on refugees. “We work together to overcome the prejudices” and show that “refugees can contribute to society,” Leclerc said (Leclerc, 2021). The humanization of refugees' experiences is paramount in moving forward harmoniously even if one cannot explicitly relate to the refugee experience. A shared connection can provide a strong bridge to make members of host nations feel more empathetic towards refugees and, thus, improve negative social and political rhetoric concerning refugees broadly. A sole country or organization cannot combat the prejudices refugees face, but rather an international discord centered in solidarity will ensure refugees can thrive in a welcoming environment.
International organizations have played a key role in coming alongside refugees, while coordinating international aid to continue humanitarian programs. As of May 2021, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had a budget of $9.152 billion (USD) with a 6% increase in UNHCR populations in 2020. The matters covered by the UNHCR include education, shelter, child protection, public health, water, sanitation and others. The work, operated by the UNHCR, is met with overwhelming support. But, its necessity is overlooked. In November 2020, the UNHCR experienced “an influx of $4.5 billion in donations to the agency this year” (UN, 2020). The UNHCR explained this as a form of “extraordinary solidarity” due to the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic (UN, 2020). The representatives of Turkey, Brazil, Georgia, Bangladesh, Myanmar, South Sudan, Russian Federation, Syria and more have expressed the challenges faced in their regions while highlighting the positive contributions by their host countries and foreign entities.
Similar to the efforts achieved by the UN, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has met requests of Turkey, Germany and Greece in their efforts to meet the crisis. In support of Turkey and Greece, NATO has “deployed a maritime force in the Aegean Sea to conduct reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance of illegal crossings” (NATO News, 2021). Although the basis of NATO’s support has been through surveillance, NATO, nonetheless, contributes to ensuring the safe movement of refugees and the protection of their Allied members. The burden-sharing implemented by international organizations continues to further the objective to support and help refugees.
Policies, whether they are from nation-states or international organizations, towards refugees are consistently impacted by political, social or economic circumstances. However, individuals often experience the worst of it, with refugees being hurt in the long run. Events and social movements, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, have widened the disproportionate impact of health, political and economic crises on refugees, but also on a country’s citizens. The significant rise in funding to the UNHCR during the pandemic is a direct result of realizing one’s own benefit in the world while refugees and other displaced people are marginalized. Confounding social movements and current events allow the public to realize the importance of aiding refugees as well as their positive impact on society.
Other than the moral and ethical reasons to support people, refugees are a source of economic expansion and social development. Socially, they diversify communities, and create a multi-cultural society that combats the rise in xenophobia. Economically, according to the Brookings Institute, “refugees can move the needle when it comes to integrating their communities in global markets in robust ways” (Kirişci & Denney, 2020). Although there will be xenophobia and anti-refugee rhetoric in the world, it is paramount to underscore their positive contributions to society.
The concerns for future and unpredictable crises and how the world handles it will be a direct result of how the international community can form a common understanding of helping people without any secure support. Furthermore, the response to help refugees begins on an individual level in understanding their struggles and the right to live in a welcoming world and society.