Refugeeism: Humanitarian and Strategic Challenges

The problem of developing workable, effective policies to deal with refugees and refugee camps is, unfortunately not a new one. The problem has, however, climbed back into the spotlight as the ongoing civil war in Syria, the fighting in Mali and other violence abroad have created significant refugee flows in already volatile parts of the world. To that end, the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies hosted an event on April 19, 2013 titled “Refugeeism: Humanitarian and Strategic Challenges”.

Professor Yonah Alexander, Director of the Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies and Senior Fellow at the Potomac Institute, opened the proceedings by providing a brief overview of the situation and then introducing the four panelists; Dr. Stephen J. Morris of Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Ralph Nurnberger of Georgetown University, Mark Krikorian, Executive Director at the Center for Immigration studies and Lavinia Limón, President and CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.


After Professor Alexander’s introduction, Dr. Morris began the panel by speaking on the refugee problem in Southeast Asia, particularly in the 1970s, and lessons policymakers today can learn from it. During his presentation he discussed two Southeast Asian refugee groups: refugees from the Vietnam war (anti-communist American allies and ethnic Chinese living in Vietnam), and Cambodian refugees fleeing Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia. Dr. Morris was unimpressed by the role the U.S. chose to play in Cambodia and compared it to the current situation in Syria, noting that the U.S. government opposed the Vietnamese occupation but refused to supply noncommunist Cambodian fighters with weapons because of the prominent role the Khmer Rouge played in the resistance. It was, Dr. Morris said, “the equivalent of saying Bashar al-Assad has to go but we’re not going to do anything about it in terms of supplying arms.”

Dr. Nurnberger was the next panelist to speak, and his discussion focused on three distinct groups of refugees – Palestinians, refugees from the Western Sahara and Jews who fled Muslim and Arab countries as the Palestinian refugee crisis was beginning. In these three situations, Dr. Nurnberger focused on two things: the political aspect of the situation and the physical well-being of the refugee group. He began by giving a brief history of the Palestinian refugee crisis, and reminded the audience Palestinian refugees are one of the four main pillars necessary to understand the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Sahrawi refugee camps was the next topic discussed, as Dr. Nurnberger traced the conflict and refugee crisis back to Spain’s rapid departure from its former colonies, which created a power vacuum for the Polisario and other armed groups to fight over. Finally, Dr. Nurnberger held up the final group – Jews leaving Arab and Muslim countries in the 1940s – as an example for a refugee situation that was dealt with well, where unlike the first two examples a political, not logistical, solution was provided.

Following Dr. Nurnberger was Mark Krikorian, who discussed fixing the United States’ immigration and refugee policy. Mr. Krikorian first emphasized that the U.S. must treat resettlement of refugees with American borders as an option of last resort. This, he argued, was a good policy, but is one that the U.S. has strayed from, despite the significant costs resettlement imposes on the U.S. and the existence of workable regional solutions. These ill-advised resettlement flows have created high expectations among many refugees, Mr. Krikorian argued, leading refugees to believe resettlement in the U.S. is a likely option. Mr. Krikorian then concluded with a few suggestions; that U.S. policy should only consider offering resettlement to those who fit the UN definition of refugee, and that the U.S. should focus on helping refugees resettle in the region they're already in.

The final speaker on the panel was Lavinia Limón, who discussed her personal experiences in refugee camps, U.S. resettlement policy and necessary improvements in international refugee policy. She emphasized the role that the U.S. has played in establishing international institutions, such as the UNHCR, that deal with refugees. At the same time, though, Ms. Limón was not pleased with the “warehousing” of refugees in camps all over the world, where they are systematically denied the ability to work, access to education and any hope of improving their situation. Ms. Limón then went on to contrast the Iraqi refugee experience with the current Syrian crisis. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Ms. Limón said, Iraqis fleeing the conflict resettled in neighboring countries due to U.S. pressure placed on and aid given to its Middle Eastern allies. While this aid ended up working, Ms. Limón believed it was given selfishly to prevent a PR scandal surrounding the Iraqi invasion. On the other hand, according to Ms. Limón, the current situation in Syria has been handled much differently, which has led to the creation of a refugee camp in Jordan with “horrific” conditions just two months after its establishment.

After the panel concluded, Brigadier General (ret.) Dave Reist provided some closing remarks and then the floor was opened up for questions. Gen. Reist focused on the moral imperative that the United States has to help refugees, and emphasized that a lack of proximity and media coverage is the only reason that more people don’t realize that our political decisions regarding refugees can kill people as surely as a soldier firing downrange.


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The Potomac Institute for Policy Studies is an independent, 501(c)(3), not-for-profit public policy research institute. The Institute identifies and aggressively shepherds discussion on key science and technology issues facing our society. From these discussions and forums, we develop meaningful science and technology policy options and ensure their implementation at the intersection of business and government.


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