BC Expert: Refugees
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Clinical Associate Professor & Director of the Immigrant Integration Lab
Boston College School of Social Work
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Westy Egmont is a clinical associate professor and director of the Immigrant Integration Lab at the Boston College School of Social Work. He is a leading expert in the area of immigrant integration and refugee resettlement. Other areas of expertise include migration and human trafficking. The Immigrant Integration Lab is an applied research center exploring the intersection of social work and social policy to determine the most appropriate services and delivery systems that lead to full social, civic, and economic integration of the foreign born in the United States. Prior to coming to BC, he served as president of the International Institute of Boston, a leader in New England in providing services to immigrants and refugees. He also co-chaired the National Immigrant Integration Conference and founded “Dreams of Freedom,” a multimedia exhibition covering the immigration experience in Boston from the Puritans to present day.
On individual states saying they will block Syrian refugees:
“This reaction of these governors is pandering to the nativists and to the fear-mongers rather than an exercise in wisdom. It is neither just nor is it in accord with our concept of civil rights in the United States.
“Since 1980, the United States has had a wonderful, successful refugee program and the idea that individual states would exercise power to deny refugees access to their states appears to be not only unlawful but unwise. It seems to be unlawful in the sense that it would be discrimination against a population based or race, creed, religion, or national origin. That’s just not the American way.”
The revelation that one of the Paris attackers snuck into Europe among the wave of refugees will likely mean more obstacles for the millions of people trying to find a new home, says Westy Egmont, director of the Immigrant Integration Lab at Boston College.
“Fear, xenophobia, Islamaphobia have been alive and well in Europe before this event and this will give credence to those voices that want to close borders, erect barriers, and make it impossible for those eyeing freedom to be able to come in,” says Egmont, an expert in immigrant integration and refugee resettlement with the university’s School of Social Work. “Intense human flows like this summer create a political environment in which the nativists in a country will want very much to close doors. But it would be unconscionable not to recognize that these folks are already victims and it would be unconscionable not to care for them sufficiently.”
French authorities confirmed Europe’s worst security nightmare, that the refugee wave was the very avenue through which terrorists infiltrated a country.
“In this most incredible period of time with thousands of people arriving a day, there were vulnerable moments,” says Egmont, co-chair of the Governor's Advisory Council through which he has provided policy advice to the past five Massachusetts governors, including immigration policy. “Unfortunately borders will be erected as a result of the fear created by this terrorist activity. In the context of the Schengen agreement with 30 nations having a common border, having successfully integrated the labor force and currencies of Europe, this is not the time for a loss of that integration of Europe but it is a time for significant investment of the vetting process of the folks coming through.”
Egmont says the United States model has proven that it’s possible to vet refugees thoroughly, and that all developed nations need to be investing now to be sure that refugees are not re-victimized.
“The U.S. refugee program that has re-settled three million people since 1980 is a remarkable symbol of hope,” says Egmont. “Nations know how to care for those who need resettlement. The first priority of all nations is to settle the conflict in the countries that are disrupting people, such as Syria. The second action is to provide sufficient means for people who have fled into the abutting countries. Finally, we need to provide safe pathways who, for the sake of their family, believe they must press further on to places where there is work and opportunity.”
“Winter is coming. We’re already seeing people in dire circumstances along the way -- people can’t be left to die on the migrant pathways from Greece to Germany,” says Westy Egmont of Boston College’s School of Social Work. “The United States has the capacity to increase our refugee resettlement well above the 85,000 slots that were approved by the State Department for 2016. While a hard ceiling is a matter of debate, one could easily imagine us doubling the number for a year.”
The large numbers of refugees arriving in Europe at the same time as winter is raising fears of a new humanitarian crisis. Egmont, a leading expert in immigrant integration and refugee resettlement, says the U.S. should follow the lead of Germany, which is anticipating 400,000 refugees to arrive this year and as many as one million in the future.
“Germany is a small country compared to the United States, yet it has set a remarkable standard. It should make a country like ours reconsider our capacity and our willingness to help.”
The war in Syria has led to the largest mass dislocation of people since World War II. The United Nations says there are more than four million Syrian refugees, with women and children making up three quarters of them.
“The United States can do much more than its normal commitment to refugees. We need to step up and increase that flow so we can help while standing in solidarity with all the other nations that are highly impacted,” says Egmont, co-chair of the Governor's Advisory Council through which he has provided policy advice to the past five Massachusetts governors, including immigration policy. “The United States has capacity that’s underutilized. We’re in a time of economic strength where labor will be absorbed, and where the institutions can provide necessary services.”
Egmont says if the U.S. successfully doubles the number of annual refugee slots to 170,000 and the refugee crisis still isn’t resolved, the country could consider extending the new ceiling for another year.
“The United States is the world’s leader in refugee resettlement - 50 percent of all resettled refugees through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees live in the United States today. More than three million refugees have been resettled here since 1980. So the United States has a reason for pride and self-confidence. We are a nation that has already demonstrated its commitment to refugees, and given the current circumstances, that commitment needs to continue even more so.”
With European countries beginning to tighten borders as Syria’s war remains the primary force behind the greatest migration of people to the continent since World War II, desperate times are calling for humanitarian responses. But finding the right balance so far has proved an impossible task, says the director of the Immigrant Integration Lab at Boston College.
“We have a complex contradiction between the right to migrate and seek safety under the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the rights of nations whose borders need to be respected,” says Westy Egmont, a leading expert in immigrant integration and refugee resettlement with Boston College’s School of Social Work. “How do we create safe passage? What pathways does a refugee deserve to be able to flee with their children without finding their two-year old washed up on the beaches of Turkey?”
Egmont says the key question is: How do we provide protection and safety for refugees in flight?
“That’s a primary question that warrants the attention of the good minds and policy makers of the world,” says Egmont, co-chair of the Governor's Advisory Council through which he has provided policy advice to the past five Massachusetts governors, including immigration policy. “In the same manner, I think we have to think about what the moral obligation is for nations when they don’t feel that they’re in a strong situation. Countries of varying economies and employment levels are struggling with how many people to take. Does everybody share some responsibility? We have to work on the question of solutions.”
Because there’s no clear pattern by which people know that they can safely get from North Africa to Europe, Egmont says the death toll will simply continue to rise. So far this year, more than 2,300 souls have been lost trying to cross the Mediterranean, many of them children. Last year, almost 3,300 lost their lives crossing the same body of water.
“It should distress every person with a conscience – people taking their babies in arms are fleeing into overcrowded lifeboats and paying exorbitant sums while trying to get to all the European islands in the Mediterranean hoping to find safe refuge, but too many die trying for that first level of asylum.”
This week Germany, Austria, Slovakia and the Netherlands introduced checks at their borders, effectively suspending Europe’s Schengen area, a border-free zone that entitles every European citizen to travel, work and live in any European country without special formalities. The moves come at the same Hungary declared a “state of crisis”; authorities there erected a 110-mile razor wire fence along its border to Serbia and began arresting dozens of refugees who tried to cross.
“These are sad decisions being made that are throwbacks to the pre-Schengen years with many border crossings being complicated, difficult, and bureaucratic,” says Egmont. “Obviously it’s not in the interests of Europe to go backwards and put control on their borders but it’s also understandable that they want an orderly flow and not feel overwhelmed.”
Egmont is calling for an international convention that answers the question of transit and destination.
“Right now, by law, people can flee into Jordan and Lebanon but that’s not the answer. We need there to be a way for a person to get across the Mediterranean or the Bosphorus Strait and find safety. We need to have some urgency to address this issue through the aegis of the European Union but also the United Nations and work together as a community of nations to recognize the desperate situations of refugees in 2015.”
The call by the President of the European Union's executive arm for the continent to accept 160,000 migrants underscores how divided Europe is in dealing with one of the toughest humanitarian crises seen in decades. As leaders debate whether or not to adopt quotas to take in thousands of refugees, many of whom are from war-torn Syria, the flow of those looking for a safe haven won’t be ending in the near future.
“It’s an incredible time in global history,” says Associate Professor Westy Egmont, an immigration expert with Boston College’s School of Social Work. “Migration has been an eternal subject of the human race but we are seeing a crisis that is both understandable and unprecedented.”
Egmont says the original reason in creating the United Nations Commission of refugees was because the refugees flowed out of Europe and across the borders of Europe. Today, it’s the exact opposite.
“We find ourselves watching as Europe tries to figure out the meaning of its sovereign borders and its shared borders for the reception of and substantial wave of Syrian refugees and other migrants who are seeking the protection of European nation states,” says Egmont, a member of the Governor's Advisory Council through which he has provided policy advice to the past five Massachusetts governors, including immigration policy.
Given the number of displaced people we’ve seen in Lebanon and Turkey over the last year or so, Egmont says Europe should not be surprised by what it’s seeing today, especially since the pressure of concentric waves tend to flow outward.
“Europe has been perplexed,” says Egmont, director of the Immigrant Integration Lab at Boston College. “One of the things about the nature of a more welfare-oriented state is that it has an underlying value system of human concern and a priority of human welfare. Its first inclination is to stand in solidarity over human need. On the other hand, nation states respect their borders and I think many of the countries that are doing marginally well economically have been very unwilling to step up and participate as an equal in the European decision. So the decision to have a quota system across Europe has been met with hostility; there’s been enormous difficulty in having a good sustained conversation about a shared policy that can be respected.
“However, we have seen some remarkable moments. German Chancellor Merkel’s decision to take a positive posture to the reception of 800,00 people is a high water mark and one that should be inspirational.”
Given 800,000 refugees is roughly 10 percent of Germany’s population, Egmont says that’s the equivalent of the United States opening its border to three million refugees.
“That gives you a sense of the drama, the proportion, the enormity of what Germany has done and I think it’s going to change Europe as a result.”
Egmont says while this summer surge is helped by the weather, winter won’t bring an end to the influx of migrants looking for a helping hand and a new place to call home.
“With ISIS and the continued disruptions in the Middle East, the pressure to depart from Syria will not go away and the people who have fled over into first countries of asylum surrounding Syria and for that matter folks who come out of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, are going to continue to be seeking opportunities and safe harbor. I don’t think the flow is going to end in any sort of clearly designed way but it’s likely that there will be pulses, there will be waves. Hopefully the world community is seeing how many people are disrupted and it is seeing who is coming to their shores. Perhaps this will get the world to be a little more proactive in figuring out what to do in these first countries of asylum and in the countries of disrupted states. There’s more incentive for Europe to act and for allies to act to end the conflict in Syria and to try and get some peace resolved that will allow people to stay in their home countries.”
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