United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power called on the international community—including the American public—to step up its response to the greatest refugee crisis since World War II, saying that failure to act may destabilize fragile states, strengthen organized crime and bolster the arguments of violent extremists that the West is at war with Islam.

samantha power

Power, speaking today at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the most effective way to curb increasing levels of displacement is to address the conflicts, violence and repression that force people to leave their homes and make them fearful of returning to their communities. In the meantime, the urgent need to fund refugee assistance is largely unmet, and “inaccurate characterizations” of refugees as security risks denies desperate and worthy people the opportunity to resettle in new countries, she said.

"If your aim is to attack the United States, it is hard to imagine a more difficult way of trying to get here than by posing as a refugee.” – U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power

“A global response is urgently needed, and the United States must help lead it,” Power said.

The U.S. envoy issued her call to action as President Barack Obama prepares to convene a September 20 summit on refugees during the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York. She reprised the administration's goals for the conference: increasing overall contributions for humanitarian relief by 30 percent, doubling the number of refugee admission slots worldwide, and getting 1 million adult refugees into legal jobs and a million children into school—an effort that would fall most heavily on frontline countries already overwhelmed with refugees.

Noting the resistance of many countries and politicians to “do their fair share” in admitting refugees, Power asserted that security and economic concerns were vastly overblown.

“Ill-informed and biased reactions” in the wake of the mass-casualty terrorist attacks in Paris led 31 U.S. governors to say their states didn't want any Syrian refugees, and some officials sued to block Syrian resettlement in their states, she said. House Republicans, after the Orlando massacre, said they would seek legislation to ban all refugees from the U.S. and “some are calling for even broader bans, such as barring immigrants based on their religion or suspending immigration from parts of the world with a history of terrorism,” she said.

'Ignorance and Prejudice'

While it's reasonable to suspect terrorists may attempt infiltration by hiding in a massive movement of migrants, it's important that the “policy response be commensurate with the risk,” Power said. It's counter-productive to blur the difference between a homegrown terrorist and a refugee or to draw “misguided and discriminatory conclusions” about people based on national origin or religious faith.

“Ignorance and prejudice make for bad advisors,” she said.

The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program screens applicants against an array of government databases that include foreign intelligence and information, and interview them in detail, she said. Syrians are subjected to an additional level of screening. The process takes more than a year, she said. The system has so far worked: Of about 800,000 refugees admitted to the U.S. since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, not one has carried out an act of domestic terrorism, Power said.

“If your aim is to attack the United States, it is hard to imagine a more difficult way of trying to get here than by posing as a refugee,” she said.

On the economic front, refugees surface contradictory concerns, Power said: on the one hand is the fear that they burden government resources; on the other is the worry that they take jobs from native-born citizens and drag down wages.

In the U.S., resettlement agencies get $2,025 per refugee, with any supplementary support such as job programs restricted to eight months; additionally, refugees have to pay for their flight to the U.S. within 3 1/2 years, according to Power. As for jobs, Power said research shows refugees have little impact on labor markets and often help push wages higher in their new communities.

History of Rejection Belies Benefit

The U.S. public has a long history of opposing refugee admissions, Power noted, citing 71 percent opposition to admitting Cuban refugees in 1980; 55 percent against letting in Hungarians fleeing the Soviet crackdown of 1958; 61 percent hostile to accepting Jewish children fleeing the Nazi regime in 1939; and 57 percent against taking in Vietnamese fleeing the Communist government the U.S. had fought for years.

She illustrated how these populations have thrived and contributed to politics, the economy and society. Today, the 1.9 million Vietnamese-Americans, for example, have better educations, higher incomes and less unemployment than the national average, Power said.

“This is not success that has come at the expense of other Americans in a zero-sum economy,” Power said. “Rather, the growth spurred by their success has benefitted both native-born citizens and refugees, and repaid the costs of resettlement many times over.”

While economic and security risks are subject to overblown debate, Power said, the risk of inaction in supporting and resettling refugees is largely ignored.

Small, frontline countries shouldering a major share of the displaced have seen already-stretched public services and institutions overwhelmed, raising the specter of sectarian tensions, popular resentment and government collapse. Tiny Lebanon,
Syria's neighbor, for example, is host to a million refugees, the equivalent of adding 64 million people in the U.S.

Consequences of Failure to Act

Failing to do more for the 65 million people displaced worldwide means they will turn to organized crime smuggling groups to seek safety and work—a business that INTERPOL estimated produced $5 billion to $6 billion in revenue last year, according to Power. Illicit arms, drugs and human trafficking move by the same networks along the same routes, Power said.

Leaving the refugee crisis to fester provides extremist groups including ISIL, al-Qaeda and Boko Haram with fodder for their propaganda, Power warned.

“A central part of the narrative of these groups is that the West is a war with Islam,” she said. By turning away people fleeing these groups or repressive governments, “we play into that narrative,” she said. Providing aid and refuge to Muslims deflates the myth of a religious and cultural clash.

The scope of the need is daunting. In Syria alone, about half of the pre-war population of 23 million has been displaced, Power said, with 5 million now in other countries. At least 15 conflicts have started or reignited since 2010, forcing more and more people from their homes. The humanitarian system is strained to the breaking point: in 2015, only $11 billion of the U.N.'s requested $20 billion was funded. This year, less than 25 percent of the $21 billion sought is funded.

The scale of the challenge is global, Power said. “Anything less than a global response will fall short of addressing it.”

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