»  New English Review

March 2007

  Please Go Fight for My Country So I Can Take Your Job

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The United States will accelerate the resettlement of about 7,000 Iraqis referred by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and will contribute $18 million to the agency's appeal for Iraq, about one-third of the total, Undersecretary of State Paula J. Dobriansky said Wednesday.
                   — Washington Post, 2/15/07

I hope it won't be thought impertinent, over-inquisitive, or — Heaven forfend! — mean-spirited of me to ask, but: Just what, exactly, are these refugees seeking refuge from? Us?

A few more questions come to mind. Let us suppose, for example, that Sergeant John Q. American, a serving member of the U.S. armed forces, ships off to do combat duty in Iraq. His wife, left behind in Wichita with the kids, finds it hard to live on a sergeant's pay, so she starts looking for a job. Something promising comes up, and she goes for an interview. Sitting in an anteroom waiting for the interview, she finds that there is only one other interviewee, an able-bodied young Iraqi man, recently admitted in a batch of refugees. He is sitting opposite her in the anteroom, engrossed in an Arabic-language copy of Mein Kampf (a best-seller in the Muslim world).

Either because the interviewer is a Bush-hating lefty (or righty), or because he is a bleeding heart, or because he himself is an Iraqi (the 2000 census listed 90,000 Iraq-born persons already legally resident, one-third of them admitted as refugees), or just a person of Arab ancestry (of which the census reported 1.2 million) or the Muslim faith (numbers much disputed, but likely around three million), or perhaps on impeccably meritocratic grounds, the Iraqi refugee gets the job. Disappointed, Mrs. American goes home and writes a letter to her husband in Al Anbar Province. Sgt. American gets the letter at mail call one morning before setting out on a patrol as part of our grand mission to pacify Iraq. Later that day, he is blown to pieces by an IED.

Statistically speaking, the scenario sketched out in the last two paragraphs is not particularly unlikely. It will soon become even less unlikely, as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, a Portuguese gent named António Guterres, promises that this 7,000 is just the first installment of 20,000 he plans to resettle in "third countries." What does "third countries" mean? Gentle reader, it means the U.S.A.

Well, mostly.

The United States remains the leader in the global refugee resettlement effort, taking about two-thirds of the refugees who were resettled to the industrialized world by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). For the past three decades the United States has resettled more refugees from around the world than all other developed nations combined.

Refugee-wise, apparently, the U.S.A. is not so much a "third country" as a two-thirds country. Where is everybody else?

The UNHCR listed 16 "Main Countries of Resettlement of Refugees" in 2005, the last year I can find figures for. Yes indeed, the U.S.A. is taking two thirds: 53,813 out of 80,796.

Things are actually a bit fairer, and cut somewhat differently, if you scale by population. There are about 5,260 Americans per refugee resettled in the USA that year. This pushes us down to fourth in rank, with Australia (1,716), Canada (2,885), and New Zealand (5,128) more generous. Of the 13 nations that have less than a million citizens per resettled refugee, all but one are either (a) Anglosphere, or (b) Scandinavian. The exception is Chile, ranked 12th, with 330,000 citizens per refugee.

(I note in passing that Mr. Guterres' own country, Portugal, does not appear on the list at all.)

Now, a great many Americans of my acquaintance, of all kinds of political persuasions — I dare say, even some readers of New English Review — are swelling with pride by now. See how good we are! they are murmuring to themselves. See the goodness of America! The other nations of the world slam their doors against these poor wretches, but we, we!, we greet them with open arms! 54,000 distressed souls welcomed to our shores in one year! What a good, generous nation we are!

That is all very well. However, the problem with being open-handed towards strangers, when you are rich and the strangers mostly poor, is that in the matter of open-handedness, supply can never match demand. The supply of open-handedness in fact generates demand, as that CIS report I quoted from above makes all too clear:

Whenever a group is designated as favored for resettlement to the United States, the group attracts large numbers of new members. According to [the author of a State Department study], those who are not in any danger in their home country arrange to adopt the selected group's characteristics, even moving to a refugee camp if that increases chances of resettlement to the United States.

There are peculiarities of our political system that magnify the problem. The bizarre phenomenon of "chain migration," coded into current U.S. immigration law, means that each Third World immigrant is regarded by his family, extended family, or clan back home — refugees or not — as a foot in the Golden Door. Then, when enough refugees from some nation or group are present here, they can organize as an ethnic lobbying group for yet more to be admitted. Our refugee program (to the degree that it is ours: key decisions are made by the UNHCR) is an immigrant-generating mechanism.

There is of course a case for taking in some refugees. If the government of some nation is hostile to us and our interests, but at a level below what we consider, in our collective wisdom, a casus belli; and if persons in that nation are being persecuted on account of some assistance they have given, or are giving, to our interests; then as many of those people as can escape from that country should be admitted to the U.S.A. as refugees.

However, practically none of the refugees currently being admitted falls into that category. Most are what used to be called "displaced persons," who have fled from civil war, famine, and natural disaster — events in most cases perfectly unconnected to any US policy. Here, too, there is a case for resettlement, when the possibility of repatriation is hopeless, when some fair distribution among the advanced nations of the world can be organized (but see above), and with proper regard to the concerns of those nations' citizens.

Once you get into the details, though, the Devil shows up. Main problems:

The second and third of those bullet points are illustrated by the case of the Somali Bantus, a despised underclass group in Somalia — they were formerly slaves — who fled from Somalia when the place collapsed into clan warfare in the 1990s. They lived in refugee camps in Kenya until the UNHCR arranged resettlement, with 13,000 of the Bantus coming to the U.S.A.

There is a famous story about the Kenyan ambassador to the United States walking through Dulles airport with his nephew when they suddenly encountered a group of students from the nephew's elite school in Nairobi. It turned out the privileged youths had managed to pass themselves off as "Somali Bantus" and were on their way to new homes and a new life in Minnesota.

The Somali Bantu, and those masquerading as such, were scattered to towns and cities around the USA, in accordance with longstanding (since 1980) federal policy. The results were not always happy. One group was sent to Buffalo, NY, an economically struggling place, where the resettlement agencies' attempts to place the Bantus in jobs aroused great resentment among unemployed locals.

The fact of their being black, Muslim, and mostly non-English-speaking caused several of the towns selected for resettlement to feel they were being imposed on.

Plans to settle some Bantu in the small town of Holyoke, Massachusetts in north-eastern United States was so fiercely opposed by whites there that re-settlement agencies changed their minds about sending the Bantus there.

Cayce, a town in South Carolina in the American South also put up a fight.
"We don't feel,"said a city official, "we should be the dumping ground."

It's all very well to frown at the lack of charity here, but the concerns are reasonable. That same BBC report notes of the refugees that: "Though many are keen to work, they can not do so until they learn some English and to read and write." The townsfolk of Holyoke and Cayce were no doubt glad to hear that many of these Somalis were keen to work, but … how many is "many"? And who are the ones not keen to work? Perhaps the ones mentioned in this Church World Service report:

Struggling the most are single mothers with several children — most of them the former second wives of men who had to break with Somali Bantu culture and divorce them in order to qualify for U.S. resettlement.

Note here that refugees, unlike other types of immigrant, are immediately eligible for all forms of welfare on the same basis as U.S. citizens. In addition, they are fawned over by the charities and religious groups who help drive the whole business.

Furthermore, given the well-publicized problems and frictions caused by Muslim communities in non-Muslim nations, even in the native-born second and subsequent generations, it is reasonable to ask whether perhaps it would not be better for all concerned if Muslim refugees were settled in Muslim nations. Several Muslim nations are quite prosperous — far more prosperous than India was in 1959 when, out of religious fellow-feeling, she took in thousands of penniless Tibetan refugees and gave them a town of their own. (I have heard Tibetans express their gratitude very eloquently, speaking with reverence of "Mother India.") Does not the Koran contain injunctions to charity and religious solidarity among Muslims?

Still, even in the context of a dubious and dysfunctional refugee-resettlement program, the matter of Iraqi refugees in the U.S.A. raises awkward moral questions. Don't these people love their country? If they do, why don't they fight alongside us to restore that country to stability? If they don't, what kind of American patriots will they and their children make?

And that is only to speak of the current situation, in which we are fighting vigorously to help the Iraqis get their country in order, under a U.S. administration that believes this can actually be done. If our national will collapses and we pull out — not an improbable event — will there then be a real moral case, as there is not now, for offering asylum to the million or so Iraqis we will have let down? Or will it be they who have let us down?