World Refugee Day, June 20, is a time to consider the desperate plight of the more than 25 million people around the world who have fled their home countries because of a well-founded fear of being persecuted. America has always been regarded as a refuge for people fleeing despotic countries to escape religious and political persecution. In the past, we have taken seriously the admonition in Deuteronomy 10:19 to “love those who are foreigners.”
Until recently, America has played a leading role among nations in protecting refugees who often have suffered unspeakable atrocities in their home countries. The U.S. has provided comfort and shelter to over 3 million oppressed people from around the world since 1975. America welcomed 84,944 refugees in fiscal year 2016, but that dropped to 53,716 in FY 2017 and then to 22,491 in FY 2018.
Savage fighting in Syria has produced the largest outpouring of refugees in recent years--about 6.3 million. Of that number, 3.6 million are registered in Turkey, over 900,000 in Lebanon and about 665,000 in Jordan. The U.S. settled 12,587 Syrians in FY 2016, only 62 in FY 2018, and just 218 in the first half of FY 2019. We played a large part in creating the Middle East upheaval that caused the massive flow of refugees, but have essentially turned our back on them.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel saw the flood of refugees from Syria as a humanitarian crisis of the first order, but also as an opportunity to address a serious German social problem. Unemployment and the birth rate in her country are at near-record lows, as they also are in the U.S. The aging population of both countries poses great economic problems for the future. Merkel’s solution was to admit about 1.5 million refugees, who have injected new workers and more vitality into the German economy.
I’m not suggesting we bring a similar number into the U.S. but we should remember that immigrants have provided the backbone for America’s growth into an economic powerhouse. With our record low birth rate, how can we sustain our economy into the future and pay for Social Security, Medicare, national defense and everything else we hold dear? We need a new population source to keep our economy from faltering.
Along with the substantial decline of refugees being allowed into the U.S., the numbers coming to Idaho have plummeted—from 1,118 in FY 2016, to 629 in FY 2017, and then to 265 in the first 8 months of FY 2019. The drop has caused serious damage to the infrastructure of Idaho’s refugee resettlement agencies, which are among the best in the country.
Those agencies--the Idaho Office for Refugees, Agency for New Americans and International Rescue Committee—sponsored World Refugee Day Boise on June 15. There was a remarkable outpouring of appreciation for these people from distant parts of the world who have enriched the communities of Idaho.
Refugees from a variety of countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ukraine and Myanmar, have settled in Boise, Twin Falls (thanks to the well-regarded refugee program of the College of Southern Idaho) and surrounding areas. They have shared their cultures and cuisines, started businesses at twice the rate of home-grown Americans and taken jobs that locals will not do. Many of their sons and daughters are becoming nurses, engineers, social workers and information technology experts.
Just like immigrant groups from years past, Idaho’s refugee community supports America and is doing its part to make the country even better. Soon we will stop referring to them as refugees and call them our fellow Americans. And, when America remembers its responsibility to extend love to those fleeing persecution, the country can once again hold its head up with pride on some future World Refugee Day.