The world is, as Thomas Friedman once penned increasingly flat. Have you noticed your favorite donut shop is owned by Koreans, the Local 7-11 where you pick up your newspaper is owned and operated by Ethiopians, that bowl of Pho was prepared lovingly by someone from Viet Nam and of course your favorite book store was founded by a few great guys from Spain? We all see that international influence in our country all the time. And the flow of international migration is increasing.
The number of international migrants — persons living in a country other than where they were born — reached 244 million in 2015 for the world as a whole, a 41 per cent increase compared to 2000, according to new data presented by the United Nations last week.
There are lots of reasons people migrate. However many people migrate not simply because they wish a better life, some are forced to move. And this is an excruciating decision. This is because people love their homes and are reluctant to leave them behind.
“Why does a man love his home country? Because the bread tastes better, the sky is higher, the air is spicier, voices ring out more clearly, the ground is softer to walk on.”
Of course many people migrate for reasons of economic opportunity. Others move because life is no longer tenable for them in the land of their birth. I’ve provided pro bono legal services for asylum seekers to the United States for about 25 years. In every trial, I asked my clients, ‘If it were safe for you to return, where would you prefer to live?’ Without fail, they all responded with the name of their home country. This is despite the fact that they clearly saw the advantages of living in the United States, and how they might grow to love this country. Still it is not home.
What the United Nations calls ‘forced migration’ has reached historic levels.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR): Since 2011, when UNHCR announced a new record of 42.5 million forcibly displaced people globally, these numbers have risen sharply each year, from 45.2 million in 2012 to 51.2 million in 2013 and 59.5 million in 2014. This is an increase of more than 50 per cent in five years. The total number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) protected or assisted by UNHCR stood at 52.6 million, compared to 46.7 million at the end of 2014. During the course of 2015 more than 12.4 million individuals were forced to leave their homes and seek protection elsewhere. http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/statistics/unhcrstats/576408cd7/unhcr-global-trends-2015.html
There are several distinct groups of forced migration. First are Refugees. Currently there are 16 million refugees in the world. About 54% come from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. Over one million Syrians were newly recognized as refugees in 2015. We’ve all seen the heartbreaking images of what Syria now looks like as well as the photos of the bodies of children, killed by gas or dying on the open seas seeking refuge. (About 3700 people died in the Mediterranean in 2016.)
It’s tempting for Americans to ask, ‘Why do we bear the brunt of the refugee crisis?’ But in fact, we do not. Most of the refugees are finding shelter in developing countries. At 4.4 Million, Sub Saharan Africa houses the greatest number of refugees. (Somalia, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Central African Republic constitute the largest number of refugees) This is followed by Europe with slightly less that 4.4 million. In 2015 1.8 million people became refugees, with the largest number coming from Syria. The United States formally accepted a much smaller number of resettled refugees, about 85,000 last year. One of the executive orders signed by this administration has called for the reduction of that number to 50,000, however that order has been enjoined by Federal Courts. And of course many refugees find shelter in adjoining counties. Most Syrians find refuge in Turkey and Lebanon.
Other lesser known conflicts also added to the increase in refugees. Violence in Burundi (similar to Rwanda in many ways) produced 220,000 people fleeing potential extermination. In addition the plight of Muslims in Burma has caused dramatic efforts to flee violence.
There were 2.45 million asylum applicants in 2015, the largest number in history. About 173,000 applied in the United States. Germany had over 400,000 asylum applicants. Asylum Applicants are individuals who are seeking to obtain refugee status through the legal system in the country where they fled to. It is the mission of Human Rights Initiative to assist asylum seekers with pro bono legal services. To do this an applicant must prove they have a well founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. I have personally represented asylum seekers from 21 different countries. These include pro democracy advocates from Ethiopia, persecuted Christians from Pakistan, and women fleeing female genital mutilation.
This work has become increasingly difficult for a number of reasons. First, our Customs and Border Patrol have been illegally turning around asylum seekers at the border. Second, because of our failure to adequately fund the system with Immigration judges and asylum officers, we have suffered increasing backlogs. We currently have asylum seekers who filed their applications for asylum in August of 2014. Dr. King once said, “Justice Delayed is Justice Denied,” and this is true. We have clients who are separated from spouses and children. We have clients who simply gave up and moved to Canada.
What does all of this mean for us as a community? While I think there are some complex issues, the fundamentals are not complicated. I’m reminded of the sign hanging in the Houston Asylum office, the last time I was there:
“For over two centuries this nation has been a beacon of hope and opportunity, a place that has drawn enterprising men and women from around the world who have sought to build a life as good as their talents and hard work would allow and generation after generation have come to these shores because they believe in America all things are possible.”
–President Barack Obama
It is, I hope, still true.
Bill Holston is a human rights lawyer at Human Rights Initiative of North Texas. In his spare time he hikes our local nature trails, and writes about it in a column called Law Man Walking for D Magazine. He is happily married to his best friend Jill, and they have two kind and intelligent adult sons. He loves books and beer, preferably together.