Professor calls helping refugees a moral obligation for US

Serena Parekh, associate professor of philosophy, discussed the facts, figures, and fallacies of the global refugee crisis in 90 Snell Library on March 15, 2017. Photo by: Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Serena Parekh, associate professor of philosophy at Northeastern University, believes that concerned citizens, community leaders, government officials, and others have a moral obligation to solve the global refugee crisis.

“We have a responsibility to find alternatives for the displaced that protect their dignity and their human rights,” said Parekh, author of the book Refugees and the Ethics of Forced Displacement. “Rather than objects of fear, refugees ought to be objects of moral compassion.”

Parekh spoke on Wednesday in Snell Library, delivering a talk on the facts, figures, and fallacies of the refugee crisis. It was particularly timely, held just hours before two federal judges blocked President Donald Trump’s latest ban on travel from parts of the Muslim world. The executive order, which was scheduled to take effect on Thursday, would have halted immigration from six majority-Muslim countries for at least 90 days and stopped all refugees from entering the U.S. for 120 days.

“It seems so absurd that refugees are a group we’re told to fear,” said Parekh. “Demonstrably harming one of the most vulnerable groups on the planet will do nothing for our security except perhaps undermine it in important ways.”

Some facts

An unprecedented 65 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes in Yemen, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and many other countries worldwide, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Among them are 25 million refugees, said Parekh, including 5 million from Syria, whose ongoing civil war has killed hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children. “Both numbers are at an historic high,” she said, referring to the refugees and forcibly displaced. “We haven’t seen figures like this since the end of World War II.”

Many refugees—that is, people who have been forced to flee their countries because of persecution, war, or violence—end up in refugee camps in places like Kenya and Turkey, said Parekh. According to her, the average camp-dweller spends 17 years in these supposedly temporary facilities, which she described as chronically underfunded, dirty, and particularly unsafe, especially for women and children. “Human security cannot be protected within refugee camps,” she said. “To be a woman refugee means you can be harmed with almost total impunity.”

A small number of refugees—approximately 1 percent—have the opportunity to resettle in another country. The U.S., which resettled nearly 70,000 refuges in 2015, takes in the most. But the screening process is protracted, said Parekh, lasting up to five years, and only those who are of special humanitarian concern, she noted, including widows, rape victims, the elderly, and the infirm, will be considered by the UN Refugee Agency.

In the Q&A, one attendee asked Parekh how she would restructure the global refugee system to make it more humane. Photo by: Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The screening process is thorough, she said, including background checks, fingerprint screenings, and security interviews with Department of Homeland Security officials. During the interview process, she noted, it is not uncommon for a refugee to be asked to answer particularly detailed questions, such as “What kind of knife was the man that killed your father holding?” As she put it, “There is no group of people on the planet that we know more about than refuges who have resettled in the U.S.”

Parekh cited some stats suggesting that refugees pose virtually no threat to Americans. Since 9/11, she said, 784,000 refugees have resettled in the U.S.—but only three have been connected to terrorism. The chance that an American will be killed by a foreigner is 1 in 3.6 million per year, she added, while the chance that an American will be killed by a refugee is 1 in 3.4 billion per year.

Some solutions

In the Q&A, one attendee asked Parekh how she would restructure the global refugee system to make it more humane. She explained that states should move away from funding refugee camps in favor of funding refugees’ integration into society, with a particular focus on freedom and autonomy.

“The agency of refugees is rarely respected,” she said, noting an exception in Uganda, where refugees receive work permits. “If you care about the human beings involved, what you want to have is a different temporary structure.”

Another attendee wanted to know what the compassionate layperson could do to help refugees today, especially when it comes to donating money to the cause. Parekh suggested giving to Oxfam International, Doctors Without Borders, or the UN Refugee Agency, to whom she recently donated.

Leen AlHajjar, the president of Northeastern’s Refugee Empowerment and Awareness Campus Task Force, who joined Parekh for the Q&A, noted that REACT is working on behalf of Boston’s refugee community.

“Our group is trying to find ways to understand refugee problems and find solutions,” said AlHajjar, SSH’17, who worked on integrating Syrian refugees into the Jordanian economy through her co-op with the UN Refugee Agency in Amman. “I believe members of society have a responsibility to address the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.”