This Wednesday is World Refugee Day. For many, if not most of us, it will pass by largely unnoticed, especially in the midst of such turbulent times. We are in the middle of a global refugee crisis of unparalleled scale, yet often, it seems we have become accustomed to the pictures and stories of suffering and immune to the pain. Perhaps this is understandable. Many might call it self-preservation. But when we look back on today, how will the lens of history judge us?
Tipping points in history are hard to see when there is no single decisive event that marks the change. And it is easy to be blinded by busyness, by one’s own troubles or by the love of our own comforts. But as the people of God we are called to see reality as God sees it.
Jesus called us in the Great Commandment in Matthew 22 to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” and the example of His life made it clear that this does not simply mean the person around the corner, but the orphan and the widow, the vulnerable, the oppressed and the dispossessed.
So what are we to do in the face of a refugee crisis of unprecedented scale with 25 million refugee and asylum-seekers fleeing violence and unspeakable atrocities in places like Myanmar, Syria, El Salvador, Iraq and South Sudan? What are we to do when the United States appears to be fleeing from the values and leadership that once set it apart from the world?
David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, recently wrote in a Washington Post editorial that ”if current trends continue, the U.S. government will have no refugee resettlement program at the end of this administration.”
This may appear an exaggeration, yet the facts speak for themselves. Miliband, building on IRC information, reports from Reuters and data from the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center, revealed the grim realities of our current refugee policy.
In 2017, the U.S. received 6,996 Iraqi refugees. In the first half of this fiscal year, only 107 arrived. Iran’s numbers were comparable: 2,577 came to the U.S. in 2017 and only 31 in the first half of 2018. And only 44 Syrians had been given asylum within our borders, in contrast to the 6,557 last year. That’s fewer than were killed in the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria on April 7th.
This dramatic decline also impacts Afghans and Iraqis who have served the United States overseas and are targeted back home because of it. The number of “Special Immigrant Visas” (SIV), and “P2 Direct Access”(P2) visas, through which these brave immigrants enter the country, has lowered significantly. A mere 36 Iraqi P2 refugees have arrived in 2018 – a striking contrast with last year’s 3,051. Since March of 2018, SIV arrivals have plummeted by an average of 500 a month.
Persecuted Christian refugee admissions have also dropped by historic proportions. In the year prior to the current administration, the number of Christian refugees admitted to the US. was over 42,000. If the current pace of admissions continues through December, this number will drop to less than a third of that level, with most coming from the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Of course, we understand the security and economic concerns many have over the influx of foreign-born people coming to the United States. We sympathize with those who feel left out, marginalized or simply not heard in today’s fast-changing world. But turning a blind eye to the incredible suffering of refugees and asylees worldwide is not the answer to the challenges we face as a society. Indifference to pain and suffering on this scale cannot be the answer.
Our concern needs to be for the poor everywhere, not in one place at the expense of another. Last year the wealth of the USA (as measured by GDP) grew by $766 billion. Surely it is not too much to ask to that we not turn our backs on these most vulnerable people when as a nation we enjoy such bounty?
Our God lives above all history, seeing everything in the ever present "now." Let us pray that He will grant us a new lens to see the untold suffering of our day and enter into it with compassion and courage. In this, we will rise above the fog of our everyday cares and join Him in changing the course of our time. And perhaps those who follow us may take courage by our example.
Tim Breene served on the World Relief Board from 2010 to 2015 before assuming the role of CEO in 2016. Tim’s business career has spanned nearly 40 years with organizations like McKinsey, and Accenture where he was the Corporate Development Officer and Founder and Chief Executive of Accenture Interactive. Tim is the co-author of Jumping the S-Curve, published by Harvard Publishing. Tim and his wife Michele, a longtime supporter of World Relief, have a wealth of experience working with Christian leaders in the United States and around the world.