There are 65 million refugees in the world today equating to 24 people every minute who must leave their homes, and 34,000 people per day who flee their countries in search of a better tomorrow. The Syrian conflict alone has forced 5 million people to flee to neighboring states as they seek sanctuary from the violence and hostilities that has persisted in this Middle Eastern nation for the past 6 years.
Each year on June 20th the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), along with many groups around the world, host World Refugee Day to bring attention to the plight of those peoples who have been displaced from their homeland. This day was instituted on December 4, 2000 by the U.N. General Assembly and it officially began in 2001, 50 years after the signing of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, or as it is commonly known, the Refugee Convention. This convention affords certain protections for refugees under international law.
One of the groups at the forefront of assisting refugees with their transition and resettlement is the International Rescue Committee (IRC). The origins of the IRC dates to 1931 and the International Relief Association (IRA), whose original purpose was to assist those who were victimized by oppressive regimes. Following the end of World War II, the IRC established emergency relief programs and began refugee resettlement programs in Europe. In the decades to follow, IRC became the preeminent global relief agency. As international conflict escalated during the height of the Cold War, the work of the IRC expanded as the plight of refugees fleeing violence became more prevalent.
In New Jersey, nestled in their office in Elizabeth, the IRC continues the work that was started over 75 years ago. Their mission statement has not changed: It is to “help people whose lives and livelihoods are shattered by conflict and disaster to survive, recover and gain control of their future.” The IRC is the largest resettlement agency assisting families from countries as diverse as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), El Salvador, and Honduras, said Alison Millan, the IRC resettlement director in New Jersey. In the past 10 years, 1,553 refugees from countries listed on the president’s travel ban have settled in New Jersey; the largest share of people have settled in the cities of Camden, Elizabeth, and Jersey City.With respect to Syrian refugees, New Jersey ranks within the top 15 states in the nation in hosting these new arrivals; with northern New Jersey welcoming the greatest concentration of Syrians.
Further, as Ms. Millan explains, the process begins with a refugee registering with the U.N., interviewing, and then being referred for resettlement by the global body. What follows is a rigorous vetting process that includes interviews with U.S. officials, as well as fingerprinting, medical screenings, and cultural orientation classes. At this point, a refugee is matched with a resettlement agency before departing for their journey to the U.S. Globally, less than 1 percent of individuals identified as refugees are resettled.
There is a misconception in the country regarding the entry of refugees. Protests have ensued against allowing greater refugee admittance because of the security concerns they pose. However, the vetting process is quite stringent and can take up to 36 months to conclude.
In New Jersey, the IRC began to resettle Syrian refugees in 2013. Last year, Governor Christie announced that the state would no longer be participating in the resettlement program. In addition, the executive orders issued by the president has influenced the number of new arrivals; however, this has not deterred the positive work the IRC conducts.
Many of the refugees who have gained entry to the country, and settled in the region, assimilate very quickly. They have contributed by starting businesses, purchasing homes, and finally take the ultimate step toward gaining citizenship. Many of the refugees have become responsible members of their communities.
Historically, the U.S. has welcomed those seeking safety and a better way of life. Lady Liberty stands proudly in New York Harbor with the words from the famous sonnet written in 1883 by Emma Lazarus titled “The New Colossus” that reads: “Giveme your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Like the immigrants who made the United States great, refugees deserve a chance to contribute.