Keynote Address by Eric Schwartz, President of Refugees International

Delivered at the CMS 2021 Virtual Academic & Policy Symposium on October 26, 2021

Credit: Center for Migration Studies

Keynote Address by Eric Schwartz, President of Refugees International – 2021 Virtual Academic & Policy Symposium

I want to thank CMS for the very kind and generous invitation for me to offer remarks at this event.

It is a pleasure for me to address this gathering of migration experts, many of whom are or were teachers, colleagues, collaborators, and friends of mine, including, I might add, a member of the CMS board who was my immigration law professor some forty years ago.

As I looked at the subject matter of today’s sessions, I thought about many topical issues I might address and which have been the focus of work of my organization, Refugees International—Afghan refugees and resettlement, the Northern Triangle and the southern border, the Secretary General’s blue ribbon panel report on internal displacement, climate change and migration—and I’m happy to discuss any of them or others in the question and answer session—and I expect you’ll be discussing them as well in the rest of your agenda.

But I thought I’d take a step back at least begin to reflect on an issue that has kind of consumed me over the course of a 35-year career: the tension between aspiring and advocating for transformational change and coming to grips with the reality of incremental change—or even less than that.

Having led NGOs like Refugees International and the Asia operation of Human Rights Watch—and having led offices and bureaus at the State Department, the National Security Council, and at the United Nations (UN) also focused on human rights, humanitarian, and refugee issues—I suppose I have some experience in the tensions, challenges, and opportunities in these areas.

There is no shortage of valuable scholarship, analysis, advocacy, and even policy engagement and implementation around transformational change, or change of a thorough or dramatic character, to address migration challenges and opportunities. And if a predominant goal is to create conditions that will help to realize the basic needs, the well-being, and the enjoyment of internationally recognized rights among the many tens of millions of persons forced to leave their homes due to conflict, persecution, human rights violations, disasters resulting from natural hazards impacted by climate change, violence perpetrated by non-state actors, and other ills that create what Alex Aleinikoff and Leah Zamore have called “fleers of necessity,” the contours of transformational change are not wholly unobvious:

An international political system that recognizes that people will move across borders, and a willingness to come to recognize and in some cases establish their rights to do so—along with concomitant changes in domestic legal and social institutions.

The time is particularly ripe for thinking about such change, though I have to acknowledge that this is a statement I would have made at any point over the past four decades.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), at the end of 2020, more than 34 million forced migrants, displaced by persecution, human rights violations, and conflict were outside their countries of origin in countries of refuge, and some 48 million were internally displaced as a result of conflict and violence. Even in the context of COVID, and perhaps especially in the context of the economic downtowns it has created, we see in the Americas not only significant increases in encounters at the US southern border, but also encounters with individuals who are from outside of the Americas. And what we are witnessing in the Americas is indicative of what is happening around the world: an increase of mobility, borne of state failure, violence and deprivation, access to information, and accessibility of means of transit. And though predictions of climate-based cross border movements vary dramatically, we can also expect some degree of such forced migration over the next several years and decades.

Beyond scholarship, one does not have to look far for evidence of policy engagement around transformational or at least systemic change. In Latin America, there is of course the ongoing relevance of the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, a 1984 regional declaration that sought to expand the refugee definition, to include and to protect those who have fled their country due to generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights, or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.

And the declaration has been incorporated, if not completely implemented, into the laws of most governments in Latin America. In fact, at Refugees International, we have just issued a report that describes a range of measures taken by Mexico to better realize Cartagena principles not only in Mexican law, but also in Mexican practice—even as we see, at the same time, restrictive practices against asylum seekers in Mexico. Also in the Americas, the efforts of the government of Colombia to provide meaningful opportunities for Venezuelan migrants have been remarkable.

And we have seen that, when rhetoric is reflected in action, strong leaders in wealthy countries where political resistance to immigration is formidable can be responsible for transformational change. In 2015 and 2016, Germany received about a million asylum applications. And as the Center for Global Development has recently reported, five years later, a majority of the refugees have found jobs, and a relatively high level of engagement on the part of German citizens with migrants has helped to create strong support in Germany for refugees.

Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t been asleep for the last two years. There is plenty of room for pessimism.

European government practices remain highly restrictive, and Turkish officials declared they would reinforce their border wall with Iran to stem the potential flow of Afghan refugees—and the externalization of asylum has become common practice. Countries neighboring Colombia have not been nearly as hospitable as Colombia, and even a success story like Uganda, which has done so much to welcome South Sudanese, has closed its border due to COVID-19.

Here at home, a Biden-Harris campaign that boasted about plans for dramatic change quickly switched gears, delaying or deferring many if not most of the campaign commitments it had made and now has even seemed to walk back from what it had regarded as a signal early achievement—the end to President Trump’s highly controversial Migration Protection Protocols.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, our politics at home and politics around the world have become extraordinarily difficult on migration issues—with former president Trump and former officials of his government stoking anti-immigrant sentiment, echoed by chauvinist politicians in dozens of countries around the world.

And of course, the fact that Customs and Border Patrol Border encounters have increased significantly with high percentages of individuals form countries other than Mexico and the countries of Central America does not make this challenge any easier.

Nonetheless, advocates, and many who are here today, rightly ask:

How does a new administration lead the world in responding to new migration challenges when it seems to have equivocated, at best, so dramatically on commitments made?

As a former government official, I confess to a degree of sympathy even if I cannot support measures of the new administration.

In early 1993, after having staffed Rep. Stephen Solarz’s 1992 effort to reverse George H. W. Bush’s Kennebunkport order mandating the direct return of Haitians without screening, I entered the Clinton National Security Council on January 21, 1993, after the incoming president, in a December meeting in Little Rock prior to the inauguration, decided to keep the policy in effect “for the time being.”

Ironically, that was something of a policy win—both for Brian Atwood—who later became USAID administrator—and for me, as we argued successfully against the incoming president declaring that he would keep the policy in effect indefinitely. But the policy of direct return remained in effect until May 1994. And when, in July, as screening at sea was proving unmanageable, and when I and others successfully argued against the resumption of a direct return approach and in favor of a temporary “safe haven” at Guantanamo, that was also a policy win, supported at the time by a number of NGOs—and one by which I stand today.

But for the most dedicated advocates of protection, those were not policy wins—they may not have even represented incremental progress.

And in my own career in government, there is no shortage of hard-fought wins that I’ve regarded as critical for the purposes of protection, but which the advocacy community would have regarded as wholly insufficient.

Of course, there is the occasional big win, and anyone serving in government should be prepared to take a stand and be prepared to articulate lines they are not prepared to cross. For example, one such win for me, depicted in this slide, was a dramatic increase in aid to newly arriving refugees. And anyone serving on the inside should identify lines they will not cross and be prepared to quit. But in or sometimes even outside government, incremental change, or even forestalling the worst, is frankly, often the best that one can do.

I was reminded of this last week, when the administration, moving toward resumption of the Migrant Protection Protocols, convened the NGO community to brief them about implementation, and presumably seek support in efforts provide at least a modicum of safeguards for the program. The assembled NGOs, including a representative from my own organization, Refugees International, read a statement and then figuratively walked out of that virtual meeting, with my support.

So, what does this all mean for policy analysts and advocates seeking very directly to influence the behavior of governments—especially at this moment in history. I’m afraid I can’t offer you any offer you any surefire answers—I don’t have them. And of course, if there were such answers, we would not have quite these challenges.

But let me suggest a few priorities, for those who study and write on migration, for those who try to impact government policy, and even for those who are in governments or international organizations.

First, because the most formidable obstacle to transformational change involves domestic politics, the field—analysts, activists, government officials—must focus on public engagement and public opinion.

Look, there have always been loud voices of intolerance—in the United States and beyond—appealing to our fears rather than our hopes and aspirations and our capacities, people ready to blame the other in pursuit of political power.

So we don’t have the Know Nothing Party of the 19th Century, or demagogues like Charles Edward Coughlin in the 20th Century, who reportedly had tens of millions of followers. Instead, we have Donald Trump and Fox News. But we also have new capacities to provide information about the real contributions of immigrants and refugees. The Refugee Advocacy Lab, depicted in this slide and initiated at Refugees International with partners from the International Rescue Committee, Refugee Congress, and the International Refugee Assistance Project, has sought to build the constituency on behalf of support for refugees, and other initiatives, such as the new Welcome US effort, are doing the same thing.

Second, it means targeting—again, analysts, advocates and officials—focusing on different and in many cases less partisan policy communities, which, unlike national politicians, have to confront day in and day out the realities and opportunities of immigration. In particular, and as in the case of climate advocacy during the Trump administration, analysts and advocates must support efforts at inclusion at the state and local level. In the Midwest, for example, there is a growing appreciation that migration will be critical to future economic and social development. On the left of the slide is a study that was a clarion call for increased labor migration as a critical means to avert dramatic labor shortages in Minnesota. And through the Refugee Advocacy Lab, we have seen legislative victories designed to better meet the needs of refugees, victories often with bipartisan support, in places like Nevada, Utah, and Virginia, among other states.

Third, it means that even as we continue to press US officials on international leadership, we must recognize and engage leadership, innovation, and best practices, which now largely comes from beyond the borders of the United States. To be sure, the United States leads on overseas humanitarian and refugee assistance, but all too often the United States is not quite practicing at home what we preach abroad, and in many cases, others are now in the lead.

Fourth, I think it means, first, that we should recognize that transformational change in policy on forced migration is exceptionally rare, and we should invest our energy and resources in progress on programs and initiatives even when it is less than what we may ultimately want to envision. Just by way of example, at Refugees International, we’re pressing hard on the efforts to promote labor market access, with rights, for refugees in host countries, an initiative that is more modest than seeking to realize the rights to broader mobility, or citizenship in host countries for forced migrants.

Finally, and my broadest recommendation: it means that even as advocates and analysts press the United States, other governments, and international organizations on transformational change, we ought to be prepared to work with government officials on, well, something less, with an understanding that something else can become, well, something more.

When the administration was recently returning Haitians—outrageous under current circumstances—should advocates have pressed harder for some sort of safe haven or refuge option as an alternative such direct return? On a different issue, the administration’s recent report on climate and migration was somewhat disappointing, as it was long on description but short on policy prescription. At the same time, the report did note that the United States has “a national interest in creating a new legal pathway for individualized humanitarian protection in the United States for individuals who establish that they are fleeing serious, credible threats to their life or physical integrity.” And while that does not offer concrete recommendations or ideas about what the pathway—or other resettlement-related measures—ought to be, it provides an important opening for both analysts and advocates.

This is not an easy time for international migration advocacy, but that only underscores the importance of the proceedings you are about to begin, as well as efforts to help promote a brighter future for the tens of millions of people around the world who have been forced from their homes.

Thanks, and now I’m happy to take questions.

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