Refugees Offer Input on UN Secretary General’s Report
Credit: Lamin Tamang

Refugees Offer Input on UN Secretary General’s Report

On March 23, 2016, the Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS) convened a meeting between a group of diverse refugees resettled in the United States and the United Nations (UN) Office of the Special Adviser on the Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants. UN Special Adviser Karen AbuZayd and her team are preparing a report on behalf of the UN Secretary General for the high-level summit scheduled for September 19, 2016 at UN headquarters in New York. The goal of the summit, which will be attended by a host of world leaders, is to address the unprecedented and growing number of refugees worldwide.

The 28 refugees in attendance hailed from a total of 17 countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, Cameroon, Congo, Eritrea, Ghana, Haiti, Honduras, Iran, Iraq, Kenya, Nepal, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, and Uzbekistan. Ms. AbuZayd and her team met with the refugees to obtain their input on the report, including their thoughts on misunderstandings about refugees, their opinions on the current public discussion of refugee issues and their ideas on how to create a better system of protection and support for refugees.

In describing the scope of the global refugee crisis, Ms. AbuZayd noted that there are roughly 60 million refugees worldwide, half of whom are children. She described the deteriorating state of affairs, saying, “Refugees become stuck for years on end without the ability to build their futures. When they move onward in search of better protection, they often have to use smugglers to cross borders, they take dangerous journeys by land or sea. People are dying in transit, and states are not coping.”

According to Ms. AbuZayd, the goal of the UN summit is to help resolve this problem by developing comprehensive recommendations — in consultation with member states, civil society, refugees, and migrants — to improve international responses to global refugee flows, and to have these recommendations enshrined in a UN General Assembly declaration or resolution.

Ms. AbuZayd asked participants to provide feedback on what is working, what is not working and what leaders and the general public do not understand about refugees and migrants. Several participants discussed how refugees’ motives are frequently misconstrued. “A lot of leaders think refugees are leaving their countries for pure economic reasons, that they want to improve their economic prospects,” remarked one participant. “But that is not true. People leave their countries because they are victims of violence and war, hunger and poverty, and many other reasons.”

This concern reflects the growing apprehension many state leaders have about accepting refugees. In the European Union, distinguishing between refugees and economic migrants continues to be a dominant feature in the debate surrounding the influx of people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) has found that asylum seekers and economic migrants often have similar reasons for migrating, that they cannot be cleanly disjoined, and that “one person may fall into both of these categories at the same time.”[1]

Refugee participants also expressed concern that individuals may not be able to access protection afforded to refugees because their circumstances do not match the legal definition for refugee set forth in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Elvis Garcia Callejas from Honduras stated that: “We don’t understand how diverse refugees are. We separate immigrants and refugees. There are many children leaving Central America right now because of violence but they cannot get asylum in the US because they don’t meet the refugee definition.”

Even if an individual meets the international standard of a refugee, he or she may not qualify for refugee status in the country in which asylum is requested. As Mr. Callejas points out, there has been a steady rise in the number of unaccompanied children fleeing violence in Central America. However, these children are not approved for asylum in the United States and are subject to expedited removal.[2]

During the session, some participants noted how portrayals of refugees and migrants fail to highlight those who are successful and contribute to their host societies. One refugee stated that, “Another misconception leaders have is the potential for success that refugees and migrants have. If they are given the right opportunities, those people can go on in their host countries and become doctors, nurses — people who give back to those countries….”

Tara Dhungana from Bhutan noted that research has proven the benefits of refugees and migrants to local economies. For example, in 2014, the City of Columbus commissioned research to determine whether refugees boosted economically depressed communities. The study, conducted by Community Research Partners, found that refugees had a beneficial economic impact, contributing up to $1.6 billion a year to the local economy. The report estimated that the local refugee community also supports approximately 21,273 jobs in the Columbus metropolitan area, 3,960 of them generated by 873 refugee-owned businesses.[3]

Ms. AbuZayd noted, “One of the things we need to do is change the narrative.” Along these lines, many of the participants expressed frustration about how some public perceptions link refugees with terrorism. “Refugees are not terrorists, they are victims of terrorists,” a gentleman from the Democratic Republic of the Congo remarked. “Refugees are not the ones with blood on their hands.”

A refugee from Afghanistan blamed media portrayals of refugees for stereotyping all migrants as illegal, saying, “If anything negative happens, lots of people hate refugees because they [the media] put negative things on us….” A recent study in the International Migration Review suggests there is a link between press portrayals of migrants and public perceptions, providing evidence that — at least in the case of Britain — media coverage fuels the negative public perception of immigrants as illegal, failed asylum seekers or economic migrants while overlooking other pathways of entry that are viewed more positively, such as the migration of highly skilled workers, students and family members of migrants.[4]

Overcoming cultural and language barriers was a consistent theme in the experiences of refugees struggling to integrate into their host societies. A gentleman from Iraq stated that there are “three dimensions that have to be addressed: social, economic and security. For the social problem, we need to blend in, we need to learn about the culture… we need to involve more people, more citizens of the countries refugees are going to, to make the understanding easier for refugees.”

In reference to the UN, Aya Alkhdair from Sudan echoed this sentiment: “You can’t just give refugees money and expect them to start a new life…Education, language, and cultural adjustment are other factors to consider.” She noted people wait three to five years to be helped by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). During this interim period, she recommended that the UN provide language training and other programs to facilitate transition.

Another participant suggested that “the policy making process is very vertical, but it has to involve the host communities.” Several others agreed, supporting improved integration processes within host communities.  Refugee participants called for more coordination between the UN and civil society — including faith-based organizations — not only to help educate migrants about the cultures into which they are entering, but also to cultivate more caring, hospitable communities to welcome migrants when they arrive.

Participants provided other recommendations they thought should be included in the UN report. One refugee stated: “Children should be the UN’s number one priority, but we have to remember to keep families united.” A guiding principle of UNHCR is the promotion of family reunification, which is considered essential for the integration process.[5] Today, the separation of families is particularly problematic for unaccompanied minors, who are more vulnerable to trafficking and other forms of abuse.[6]

Some attendees also identified poor training and lack of knowledge by officials working with migrants and refugees on the ground. One participant suggested that: “Governments should hire refugee and migrants as specialists to handle refugee and migrant issues. Sometimes the specialists don’t know anything about migrants. Use the knowledge and expertise of migrants who have improved their lives in host countries.”

The broadest themes offered at the event involved the need for better education, both of citizens, media and leaders of third countries about refugees and migrants in order to combat negative stereotyping, and of migrants about their host societies in order to smooth the integration process. As one participant expressed, “The UN should stop spending so much money sending people around, and spend more money advocating, educating, lobbying.”

“Being a refugee is not who you are, it’s what the world made you.” This sentiment, expressed by Ms. Alkhdair from Sudan, is likely one shared by most of the migrants and refugees who came to CMS to share their ideas and experiences. Ms. AbuZayd thanked the participants for their recommendations offered in this unique gathering. The UN Secretary General’s report is slated for release in May 2016.


[1] Cummings, Clara, Julia Pacitto, Diletta Lauro, and Marta Foresti, “Why People Move: Understanding the Drivers and Trends of Migration to Europe,” Working Paper 430, Overseas Development Institute (December 2015), 5. http://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/10157.pdf.

[2] Carlson, Elizabeth, and Anna Marie Gallagher. “Humanitarian Protection for Children Fleeing Gang-Based Violence in the Americas” Journal on Migration and Human Security 3, no. 2 (2015): 129-158.

[3] Community Research Partners, “Impact of Refugees in Central Ohio,” published by US Together, Community Refugee and Immigration Services, World Relief Columbus, and the City of Columbus (2015). http://www.communityresearchpartners.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/IMPACT-OF-REFUGEES-ON-CENTRAL-OHIO_2015SP.pdf.

[4] Blinder, Scott, and William L. Allen, “Constructing Immigrants: Portrayals of Migrant Groups in British National Newspapers, 2010–2012,” International Migration Review 50, no. 1 (2016): 3-40.

[5] UN High Commissioner for Refugees, “Background Note for the Agenda Item: Family Reunification in the Context of Resettlement and Integration” (Geneva, June 20-21, 2001). http://www.unhcr.org/3b30baa04.pdf.

[6] Dearden, Lizzie, “Refugee Crisis: Lost Children Being Split from Parents Left ‘Vulnerable to Trafficking and Abuse,” Independent (September 10, 2015). http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/refugee-crisis-lost-children-being-split-from-parents-left-vulnerable-to-trafficking-and-abuse-10494331.html.