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Red Tree of Africa

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Refugee myths and facts

There are a lot of myths and confusion in the community about who refugees are, where they come from and why they are in the US.  We have addressed some of those myths below:

Refugees have no right to come here and expect us to help them

Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries freedom from persecution". It is an accident of birth that we are born in a country where human rights are respected.  If we were in the same situation and forced to flee our home due to instability, war or persecution, we would hope to receive such assistance in our new country. While this does not mean that the US alone must take the full burden for protecting the persecuted, it does mean that we have to play a part in an international response that includes a wide spectrum of initiatives from addressing root causes to providing asylum to people whose human rights have been violated.

Refugees are economic migrants who come here to get a better life

Although the terms "refugees" and "migrants" are frequently used either interchangeably or in close association, there is a very important difference between the two groups.

While migrants are people who make a conscious choice to come to the US, refugees are people who have been forced to leave their countries because they have been persecuted.

Refugees rarely have the chance to make plans for their departure: to pack their belongings, to say farewell to their friends and families.  Some refugees have had to flee with no notice, taking with them only the clothes on their backs.  Refugees often have little idea about where they are going - they are running away, but not running to anything.  Many have experienced severe trauma or torture, and those who come to the US have had no opportunity to prepare themselves physically or psychologically for their new life in the US.

In contrast, migrants make a conscious choice to come to US. They are able to make all necessary preparations, pack their belongings and say good-bye to the important people in their lives.  Migrants can also go home at any time if things do not work out as they had hoped or if they get homesick. 

Because refugees and migrants are different groups of people, with different pre-arrival experiences, it is important that the distinction be made in the services provided. Refugees have needs distinct from and additional to migrants, in particular in relation to torture and trauma counseling, secure housing and medical care.

Refugees take our jobs, or conversely, all refugees go on unemployment benefits

It is true that newly arrived refugees have higher unemployment rates than the community average. This is not unexpected. Amongst the refugee arrivals are people who have been tortured and deeply traumatized. This can interfere with employment. There are also a significant number of entrants whose qualifications are not recognized in the US and they need time to make adjustments. There is also the issue of learning English.

The fact that refugees "come from behind" in the employment stakes highlights the need for specifically targeted intervention programs that recognize issues such as their trauma, their unrecognized qualifications and their lack of English. Targeted programs that do this have shown that they are very successful at placing refugees in the workforce. If we are to bring refugees to the US, it is important that we recognize their specific needs and address these. If we do this, we will reap the benefits. Most refugees want to work, both to restore their damaged sense of self esteem and to repay what they see as their debt of gratitude to the US for providing them with protection.

Whether "refugees take our jobs" is the sort of question that has no easy answer. Refugees do compete for jobs but they are also consumers. Because they arrive with nothing they have to purchase household goods, clothing etc, all of which provides jobs for the people who make and sell these commodities.

Refugees get all sorts of handouts from the government

Refugees essentially have the same rights and entitlements as permanent residents. Most refugee families do need some assistance in settling into society and learning English.  However, after this initial period of adjustment, most are keen to find stable employment and provide for their families without relying on government benefits.

Refugees cannot possibly contribute anything to us

It is a myth that all refugees are illiterate peasants. The majority that come to the US are educated middle class people - whose education, profession or political opinions have drawn them to the attention of the authorities and resulted in their persecution.  Others are from a broad cross-section of society, forced to flee from instability or war that does not discriminate between the educated and the uneducated.

By definition refugees are survivors. They have survived because they have the courage, ingenuity and creativity to have done so, and these are qualities which we value in the US. The challenge for the US is to assist newly arrived refugees to process the experiences of their past and rebuild their lives in the US. If we do this we will reap the benefits of the qualities and experiences they bring to the US.