In 2013 an estimated 51 million people worldwide, half of which are children, were forced to leave their homes, according to a recently released annual report by the United Nations, and this number does not include the most recent refuge increase due to violence in Iraq. While most in the survey are homeless in their own country (internally displaced people or “IDPs”) there are around 16.7 million who are refugees in other countries.

In some countries, camps are set up to provide temporary housing and services for displaced populations. However, many of these camps tend to be long-term homes due to protracted conflicts in the refugees home countries.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which registers refugees at camps around the world, refers around 1 percent of all refugees for resettlement into third countries each year. The countries that have robust resettlement programs take on the responsibility of providing refugees a place to rebuild a life, often in a place where they have no understanding of the culture and rarely speak the same language. Major resettlement countries around the world include: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the U.S.

The United States is the largest resettlement country in the world, receiving nearly 70,000 refugees per year. While many in the U.S. see this commitment to helping refugees around the world as an obligation and moral imperative, there has been some backlash from mayors around the country who have complained about the strain incoming refugee populations are having on their city’s social services.

The Mayor of Springfield, Massachusetts, Domenic Sarno, recently joined mayors from New Hampshire and Maine in calling for an end to the refugee resettlement programs in the U.S., saying that the U.S. State Department has not been receptive in addressing his concerns about the challenges his city is now facing.

While concerns about being able to meet the needs of incoming refugees is a legitimate question, addressing a city’s larger infrastructure, education and housing needs go much further in making sure that all residents are able to access the services they deserve.

The refugee resettlement program has been a long-standing feature in the U.S., bringing in groups from all around the world. Many cities receive larger populations of a certain group due to family reunification measures and the connections that a community already has established.

In the last couple of decades, the number of refugees around the world has increased, making it necessary to resettle more, not less refugees. Backlash often comes due to the strain caused by a few who struggle when they first arrive, but it overlooks the benefits that refugees add to communities. In an effort to address the negative stereotypes, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants created a “Here for Good” campaign to demonstrate the positive impact that refugees are having on communities across the U.S.

As the country that accepts the most refugees in the world, the U.S. is providing an opportunity for families to start a new life and buy into the American Dream. Resettlement organizations in the U.S. provide services for up to six months after a family arrives. During that time, refugees attend job training, cultural education and English classes to help them assimilate and join the workforce. All refugees have to pay back a loan from the International Organization for Migration that allowed them to come the U.S. in the first place.

Concerns about the impact that refugees have on communities will be an on-going issue as more refugees are resettled in the U.S. However, as a country that prides itself on diversity and acceptance, cities across the U.S. must not focus their attention on stopping resettlement, but rather find a way to harness the new talent and potential that refugees bring – because they when they arrive, they are more often than not “Here for Good.”

– Andrea Blinkhorn

Sources: USCRI Albany, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, The New York Times, ABC News
Photo: The New York Times

In western Africa, an entirely new generation has risen out of sand, tents, and mud blocks. Though born into this kingdom of sand and pumped water wells, home lies miles away with the vast Atlantic Ocean for these life-long refugees.

In the most barren regions of western Algeria, five refugee camps collectively called the Polisario Front were established in the mid-1970s in response to land disputes spanning two decades of armed conflicts. Home to 150,000 Sahrawis, the current state of the camps themselves has received scarce media attention.

The Sahrawis tribes in West Africa have lived in the Polisario camps bereft of a stable home country since the 1970s. After 37 years of laying in wait to return to their homeland in the West Sahara, the Sahrawis remain involved with the longest-running conflict involving displaced persons.

The dispute involves a strip of land called West Sahara in northern Africa. When Spanish colonial forces withdrew power from the area in 1976, the Moroccan government immediately seized control of the densely Sahrawi-populated land.

Rebel Sahrawis engaged in armed conflict against Moroccan forces for two decades until the U.N. mandated a ceasefire in 1991. Part of the referendum was to hold a vote in the Polisario Front as to whether or not the refugees would remain independent or integrate into Morocco. In 2013 there has yet to be a vote on the issue. The stall on the vote and major political action has perpetuated life in the Polisario Camps, spanning decades.

Many of the founding members of the camps were young orphans who fled the violence of the 1970s with only their lives. They have since then established schools, hospitals, and their own governing bodies. Democratic ideals, the freedom to practice any religion, as well as equality between women and men are the principles of the camps. When men went to fight in West Sahara from the 1970s to late 1980s, women were left to take on leadership roles at the camps and have since retained their independence.

Food assistance comes directly from international aid provided by organizations such the World Food Program. Food security is nearly impossible due to the barrenness of the surrounding lands. Malnutrition and anemia are rampant among the refugees due to deficiencies in iron and other essential vitamins.

Working Sahrawis have been receiving monthly stipends from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in lieu of real salaries.

Though the refugees need $130 million of international aid yearly to support all of their people, only $70 million year is given to them. Lack of U.S. efforts has been cited for the lack of attention to this area, especially in comparison to the unrest boiling in Iran, Egypt, Syria, Israel and Palestine, and the Persian Gulf.

As to the fate of the Polisario Camps, they are now the target of militant extremist groups because of their fundamentally democratic values and difference in religious views.

Al Queada has also been known to run freely in and around the area, making the camps a potential recruitment ground for terrorism, especially with the rise of a new impatient generation from the camps. However, anti-terrorist security measures were elected and put in place by the refugees and their leaders.

The refugees seem resigned to life in the camps while their leaders are pressured for a solution—one that can either end in Morrocan absorption or decades of more fighting. With foreign aid acting as their life blood, cutting off such programs could plummet the Sahrawis to the brink of annihilation.

Malika Gumpangkum

Sources: PBS, The Daily Beast, HRW