More than 700 educators and students, meeting at United Nations headquarters in New York recently, called on the international community to protect refugees’ lives, encourage countries to take in “large numbers of refugees and migrants” and do more to ensure they get an education and are protected from sexual and gender-based violence.
Acting as President Trump unveiled a broad crackdown on both legal and illegal migration to the United States, the educators and students adopted a statement on Jan. 27 calling on governments, private institutions and public-interest groups to work together to protect the rights of all refugees and to make sure they are not returned to dangerous places or to situations where their lives and freedom might be at risk.
“Special efforts must also be made to stop the causes of refugee flow. Preventing war, terrorism, persecution and other causes should include aid for economic development, education and a commitment to human rights,” said the statement, approved by acclamation at the annual conference of the Committee on Teaching About the United Nations, held in a UN meeting room.
The statement, which did not mention Trump or the US, followed a day of speeches and discussions raising concerns about the Trump administration’s plans to severely restrict refugee flows to the US, steps that have just begun to sow chaos in the lives of people affected by the new edict. Acting quickly in the first week of his four-year term, Trump has signed executive orders calling for a wall to be built along the US-Mexican border, at Mexico’s expense, and making it easier for law enforcement authorities to detain migrants who are in the country illegally or arriving at international airports in the US, even with proper visas.
Other orders he signed would indefinitely ban Syrian migration to the country and cut back on future migration from all other countries while imposing a system of “extreme vetting” on migrant candidates, a procedure he has said would be aimed at keeping Muslim terrorists out of the country. The restrictions would hit hardest citizens of several predominantly Muslim nations, including Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 21 million people around the world are refugees, more than half of them under age 18 and many of them women and children. The US currently provides 40 percent of the UN refugee agency’s budget and accepts more refugees than any other country for resettlement, but the Trump administration is also threatening to slash its budget contribution to that agency and others, such as peacekeeping and the UN Population Fund, which provides family planning services and information to women in refugee camps and elsewhere.
Those attending the Committee on Teaching About the United Nations conference included former refugees who are now American students. They read emotional statements to the group about their harrowing lives as homeless children and the lifesaving welcome they had been given upon arriving in the country.
“I’m from South Sudan. I often keep this secret when I first meet people. But I’m not a lost boy, I’m a found boy,” said Mading Anyuon, a student at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.
“This is the best thing our country does. This is an American tradition,” said Chris George, executive director of the Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services in New Haven. “Refugees have made America great,” George said, adding that US vetting of refugees was already “extreme,” requiring 18 to 30 months before a decision to admit an individual was made.
Irwin Arieff is a member of the advisory council to the Committee on Teaching About the United Nations.