BC Hosts Refugee Conference to Address Global Crisis

Boston College hosted the conference “Refugees and Migration: Responding to a Global Humanitarian Crisis” last Friday, featuring a wide range of events discussing the various intricate issues making up the refugee crisis worldwide.

Gideon Maltz, executive director of the Tent Partnership for Refugees, and Sasha Chanoff, founder of RefugePoint, served as the day’s two keynote speakers. The event also featured panels on the current state of refugee and migrant dynamics, the work done by NGOs and national governments to help various problems, as well as local efforts to support refugees and migrants.

The conference was sponsored by BC and the Peace Islands Institute, with support from the Islamic Studies Program, Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Student Association, International Studies Program, and the Global Citizenships Project at BC.

The “What Can be Done?” panel reviewed the work of the United Nations, NGO’s, and national governments in response to the refugee crisis.

“Resolving a humanitarian crisis and enabling return inevitably requires a political solution and investment in peace building,” said Matthew Reynolds, the regional representative from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR.)

UNHCR lead the development of a new approach to the refugee crisis called the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF). It is organized around four key objectives: to ease pressure on local communities and refugee countries, to enhance refugee resilience and self-reliance, to expand access to third-country solutions like humanitarian visas or academic scholarships, and to support conditions in countries of origin for the voluntary return of refugees.

Maryanne Loughry, associate director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Australia, spoke about her organization’s presence in areas of crisis like Syria, Venezuela, and West Africa. The faith-based organization focuses on education and cyber, social, and legal work.

“[Jesuit Refugee Service] has a very strong advocacy role and one of our strengths is we bring the knowledge from the field and and we try to not only say what’s happening, but to bring the voice of the field to the international forum,” she said.

Since President Donald Trump took office, the refugee population in the United States has decreased from 100,000 to less than 45,000. The administration has taken steps to erode the Refugee Act in its pursuit of national security and a secure border, according to David Phillips, director of the peace-building and rights program at Columbia University. Reports of the number of refugees admitted to the United States this year range from 14,000 to 22,000 people.

“No one can dispute the importance of national security, but there needs to be a balanced approach looking at our national interest and our humane obligations,” Phillips said. “When you look at the enormous need of the refugee and humanitarian emergency in Syria, [the U.S.] is hardly stepping up to the plate and meeting those requirements.”

In his keynote address, Maltz focused on the intersection between the business world and the refugee crisis. His organization, the Tent Partnership for Refugees, works to encourage the private sector into playing a more active role in hiring, supporting, and investing in refugees and refugee-owned businesses. Hamdi Ulukaya, founder and CEO of Chobani Yogurt, launched the non-profit in 2015 after years of finding such opportunities in his own company.

“We try to make it as easy as possible for a company to leverage their business operations to reach refugees,” Maltz said. “We commission research, develop the case for why it makes sense for businesses to take action, connect companies to NGOs, and bring our company members together to learn from one another.”

In Maltz’s eyes, there are actually three separate refugee crises: the huge number of displaced peoples, the prolonged length of their displacement, and the uneven distribution of refugees—who often end up in low or middle-income countries that struggle to support them. High-income countries often ignore the potential benefits of stepping up, much to the chagrin of Maltz and his colleagues.

“If these governments were willing to lead in a serious way the three prongs listed above, it would form the outline of a grand bargain, where high-income countries could receive more refugees and extend more financial and trade concessions to host countries,” he said. “Host countries, in turn, would allow refugees to work, own a business, and extend their services to others.

“Notice that I haven’t mentioned the business community once. Nothing I’ve outlined thus far would require significant leadership by the business community. But is the absence of concerted leadership by governments that compels the business community to step up.”

Maltz outlined three potential forms their aid could take once governments have accepted their roles as leaders. His first suggestion was that they invest in refugee-owned businesses, pointing to the 6,000 Syrian refugee-owned businesses that have cropped up in Turkey over recent years.

After that, companies can expand their reach and target refugees as customers, especially in the banking and telecom industries, which often pass over them and block them from integral resources. He also urged businesses to overcome any fears of migrancy or training cost and instead hire more refugees.

“We commissioned research by a fiscal policy institute, a think tank based in New York, which found, for example, that in the manufacturing sectors in the United States, most employees turned over at 11 percent a year,” he said. “But refugees turned over at 4 percent. That saves employers thousands of dollars each year, not having to retrain workers.”

After Maltz spoke, there was a brief interview with Tena Štivičić about her play Invisible, which was performed at BC’s Robsham Theater this weekend.

After this discussion, a panel examining the power of local action to support refugees and migrants was held with Layla Mohamed, who works in Catholic Charities Maine, and An Le, the policy and communications advisor of the Boston Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Advancement. It was moderated by Kristin Heyer, professor of theology at BC.

Mohamed talked about her experience of fleeing from her home in the Somali region of eastern Ethiopia and how her experience has driven her to work for Catholic Charities in an effort to help other refugees adjust to new communities.

Le spoke about the current political and policy atmosphere of Boston. He discussed how the Mayor’s office works with various organizations to provide support to migrants and refugees, and why the term “sanctuary city” is so important to protecting the rights of all Boston residents. Despite the national rhetoric surrounding migrants and refugees, Le views Boston moving in the other direction.

“I actually think the political climate nationally has motivated many people in metro Boston to be more welcoming.” Le said.

The closing keynote address featured Sasha Chanoff, co-author of From Crisis to Calling: Finding Your Moral Center in the Toughest Decisions and Founder and Executive Director of RefugeePoint.

Chanoff talked about the need for courage in humanitarian work with refugees and a particular decision he was tasked with when working for the International Organization for Migration in Kenya. He and his partner were sent to transport survivors of a massacre in the Congo to safety when they came across another group of survivors they were not authorized to transfer, possibly endangering their mission.

“I had seen those people, but I was thinking about my bosses instructions to me, that we can’t take anybody else, and if you do, you’re jeopardizing the lives of all those on the list,” Chanoff said. “So, shaken, I argued all night. And [his mission partner] said ‘Sasha, we have to take them.’ And I said ‘I know, I know, but we can’t. We’ll risk the lives of the people we know we can get out.’”

“Finally, very…late that night, [she] says to me ‘Sasha, are we not humanitarians?’ … and I said, ‘You’re right, we have to try and do this.’”

After succeeding in saving the lives of all of the survivors on his mission in addition to the other refugees they discovered, Chanoff founded RefugePoint, an organization which seeks to find lasting solutions to refugees living in or fleeing danger and helps to connect other organizations to one another.

Featured Image by Jess Rivilis /Heights Staff