June 20, 2020

Cardin Commemorates the 20th World Refugee Day

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly, entered the following statement into the Congressional Record to recognize the 20th World Refugee Day, commemorated on Saturday, June 20, 2020:

“Mr. President, this past Saturday – June 20th – we marked the 20th commemoration of World Refugee Day.  Since 2000, World Refugee Day annually shines a light on the struggles of displaced people all over the globe and encourages us all to redouble our efforts to help them.

“We are currently experiencing the most severe refugee crisis in recorded history.  There are almost 80 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, of which more than 30 million are refugees and asylum-seekers.  Every two seconds, someone is forced to leave his or her home because of conflict or persecution.  That means that, since I began speaking, roughly 20 individuals have become newly displaced.

“These numbers are staggering and difficult to comprehend.  But try to imagine for a moment what it means to be a refugee: to watch your home torn apart by conflict; to become the target of violence and oppression; to fear so greatly for your life and the lives of your loved ones that you choose to leave everything you know behind and take a dangerous journey to a place where the language and the culture are unfamiliar, where you have no support system, where you may struggle every day to make ends meet.

“This nightmare is the reality for almost 80 million human beings around the world.  And the situation has only worsened since the outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic.  The majority of refugees are in low and middle-income countries, where weak health systems are already struggling to provide the basics of care.  According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), just 34 conflict-affected and fragile countries could see between 500 million and 1 billion COVID-19 infections, leading to between 1.7 million and 3.2 million deaths over the course of the pandemic.  Furthermore, refugees and displaced persons tend to live in precarious conditions that make them even more vulnerable to the coronavirus.  They often live in crowded housing situations with little access to basic hygiene services, the perfect breeding ground for infectious diseases to spread.  For instance, there are about 850,000 Rohingya refugees living in congested camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.  As the coronavirus began to take hold there in March, experts warned that the lack of sanitation and capacity for social distancing in these refugee camps would create the “perfect storm” for transmission of the disease.

“Additionally, many refugees are employed in informal industries with little to no options for sick leave, restricted access to public health services, and have few, if any, resources to weather the financial burden of quarantine measures.  Many are forced to defy stay-at-home orders to find ways to support their families, risking their health and that of their loved ones to provide basic shelter and food.

“Take, for example, the story of Orlando, a member of an indigenous community in Venezuela who is among the 4.5 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees who have fled the country’s hunger, violence, and insecurity since 2014.  He now lives in Brazil with 18 other families from his indigenous group.  He and his family make their living as artisans, but when lockdown orders prevented them from selling their crafts, they could no longer afford rent.  All 120 of the individuals living in his house were expelled, sent to the street in the middle of a pandemic.  Meanwhile, many of Orlando’s family members became sick with the virus, and one sadly passed away, devastating the community.  Unfortunately, stories like this one are common among refugees.

“The good news is that there are a number of incredible multilateral and nongovernmental organizations working tirelessly to ensure that displaced people are safe, healthy, supported, and treated with the dignity they deserve.  These organizations deserve our gratitude and, more importantly, our assistance.  In my home State of Maryland, organizations such as the IRC, Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Service, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society – now HIAS, and World Relief are there to help refugees start a new life in the United States.  Especially now, as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches resources and capacity of service providers around the world, it is critical that the United States do its part to help address the refugee crisis.

“That is why I joined all the other democratic members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in introducing legislation to provide an additional $9 billion in funding for international efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and strengthen our refugee resettlement process to accommodate those affected by the global health crisis.  I also urged Secretary of State Pompeo to contribute at least $500 million to the United Nations’ campaign to protect displaced and disadvantaged persons around the world from the coronavirus.

“Historically, the United States has prided itself on offering safe harbor to the world’s refugees.  This country, after all, was founded by a group of people fleeing religious persecution.  The plaque on the Statute of Liberty – perhaps the most famous symbol of American freedom and democracy – reads, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."  But we have not always lived up to the values on that inscription.  When World War II displaced millions of Jews, many of them sought asylum in the United States. Thousands were turned away, and sent back to their deaths in their home countries.  The most infamous incident was a ship called the St. Louis that carried almost 1,000 Jewish refugees to a port in Miami.  After being denied entry and forced to return to Europe, more than a quarter of those passengers perished in the Holocaust.

“It is important to acknowledge and learn from dark chapters in our history like this one, so that we can do a better job of respecting and protecting human life moving forwards.  This is why I have been so troubled by President Trump’s anti-refugee policies.  Whether by making the lowest presidential determination on refugee admissions in the program’s history, or by locking up asylum-seekers at our southern border, the Trump administration has turned our Nation’s back on those fleeing violence and oppression and stained the United States’ reputation as a champion of human rights.

“We cannot allow these policies to continue.  First and foremost, they are wrong.  This sort of behavior violates the most basic tenets of our democracy – equality, freedom, and justice.  But beyond that, it actively hurts our country to ignore the plight of refugees.  When we shirk our responsibility as a global leader in humanitarian assistance, we exacerbate worldwide instability that will affect us, too.  Moreover, by closing our doors to refugees, we miss out on the valuable contributions that they make to our society.  Think of the contributions to science, art, and politics that refugees like Albert Einstein, Gloria Estefan, and Madeline Albright have made to the United States, and to humanity.  As I speak, think of all the displaced people around the world who are working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic to help keep their adopted communities – including ours – safe.

“To improve our country’s treatment of refugees, I worked with Senators Leahy, Booker, and Harris and Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA, 13th) to introduce the Refugee Protection Act of 2019.  This bill is a comprehensive blueprint for reinvigorating U.S. refugee and asylum systems.  It bolsters the U.S. Refugee Admission Program and expands protections for refugees, and restores due process and dignity for asylum seekers.  Broadly, it seeks to repair the United States’ role as a refuge for the persecuted.  I urge all of my colleagues to support this crucial, life-saving measure.

“The most important thing to remember is that refugees are our fellow human beings who have found themselves in the most difficult of circumstances.  They are brothers, daughters, fathers, grandmothers, and friends.  They have ideas, hopes, and aspirations and deserve the same respect, security, dignity, and opportunity we wish for ourselves and our families and friends.  This World Refugee Day, let us recommit to providing safe harbor to the vulnerable, no matter where they are from.  I always like to say that our values are our strength –- so let us live by our values and help build a brighter future for all the world’s peoples." 

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