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The International Refugee Crisis: Experts Examine the Challenge at Washington DC Forum


(L-R: Randi Weingarten, AFT and ASI President; Herb Magidson, Past JLC President; Shelly Pitterman, UNHCR Regional Representative; Mark Hetfield, HIAS President and CEO; Jennifer Podkul, KIND Director of Policy) Photo Courtesy of Mary Cathryn Ricker, AFT Executive Vice President

May 18, 2016: Washington DC - The Jewish Labor Committee and the Albert Shanker Institute hosted a valuable and timely panel discussion on the international refugee crisis and what can be done to alleviate the situation confronting the refugees, as well as the countries in which they are trying to get to and the agencies attempting to help them. A short, moving video showing refugees from around the world began the forum and framed the discussion. Herb Magidson, past JLC president and member of its executive board, introduced the forum by noting that there has always been nativist and isolationist tendencies in the United States, but this is the first time in our history when a nominee of one of our two major political parties is espousing these views.

Shelly Pitterman, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' regional representative for the United States and the Caribbean, noted that the number of displaced persons worldwide is the largest since World War II and is rising, that the first thing to remember is that these are children and their parents and that they are victims, but that the resources pledged to help them is lagging badly. Mark Hetfield, President and CEO of HIAS (known earlier as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), pointed out that the Refugee Convention is now considered international law, but it only means that the first country a refugee reaches cannot turn one away, which is significant as many refugees are struggling to get to another destination after escaping their country of origin.

Photo Courtesy of Arieh Lebowitz, JLC Associate Director

There is no right to refugee resettlement; rather it is an exercise of international responsibility, that has worked in the past and it is a plan we need now. So far, the U.S. response has been disappointing in this regard. While President Obama announced that we would take in 10,000 Syrian refugees this year, the number that we have actually brought to our country is not enough to even be symbolic, with the process of screening refugees trying to enter the U.S. strangled by red tape and security concerns. Jennifer Podhul, Director of Policy for Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), rounded out the forum by discussing the plight of those coming to the U.S. from Central America. Pointing out the rampant gang violence and economic hardship, which feed on each other, she made a strong case for dealing with the causes of the migration from this region, and dealing with it as a refugee issue, with the children treated as the child soldiers they are when pressed into violent gangs, rather than as illegal aliens.

Randi Weingarten, President of both the Albert Shanker Institute and the American Federation of Teachers, moderated the question session, posing the first question herself by asking what we can do in a practical way to improve the plight of the refugees. A strong case was made to change the current narrative that is one of fear and demagoguery to one that stresses the U.S. as a welcoming place of acceptance, and passionately points out the consequences of "Trumpism."

The Jewish Labor Committee, the Albert Shanker Institute, and the American Federation of Teachers plan to continue to work together on addressing the international refugee crisis.

Check out the video of the event here