Letter to the Editor: On Compassion For Refugees

I wrote this Letter to the Editor to The New York Times in response to an op-ed by Nick Kristof, a guy whom I agree with on virtually everything, but whose piece titled “Compassion Isn’t Enough For Refugees” I believe missed the point. He makes a strong argument for international response to the Syrian Civil War–which has produced 4 million refugees and the bulk of Europe’s latest influx–but his op-ed treats the war, or at best conflict in general, as the sole push-factor for migrants. Perhaps unintentionally, Kristof implies that by addressing wars abroad, Westerners may do away with the burden of immigration.

My letter was not published, which is perfectly okay. I just got extremely lucky on my first one. Below is the letter as I sent it in. But first, here’s a self-critique: while my letter points out the plurality of push-factors for migrants, it somewhat dismisses some major questions, such as “What constitutes a refugee? Who deserves asylum? With pressure to limit immigration, how should countries choose whom to let in and whom to keep out?”

To state plainly, I believe (as many do) that a coalition of the world’s most developed countries–most likely the EU, but perhaps a broader group like NATO or the G8/G20–must unconditionally accept all who fill the UNHCR’s definition of refugees and do their fair share of refugee resettlement, a share calculated by current population, available land, GDP per capita, and other metrics of human capacity. Refugees must accept their placement.

Concerning economic migrants (who do not qualify as refugees), I believe in providing an abundance of temporary and renewable work visas simply based on each country’s quantity of demand. This should include a system of issuing these visas to new arrivals who would otherwise be undocumented, both at the Mediterranean coast and at borders further north. Evidence shows that when migrants can cross borders and work without persecution, they are more likely to arrive alone, pay taxes, require fewer social services, send money home, and eventually return home themselves.

Migration will never be a perfect scenario, but it will always occur, and attempts to slow or stop it will consistently do more harm than good. As long as our economy demands the free passage of resources across borders and oceans, it will also stimulate and rely on free passage of labor, the restriction of which will continue to be a social and economic drain.

To the Editor:

Re “Compassion for Refugees Isn’t Enough,” by Nicholas Kristof (Op-Ed, Sept. 10):

By treating the Syrian Civil War as the sole push-factor for Europe’s unprecedented influx of refugees, Mr. Kristof wrongly suggests that Europe can effectively staunch the migrant flow, misleadingly prioritizing international diplomacy over community integration, employment, and tolerance.

First, while Syrians have constituted the bulk of recent migration, resolving their country’s crisis will not stop Iraqis, Afghanis, Somalis, and Libyans from fleeing the violence in their respective homelands, each with its distinct and difficult solutions.

But there is another crucial push factor besides conflict: development. Ironically, developing countries like Ghana or Senegal—where a little extra money can truly translate to a better life—produce more migrants and steadier flows than underdeveloped ones like the Congo. Most are men looking for paychecks to “remit” back home, to pay for education, healthcare, or a tin roof.

Yes, address the Syrian crisis. But don’t be mad when migrants keep coming—let them work and live. Doing so will improve their families’ lives back home, and perhaps build better countries to which they can later return.


New York

The writer is an organizer of immigrant communities through the ArchCare TimeBank.


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