UN official comes home to Ohio to address the plight of refugees

Anne-Marie McGranaghan


BG Independent News

Even as the global refugee crisis grows, efforts to resettle them have stalled.

Anne-Marie McGranaghan, an associate resettlement officer for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, reported that the number of refugees resettled this year will be about 70,000, less than half the number resettled in 2016, This comes, she said, after several years of increased numbers.

That reflects the United States cutting the number of refugees it will resettle in half while other countries has so many now in the pipeline that have put a pause on their programs.

The United States resettles the most of any country, though on a per capita basis other countries, particularly Nordic European nations, do far more.

McGranaghan was the keynote speaker Tuesday (Nov. 14) at the Immigrant Ohio Symposium at Bowling Green State University. The focus was “Refugees Past and Present.”

Resettlement, McGranaghan said, is just one solution for the world’s 65.6 million refugees.

That’s the largest number ever, she said, and is expected to continue to grow. Three countries Syria, Afghanistan, and South Sudan account for half that number. Next year, McGranaghan said, she expects members of the Rohingya people fleeing to Bangladesh from Myanmar will join that list. Just since August more than 600,000 have left the country formerly known as Burma.

McGranaghan said that according to the Geneva Convention on Refugees, passed in 1951 to deal with Europeans cast adrift after World War II, “a refugee is a person who has a well-founded fear of persecution.”

That can be because of race, religion, nationality, political affiliation, or social group. Those in the latter category could be a gay man fleeing a country where homosexuality is outlawed and they face persecution and death or a young woman facing early marriage or genital mutilation.

Often UNHRC officers face tough choices. They may have just 1,000 slots for refugees to go to, but 100,000 people seeking those slots. McGranaghan said that a determination is made on who may be more at risk staying in a camp. It may be a journalist or a woman who is the sole provider for her family and may have to turn to sex work to provide for them.

The traditional solutions for refugees are inadequate.

The first, she said, is voluntary repatriation back to their home country. “Most refugees want to return to their homeland, but this requires a political solution,” she said.

When it is possible the UNHCR helps monitor conditions in the country, helps with transportation and works with other agencies on development.

“We haven’t seen a lot of large repatriation programs in the recent years,” she said. Refugees from Liberia and Sierra Leone were able to return after the ethnic conflicts there. And some Afghanis have returned.

The second common solution, McGranaghan said, is integration into the local communities. The UNHCR works with countries to increase the legal rights within host countries. That can mean work permits, allowing children going to school, and creating pathways to permanent residency.

“The global community hasn’t done a great job on that,” she said.

The third traditional option is resettlement. But there is not enough space in the countries where refugees are resettled to absorb them all.

“Resettlement is only an option for a very small number of people,” McGranaghan said.

That process can be long and arduous, she said. Involving biometric testing and multiple interviews. Some countries can take refugees within six to eight weeks. The United States is slow. It can take two to four years.

And refugees, she said, are responsible for paying their own transportation costs. They can get loans, but that means they arrive in their new county in debt.

“We are really lacking in solutions for the vast majority of people,” she said.

Other pathways exist. Some universities have created scholarships directed at refugees.

UNHCR also recognizes that many refugees are stuck in the camps or urban areas (where 50 percent live). The agency is exploring ways to give their lives greater permanence. That means access to education. It can mean access to land to farm or small loans to start businesses.

The refugees themselves blaze their own pathways.

McGranaghan said that from 2012 to 2016, when there were concerns about Syrian refugees, some 20,000 were admitted to the United States. But during that same period another 70,000 resettled here using different avenues.

Once they arrive here, that’s when the efforts of private citizens can be crucial. “My heart is really set on insuring that refugees do well in the United States,”McGranaghan said. “I feel they can’t do that without the involvement of the native-born residents.”

It is important that newcomers develop social networks. “That’s how they learn English,” she said.  And these networks help them feel part of society, and not marginalized. “It’s really important that you all be involved on a personal level … as much as you are able.”

McGranaghan noted that this was a homecoming for her. Though she was born in Connecticut, she grew up in Ohio and graduated from Perrysburg High School. She earned two degrees from BGSU.

“Oddly enough,” she said, “I find a disproportionate number of people from Ohio in international aid work when I’m overseas.”