Secretary of State John Kerry recently announced that the U.S. will work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to create new refugee processing centers in Central America. The plan will bring much needed safety and stability to refugees fleeing countries with some of the highest murder rates in the world. But more can be done.
The Obama administration can further alleviate humanitarian crisis by launching a privately-funded refugee resettlement program, empowering U.S. philanthropists to cover the costs of refugees in their first year. This public-private partnership would save lives without requiring new congressional appropriations.
The unfortunate reality is that there are more refugees—over 19.5 million—around the world today than at any other time since World War II. Syria has received much attention as of late, but a devastating crisis is also happening in our hemisphere.
The so-called “Northern Triangle” of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador is home to unspeakable violence and oppression. The Council on Foreign Relations reports that forced gang recruitment, violence, and civil war in these countries has pushed thousands out of their homes. What’s more, over one-hundred thousand unaccompanied Northern Triangle minors have come to the U.S. from October 2013 to July 2015.
These Central American nations are among the top 10 countries with the highest rates of homicide. Two of them— El Salvador and Honduras— are so violent that the Peace Corps has suspended operations there. Many have calculated that the risk of using human smugglers to come to the U.S. is better than staying in place.
Despite this, the 2016 refugee ceiling for Latin America and the Caribbean is set at just 3,000. Creating new processing centers is definitely a step in the right direction—but without increasing the number of refugees this year, more will take the dangerous journey to the U.S., risking death in the process.
Kerry recently acknowledged this, arguing that the U.S. should offer, “families and individuals a safe and legal alternative to the dangerous journey that many are tempted to begin, making them at that instant easy prey for human smugglers.”
In 2014, the American people donated an astonishing $350 billion to charities. Yet under the current system, donations cannot be used to help bring in additional refugees. Our country’s vast resources and uniquely active philanthropic culture sit idly on the sidelines as the death toll rises.
The Obama administration should harness this wealth and energy by tying the refugee admissions cap to private giving. Here’s how it might work. The government would open an account into which individuals and charities can channel donations. Once a certain donation threshold is met, new refugee slots would open up automatically. This would allow more Central American refugees to make the journey to the U.S. safely and legally, but with little additional burden on taxpayers.
The UNHCR has endorsed this idea, and billionaire philanthropist George Soros has expressed interest. Imagine how much money would be raised if crowdfunding platforms were set up, or “text-to-donate” campaigns launched. Many millions of dollars could be raised to save the lives of families fleeing violence in Central America.
Private sponsorship works. The Reagan administration’s “Private Sector Initiative” empowered ethnic charities to collect contributions that would go towards increasing the overall number of refugees admitted. Five organizations were involved and resettled nearly 16,000 refugees in addition to the government-sponsored cap.
In Canada, over 225,000 refugees have been privately resettled since 1979, by fully embracing the work of Canadian citizens, non-profit organizations, and charity institutions.
Canada’s privately sponsored refugees report better outcomes than government-sponsored refugees in the majority of cases, such as satisfaction of resettlement and quicker labor force entry. The success of these efforts led the UN to recognize the people of Canada for excellence in service to refugees.
Though Central American refugees pose very little security risk, they are rigorously screened. The recently intensified process takes 18-24 months, is very thorough, and is trusted by national security experts.
For many refugees, this is literally a life or death situation. We need to help. Privately funded refugee resettlement is an easy way to bring new resources to the refugee program without new congressional appropriations. It would create an outlet for America’s abundant generosity and provide a timely, robust response to a serious humanitarian crisis.
Privately funded refugee resettlement is not a silver bullet, but it can alleviate some of the suffering of those displaced by violence and civil strife. It’s time to launch a privately funded refugee resettlement account and ramp up the life-saving process of resettlement for our Central American neighbors.
Op-ed by Matthew La Corte; originally published in The Hill