Refugees, Immigrants And Human Rights

01/29/2017 12:52 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2017

Last Friday, I participated in a conference at the United Nations organized by the Committee for Teaching About the United Nations, to discuss the global refugee crisis. Refugees receive assistance from nations, organizations and individuals who understand that refugees have human rights, and that it is solidarity towards those whose rights are threatened that ultimately ensures the rights of all, including our own.

It was appropriate for this conversation to be taking place at the United Nations as the organization was created in the aftermath of World War II, in an effort to create conditions that would ensure Peace and Global Stability. There were many in the 1940s who, horrified at the violence that had been perpetrated by a regime built on the notion that one race had superior rights to others, asked themselves whether they could have done more to prevent it or stop it. Those sentiments were expressed by Martin Niemoller, a protestant pastor who spent the last seven years of the Nazi regime in a concentration camp, and who believed that leaders of Protestant churches had been complicit in the Holocaust with their silence. Niemöller wrote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

From those reflections emerged the idea that crafting a compact that identified the basic rights of all people, which they have simply because they are human, and working to help all achieve the conditions where they would be able to live with such rights, would help us prevent the kind of violence perpetrated by the nazis from ever happening again.

The rights named in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are not, of course, self-executing, they require the agency and courage of individuals, organizations and governments, to advance a world in which those rights are protected for all. The United Nations was created to advance those rights, and does much to help advance them. But it is not just international organizations and governments that advance Human Rights, ordinary people do most of the work in building a world ruled by respect for those rights. In the United States the civic education organization Facing History and Ourselves has advanced the concept of upstander to define the person who takes responsibility to advance those rights, when they are challenged.

Refugees, like the rest of us, have human rights. Those rights are challenged by the countries they leave, which is the very reason they leave. The reason the office of the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees exist is precisely because ensuring that the rights of refugees protected is essential to the notion of universal human rights. This is also the reason governments assist and protect refugees, by granting them asylum and helping them resettle.

A very small proportion of these refugees are able to resettle in ‘third countries’, countries other than the one they first arrived to. The United States receives a significant absolute number of that small percentage of refugees who are permanently resettled, even though this number is very small relative to the size of the population in the United States. Traditionally we have given priority to those at the highest risk and most vulnerable. In order to be resettled in the United States refugees already undergo a process of extreme vetting that includes multiple interviews and extensive background checks by multiple US intelligence agencies and by the State Department.

I am not aware of any evidence that beneficiaries of this program have engaged in actions that threaten the security of the United States. In my own view, our security is significantly more endangered by the almost one thousand hate groups which exist in the country, such as the KKK, whose hate actions have been reported by the FBI to be on the rise, and by the chief strategist of the White House and member of the US Security Council, Mr. Stephen Bannon, who has declared that the Press is the ‘opposition’ to the Government and ordered them to ‘shut up’. A free press is essential to a functioning democracy and governments who attempt to control the press threaten a basic tenet of democratic life.

The United States, along with many nations, contributes to the efforts to provide assistance to refugees. Relative to population size, however, the United States absorption of the total number of refugees who are received in a third country is one of the smallest in the world. The number of refugees resettled relative to population is many times greater in nations which are in the regions where the refugees proceed from. Lebanon and Jordan, for instance, the absorption rate of refugees is many times greater than in the US.

Small as a share of our population as the United States Refugee Resettlement Program is, it is a beautiful expression of fundamental American values. It is a small expression our commitment to the ideas expressed in Emma Lazarus’ poem New Colossus, which is inscribed on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch,

whose flame Is the imprisoned lightning,

and her name Mother of Exiles.

From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome;

her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!”

cries she With silent lips.

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

As we were meeting in the United Nations last Friday discussing the urgency to protect the human rights of refugees, and how little is been done to address this global crisis, President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order that will significantly undermine the United States program of resettlement of refugees. The order bans immigrants from Muslim majority countries in the Middle East, except those where the President’s immediate family has business interests, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Turkey.

Furthermore, this order affects also non refugees, and includes students, scholars, people with permanent residence visas who were born in the countries listed in the order. A permanent residence visa is the necessary step anyone who wishes to become an American citizen must go through before been able to apply for citizenship. Applicants for permanent residence also undergo background checks by the department of homeland security, which coordinates with intelligence agencies.

The ban has already affected students and scholars at some of our universities. The Executive Order caused Harvard’s International Office to send a letter yesterday to all students, scholars and faculty who are foreign nationals advising them to avoid any unessential travel. The letter includes this paragraph:

“The executive order also contemplates that additional countries could be added to the banned list. Accordingly, until more information becomes available, and given the possibility of a change in government policy that could go into effect immediately, all foreign nationals should carefully assess whether it is worth the risk to travel outside the country."

In the thirty years I have worked at Harvard University I have been privileged to count among my students and colleagues many who have been refugees, immigrants and citizens of the countries now included in the executive order. They have been, without exception, talented individuals, committed to working to advance educational opportunity around the world, the kind of force for good that helps us advance a world governed by reason, by respect for human rights, the very conditions that are essential for Peace and Sustainability. They are the messengers of hope that we will never see the horrors of the Holocaust again. To pose restrictions on their ability to come to the United States is to restrict our own ability to collaborate to do the important work of Peace.

I am saddened and concerned that the President of the United States has signed an order that undermines some of our most basic values and commitments to protecting human rights and that limits our ability to collaborate with colleagues from around the world in the shared enterprise of advancing Peace and Sustainability. For this reason I have signed a petition signed by academics opposing the ban, which is available here:

As the misguided supporters of this ban try to convince us of the grave risk that Muslim refugees and immigrants pose to our security I invite you to read Warsan Shire’s poem Home, which I reproduce below, and to ask yourself, along with Martin Niemoller, whether our silence makes us complicit in a grave violation of the basic conditions we need for Peace in the world.


Warsan Shire


no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark you only run for the border

when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you

breath bloody in their throats

the boy you went to school with

who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory

is holding a gun bigger than his body

you only leave home

when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you

fire under feet

hot blood in your belly

it’s not something you ever thought of doing

until the blade burnt threats into

your neck

and even then you carried the anthem under

your breath

only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets

sobbing as each mouthful of paper

made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,

that no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land

no one burns their palms

under trains

beneath carriages

no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck

feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled

means something more than journey.

no one crawls under fences

no one wants to be beaten


no one chooses refugee camps

or strip searches where your

body is left aching

or prison,

because prison is safer

than a city of fire

and one prison guard

in the night

is better than a truckload

of men who look like your father

no one could take it

no one could stomach it

no one skin would be tough enough

the go home blacks refugees dirty immigrants asylum seekers sucking our country dry niggers with their hands out they smell strange savage messed up their country and now they want to mess ours up how do the words the dirty looks roll off your backs maybe because the blow is softer than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender than fourteen men between your legs or the insults are easier to swallow than rubble than bone than your child body in pieces.

i want to go home, but home is the mouth of a shark home is the barrel of the gun and no one would leave home unless home chased you to the shore unless home told you to quicken your legs leave your clothes behind crawl through the desert wade through the oceans drown save be hunger beg forget pride your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear saying- leave, run away from me now i dont know what i’ve become

but i know that anywhere is safer than here

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