Global experts speak in Camden on the immigration and refugee crisis (Photos by Lindsay Heald)
Global experts speak in Camden on the immigration and refugee crisis (Photos by Lindsay Heald)
Alan, a 3-year-old Syrian boy in a red t-shirt, washed up dead on a Turkish beach in 2015.

He and his family had paid smugglers to get them to Greece, the closest country in the European Union. Alan’s 5-year-old brother and his mother drowned in the attempt, too: 

Alan’s photo spread across the world, putting a face on the Syrian refugee crisis.

Desperate to reach Europe, half a million Syrians paid outrageous sums to smugglers to cross from Turkey to Greece on rickety boats. If they survived, they started walking.  They were stopped in Serbia, stranded in Budapest, pushed up against the border fences.

In all, almost a million people fled across the Mediterranean by boat to Europe in 2015. Of those, 3,771 people drowned. 

But that was just one piece of a global humanitarian crisis. Everywhere, people are on the move.

 Imagine every man, woman and child in New York City, London, Paris and Cairo grabbing a cell phone, some cash and what they could carry.

That would add up to the number of people who left their homes in search of safety in 2015, according to the UNHCR, the United Nations agency for refugees and migrants.

More people fled from Syria than any other country. They fled to Jordan and to Turkey: 2.5 million refugees had arrived there by 2015, making Turkey the number one host country for refugees in the world.

Alan’s death was not just a result of Syrians caught between the brutal Assad government and ISIL fanatics. He was a symbol of foreign policy decisions — or the lack of them.

Middle East instability ignited by American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had spilled over, followed by a desperate dash for freedom during the brief Arab Spring of 2010 that was followed by anarchy and brutish repression.The dream of democratic reforms died as Syria was caught between insurgent forces coming in from Iran and Lebanon and its own brutal leader: Bashar al-Assad. 

When America stepped back from Syria, Russia stepped in to solidify its power and prop up Assad, whose regime would have otherwise fallen. ISIL fanatics took over the resistance, killing randomly, consolidating power, and sowing terror.

Alan was not just a symbol of the war over there. 

He was the symbol of what could happen when America, the country born of immigrants and the most powerful defender of the democratic ideal, roiled a region and then turned away from the killing fields that resulted.

He was a symbol of direct Russian support for Assad’s killing of civilians in what will likely be found to be war crimes, if Assad is ever brought before an international criminal court.

European morality is on the hook, too. Would they find a way to effectively manage the exodus of refugees in accordance with democratic principles or just hold up their hand and say: “Turn back the boats.”

The journalist who took Alan’s photo hoped a world that had largely ignored the exodus from Syria would feel what he did: shock for the boy who died as a result of international forces combined with an overwhelming need to help. 

In a moment of moral clarity, the world responded.

The Camden Conference Experts Weigh In

These were some of the themes and concerns that were discussed and debated last weekend by global experts in immigration and refugee policies at the 2017 Camden Conference, an annual one-and-a-half-day-forum on foreign policy: What is our responsibility? How can we effectively step up to meet it? What are the costs of doing so? What are the benefits? And what are the consequences of turning away?

Now in its 30th year, the Camden Conference has a reputation of attracting some of the most knowledgeable speakers in the world to address a specific foreign policy topic for the year. Past Camden Conference topics have ranged from exploring global water concerns and food availability to the internal and foreign policies of China, Russia, the EU, Africa, and the Middle East.

Presenters at the 2017 conference, “Refugees and Global Migration: Humanity’s Crisis,” included top officials from the United Nations agency that oversees refugees and Human Rights Watch, university researchers, and analysts from immigration and refugee policy think tanks and institutes in Norway, Australia, Lebanon, and Germany. In all, speakers had expertise in Africa, the Middle East, Mexico, Central America, Europe, Southeast Asia, and the U.S.

The conference, which is held at the Camden Opera House from Friday night to midday Sunday, was sold out, as were remote screening sites in Belfast, Rockland, and Portland.

Needed: More Moral Clarity, Sound Policies

That 2015 moment of  moral clarity may have been clouded by recent American immigration policies ordered by President Trump, but it has also been buoyed by a popular growing resistance to them by Americans demonstrating in the streets and in airports, according to Camden Conference speaker Muzaffar Chishti, the director of migration policy at the New York University School of Law.

‘Refugee’ had become a dirty word, but that has changed in the past two weeks since President Trump announced the first travel ban against immigrants and refugees.

“It has been heartening to see the popular response,” said Chishti. “Young people rose up, the first lawsuit was filed by law students at five-thirty the first morning ... and 1,600 lawyers volunteered to go to airports with their laptops all across the country to help. It gives me high hope.”

That resistance has historical precedence set by Paul Grüninger in 1938, according Gerald Knaus, the founder of the Berlin-based European Stability Initiative. 

Grüninger, a Swiss policeman in charge of a border crossing when democratic Switzerland decided to turn back 20,000 Austrian Jews fleeing the Nazis, refused to do so.

For a year, Grüninger back-dated entry papers at the border to help 3,600 Jews escape illegally into Switzerland. When caught in 1939 on a tip from the Germans, Grüninger was fired, lost his pension, then was fined and imprisoned by the Swiss government, who did not apologize until two decades after his death in 1972. 

Grüninger struggled to make a living due to his criminal record, but never regretted helping, according to Knaus.

In 1954, Grüninger was asked why he did it.  

“He said to push back refugees is not possible for reasons of humanity,” said Knaus. 

Desperate People or Criminal Swarms? Words Matter

The term refugee was adopted as a legal definition by the United Nations to describe someone fleeing across national borders from violence or disaster and in fear for their life to seek refuge in another country, according to Karen Koning Abuzayd, a conference speaker and former top-ranking U.N. official who oversaw refugee and human rights in Palestine and Syria. 

Refugees are eligible for certain protections, including assistance. Most importantly, they cannot be forcibly returned to their own countries.

The definition was adopted under international law in 1951 in response to Nazi atrocities. Initially referring only to Europeans, according to Abuzayd, the definition of refugee was  expanded in 1967 to include people fleeing other countries. The U.S. joined 162 other countries to sign the 1967 international agreement.

The word refugee used to conjure up a person in need, but as millions fled the Middle East to the West, the media and public officials adopted an increasingly alarmist language that redefined refugees, said Chishti. They became aliens. Crowds of desperate people fleeing violence were referred to as swarms in the media.  That language shifted  the public and political conversation against refugees, he said, so that when a small group of refugees, or even Muslims who were EU citizens, broke laws, all refugees were blamed and an entire religion vilified.

Press reports claimed the sexual attacks on women in Cologne, Germany, on New Year’s Eve a year ago, for example, were the Islamic rape of Europe, according to Chishti. Even though Algerians and Tunisians did most of the attacks, Syrian refugees were blamed as a group.

The words crime and Muslim and terrorist and refugee were linked together in media reports until the dominant story became one of socially criminalizing all refugees for their religion, and for the fact of leaving home in the first place.

“If it’s a crime story in Holland, the media refers to it as a Muslim of Iraqi descent,” said Cas Mudde, an international affairs professor at the University of Georgia who also researches extremism at the University of Oslo in Norway. “If it’s a sports story with the player in the spotlight, then he’s Dutch.” 

Language that links origin and religion, like Mexican rapists and Islamic gunmen, leads to changing perceptions linking refugees to crime and terrorism. That allows anti-immigrant language once only used by the radical right into the mainstream media, which reinforces the perception that countries need to protect their borders against refugees, said Mudde.

“Words matter,” said Mudde. “They change discourse.”

Who Gets to Be a Refugee?

To claim refugee status, a person on the run and displaced by violence or disaster and in fear for their life must apply  for asylum in a country that has signed on to the U.N. refugee agreement. If they have touched their feet to the soil of that country, they have the right to claim asylum and have their case considered.

The goal for many countries who do not want to accept refugees is to make sure they don’t have the opportunity to set foot in the country in the first place.

EU member countries are bound to accept a quota of refugees. Hungarian leader Viktor Orban resists that requirement, said Knaus. Orban said Hungary doesn’t want Muslims and called the exodus of refugees an occupation. 

Most were not fleeing violence, said Orban. In 2016, he proposed a change to the constitution that declared Hungary a Christian country.

Declaring that only deadly fences work and that Germany would not participate in making life unbearable for refugees, German Chancellor Angela Merkel allowed in large numbers of refugees. 

The government worked with them, setting up living arrangements and integrating them into the economy.

The U.S. Example: Push Them Back

On this side of the Atlantic, the U.S. is too far away to turn back the boats, but more than capable of cutting out Lady Liberty’s heart. Immigrants and refugees have become whipping boys for domestic problems, are blamed for lost manufacturing jobs, drug crimes and sex crimes, and are poster children for terrorism. 

Anti-immigration and anti-refugee policies were well established before Trump’s election, said Bruno Stagno, a native of Costa Rica and a former ambassador to the United Nations. Stagno is now a senior advisor at Human Rights Watch.

President Trump’s ill-conceived travel ban — which was followed this Tuesday by a sweeping decree that enlists local police officers to round up immigrants, speeds up deportations, establishes new detention centers to imprison them, and tosses out those whose asylum status is pending — is incredibly dangerous but builds on an already established surveillance system on our southern border and a policy of pushing refugees back, according to Stagno.

In 2015, the U.S. sent National Guard troops to militarize the border and paid $190 million to Mexico to keep Hondurans, Nicaraguans, and El Salvadorans from ever  reaching American soil — even though 58 percent were unaccompanied children fleeing criminal violence in their home countries who had a demonstrable need for international protection.


“Calling it a security measure was deceptive,” said Stagno. “This was not a humanitarian response. It was migration control. It was pushing them back.”

“And it was a crisis of American leadership,” he said. “The United States supported overthrowing violent military dictatorships in Central America in support of democracy. Then we dropped them and the criminals walked right in.”

Turning them over to Mexico to process was hardly a humanitarian effort, either, he said.

Where was America, the defender of democracy, the shining city on the hill, when 72 Central American migrants on their way to America were massacred by the Los Zetas drug cartel for refusing to be enslaved, Stagno asked, pointing to one well-known example of the hazards of trying to claim asylum in America.

The German Example

With the Syrian exodus turning into a crisis and the need to restore control over the migration into Europe, Merkel shepherded the March 2016 EU-Turkey agreement that stopped Greece as a transit point. 

Under the agreement, Syrians could cross into Turkey, but those who had made the dangerous crossing to Greece after March 20 would be sent back to Turkey to be processed.

Turkey would not force them out.

The EU pledged $6 billion in assistance to Turkey to help with orderly processing of asylum seekers — an amount twice as high as the U.S. spends on global refugee assistance, according to Knaus.

Under the agreement, Turkey could send a Syrian asylum seeker directly to Europe for each Syrian returned to Turkey from Greece. 

Turkey closed off smuggler routes and Greece closed up camps and the number of refugees making the dangerous crossing by boat fell. 

Not so on the dangerous water crossing from Libya to Italy, said Knaus, where those fleeing Boko Haram in Nigeria and poverty, wars and dictatorships in Eritrea, Sudan and the Gambia are on the rise. 

Asylum seekers on this route are often caught in Libyan lawlessness on the way. Even before leaving their home countries many know they risk being enslaved, tortured, and raped. Many of them are. So far, an agreement on processing this stream of refugees along the lines of the EU-Turkey agreement remains elusive. 

Last year, 4,500 drowned at sea trying to cross to Italy, according to Knaus.

The 2016 New York Declaration

The United Nations is trying to move forward to create a global protocol and international standards for processing asylum seekers, helping them adjust, be educated, employed and  integrate into host countries, said Karen Koning Abuzayd, a former top official for UN efforts on behalf of refugees. 

The New York Declaration, an international agreement on a refugee protocol, was mostly agreed on late last year and is slated for implementation in 2018.

But refugees are the smaller part of the problem, said Alexandra Bilak, who monitors the displacement of people inside their home countries. 

Bilak, who works for the Norwegian Refugee Council and has expertise in Africa, works with facts and figures to determine how many people are on the move in the world, both inside their own countries and across national boundaries. 

The world is on the move, she said, with twice as many people displaced in their own countries as there are those seeking asylum outside of them, a situation ripe for continued unrest unless humanitarian help is linked to economic development opportunities. 

This is not a problem that will be solved, she said. It is a situation that must be managed. Developed countries need to see refugees as a resource instead of a problem, said Bilak.

New Immigrants Boost U.S., Maine Economies

“What was said about Italians, Jews, eastern Europeans in the U.S. a century ago would be considered unprintable today, but they ushered in the industrial revolution here,” said Muzaffar Chishti, the director of the Migration Policy Institute at New York University School of Law. 

That was true close to home in Maine, where Italian stone masons worked the midcoast granite quarries and Italian indentured servants built the Great Northern Paper mill.

“Today, immigrants are even more important,” said Chishti. “A quarter of American doctors are foreign born. A third of American computer experts are foreign born. Forty percent of Fortune 500 companies were started by immigrants or the children of immigrants. Think of Steve Jobs, the son of a Syrian immigrant.”

“We have never had more diversity in immigration in the U.S. than we do today,” he said. “In Portland alone, there are 47 languages spoken.”

A report released by the New American Economy (NAE) on Tuesday, February 21, details the economic contributions by new Americans.

Immigrants earned $1.3 trillion in the U.S. in 2014 and paid almost $224 billion in federal taxes, and more than $104 billion in state and local taxes, according to the NAE, a group of 500 U.S. business leaders and mayors who belong to both political parties or who are politically independent. Regardless of other differences, they all support immigration reform. 

Maine’s 49,000 new immigrants have made significant economic contributions to the state, according to the NAE, whose report is based on publicly available data.  

In total, the new Mainers earned $953 million in 2014 and paid almost $362 million in federal, state, and local taxes. That includes the roughly 3,800 undocumented immigrants in Maine, 542 of whom are known to have started their own businesses.

Nationally and in Maine, immigrants have higher levels of education, start more businesses and succeed at them more often than native-born Americans, according to the report.

In Maine, over 4,000 new immigrants started new businesses and 15,000 worked at immigrant-owned companies in the state, generating $61 million in business income in the process in 2014. 

That boost is not just in Portland and Lewiston. Almost 18,000 immigrants live and work in Maine’s second congressional district, where they paid $140 million in 2014 taxes, the last year for which public data is available. 

Notably, the top professions for new immigrants are in the computer field and in home health care, where there are 16 openings nationally for every employed home health care worker.

Many immigrants also own their own homes. 

Nationally, more then 40 million new Americans have increased U.S. housing wealth by $3.7 trillion in recent decades, in part because they have settled in declining neighborhoods, helped revive them, and made them more attractive to U.S.-born residents. 

Maine is no exception, where immigrants are strengthening some housing markets — a trend that former Maine mill towns with high unemployment rates and plenty of affordable real estate who are seeking new entrepreneurs might find compelling.

“The question is: Are we up to this diversity?” asked Chishti. “Because I think the great news here is that as the rest of the world has become more tribal, we have gone the other way.”

And America has clearly benefitted.

Solid immigration reform is needed, he said.

“We can disagree about how long the path to citizenship should be, or if there are other legal avenues for people to legally live and work,” said Chishti. “What we need is to give the 11.2 million people living in the shadows in the U.S. a fair and workable solution.”

The U.S. civilian workforce included 8 million unauthorized immigrants in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center.  

The economic contribution of the documented and undocumented immigrant workers in the U.S. may well be felt by the rest of us if they join the call to strike on May 1, International Workers Day.

So What Are We Really Afraid Of?

If host countries thrive where refugees and immigrants settle, why do we pay so dearly to keep them out?

Australia, who has set up island prison camps near Papua New Guinea, so asylum seekers don’t touch Australian soil, has spent $265,000 per refugee to keep them there — more than enough, says Stagno of Human Rights Watch, to give them a Harvard education.

And the U.S. currently spends $16 billion a year on Homeland Security — an amount that is poised to increase significantly on Trump’s watch — compared to the $3 billion the U.S. annually contributes to global refugee assistance.

During the Sunday morning panel at the Camden Conference that brought all 11 speakers on stage for discussion and to answer audience questions, a conference attendee asked a question that seems to drive media coverage on immigration.

“How do we keep dangerous people out and let others in?”

All the speakers were silent for a brief moment. 

Hadn’t they answered that question over the course of the day and a half? Global agreements to process refugee claims fairly and efficiently; opportunities for refugees to be educated, work, contribute and integrate into their new homes; border controls based on real, not perceived, threats; acknowledgment of global responsibility for circumstances affecting mass movement of people; the data that showed immigrants were an asset to their new countries, not a liability?

Paul James, the director of the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University in Australia who gave the Friday night keynote address at the Camden Conference, finally spoke up.

 “You don’t need to,” he said, somewhat cryptically. “Most come by plane. And they fly business class.”

It wasn’t exactly clear if he was referring to terrorists or politicians.

How Do We Help?

Jeanne Bourgault, the conference moderator and the president of Internews, put the question to all of the conference speakers on Sunday morning.

People want to know what they can do to help, she said. What would you tell them?

The business sector, the clergy, and law enforcement are all talking about taking immigration out of the shadows, said Chishti. Talk to them, he said.

On a local scale, volunteer to help those who help new immigrants and refugees, said Kelly Clements, the U.N.?Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, and a graduate of Old Town high school.

“Host dinners, invite them, advocate for them,” she said.

Catholic Charities will now be the ones responsible to help refugees settle in Maine, since the state will no longer provide assistance. 

“They need a network of supporters,” said Clements. “They will welcome volunteers.”

“Counter the narratives of hate on social media,” said   Stagno. He was referring to Veles, Macedonia, where there were 100 pro-Trump websites pouring out fake news prior to last November’s election. Stagno said Camden, Rockland, and Belfast could become the “Anti-Veles,” the place that is known for getting real facts out on social media, fast and often.

“And shame, name, and blame politicians,” said Stagno. 

Keep doing what has happened since the election: show up, ask questions, demonstrate, make yourself heard, he said. 

“Don’t let them off the hook.”

Knaus agreed.

Take the approach of combining passion and empathy with supportable facts. Don’t let politicians use lies to fan fears, he said. 

“We need to look at local integration for refugees, not an expectation of them returning to their home country,” said Bilak. Education, work opportunities, even working with refugees on English helps at the local level, she said. 

At the global level, we need to remember that 86% of all refugees are in developing countries and of the top 10 countries that host refugees, five are in Africa.

They don’t have enough resources to really help, she said. If you want to give money to help, think of the UN efforts and focus your attention there.

Paul James, an Australian, ended with a caution to avoid that soft illusion of the Nice American whose intention is to only do good in the world.

“Nice Australians do bad things,” he said, referring to the island prison camps for refugees.

 “So do Nice Americans.”

“Be careful and pragmatic with your optimism,” said James.