A moratorium on refugee resettlement is the wrong response

By Maggie Fogarty and Arnie Alpert

The conflict between Manchester officials and the International Institute of New Hampshire draws our attention to painful realities—individuals and families forced by various forms of violence to flee their homes and seek refuge in a strange and faraway land; state and municipal budgets shrunk to dangerous lows by revenue problems and a global economic downturn; non-profit organizations struggling to meet intense demand for emergency support.

The current conflict concerns whether the City and refugees would benefit from a two year moratorium so that a plan could be put in place to better meet the needs of those who come here.  We believe we can do better without resorting to a moratorium.

Migration is a global phenomenon affected by natural human reactions to war, climate change, natural disasters, and economic crises.  The global community has a moral obligation to assist in the resettlement of those who have become refugees.  Manchester has a commendable history of accepting newcomers who have been forced to leave their homelands.   In New Hampshire, Concord, Laconia and Nashua have also provided much needed welcome and support to refugees in recent years.

The resettlement of refugees comes with many challenges, including language barriers, the need for livelihood and secure housing, and problems associated with psychological trauma.  These needs become more difficult to meet in tough economic times, when a broader community of people who benefit from public investments in human services is at risk of losing access to the programs on which they depend.

Mayor Gatsas’ expression of concern that the needs of refugees are not being adequately met is welcome.  However, unless we could implement a moratorium on war, climate change, or natural disasters, a moratorium on refugee resettlement is the wrong response. 

A moratorium would prolong the hardship of refugees who need new homes and want to re-unify with their families.  A moratorium would seriously undermine our identity as a welcoming community.  And worse, a moratorium would open the door to the toxic notion that our community is stronger if we deny entrance to those whose needs hold up a mirror to our inadequate systems for meeting those needs.

Instead, we must develop an improved community response that welcomes all willing partners to the table, taps our creative capacity to solve problems, and addresses the multiple system failures which have placed refugee families in precarious living situations.  These failures include:

  • The short period of financial assistance for which refugees are eligible;
  • Placement of refugees into seasonal, temporary and low-wage jobs with no benefits;
  • Placement of refugees into unaffordable and poor quality housing;
  • Inadequate resources for case management at resettlement and human service agencies;
  • Inadequate support and accompaniment in the school system;
  • Lack of access to health care including mental health services.

In many cases, such as employment, health, and housing, the problems faced by refugees are problems that also affect other people.  Solutions or improvements in these areas will also benefit refugees.

Finding solutions is a joint responsibility of the federal, state, and local government, as well as non-profit agencies.  Our best resource is the community of refugees themselves, who have the deepest understanding of the problems they face and whose voices are too rarely heard in the discussions now taking place.  Leaders of organizations like the Coalition of African Organizations and the Bhutanese Community of New Hampshire can guide our work. 

The AFSC was formed by Quakers in 1917 as a way to offer assistance to the civilian victims of the war ravaging Europe.  Since then we have continued to address the humanitarian consequences of armed conflict, including the needs of refugees in this and other countries.  It is our commitment to dignity and human rights that continues to shape our work and compels us to accompany immigrants and refugees as advocates for their rights as tenants, workers, students and members of our community.   We offer our own experience and commitment to the current challenge of creating a more humane resettlement process.

We live in one of the wealthiest states in the wealthiest nation in the world.  We have the human, financial and creative resources we need to communicate effectively with each other,  collaborate with new partners, make a plan and ensure that newcomers—and all of us—have what we need to live a decent, secure life.  

Maggie Fogarty and Arnie Alpert are New Hampshire staff for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization supported by people of many faiths who believe in peace, social justice, nonviolence, and humanitarian service.