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Foreign Affairs Speakers Program: Migration and Refugees

February 05, 2016

Much like communications, business and media, modern human migration patterns has become a more global phenomenon than at any time in the last century.

That was the over-arching theme presented by James N. Purcell Jr., chairman of the board for the U.S. Association for International Migration, as the featured speaker for ASU’s E. James Holland-Roy A. Harrell Jr. Foreign Affairs Speakers Program, held Feb. 1-2.

James PurcellJames PurcellKnown as “the architect of America’s refugee organizations” for his work beginning in 1979 to create the U.S. Refugee Program based in the U.S. State Department, Purcell told the ASU audience that tremendous changes are taking place in migration dynamics.

“During my day, we had about 14 million refugees,” he said. “Today’s 60 million is frightening and destabilizing governments all over the world.”

While it evokes images of people fleeing war or poverty, the term “migrants” refers to any persons living in a country other than their home country. That includes Peace Corps members and entrepreneurs, doctors, scientists, actors and musicians seeking better opportunities, as well as migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers. Reasons for migrating can be economic, social, political or environmental.

“The difference in the 21st century,” Purcell said, “is more people have more information than ever before, more links to people and more ability to move without having to break off relationships at home.”

This globalization helped trigger the 2015 Syrian refugee exodus, which Purcell calls the century’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Four years of civil war has driven millions of Syrians from their homes and into asylum camps in the neighboring countries of Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt. Then German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced her country would take in 800,000 Syrian asylum-seekers. Word spread through social media, and a great evacuation began with many refugees using rafts and small boats to try to cross the Mediterranean Sea. An estimated 5,000 a day have been arriving in Italy and Greece and thousands have died trying.

“This crisis did not occur without warning,” Purcell said. “The Syrian tragedy has worsened year by year for the past five years.”

Including additional Syrians, the European Union is expecting more than 3 million asylum-seekers and refugees in 2016. Purcell advocates countries remember lessons learned from the refugee crises during World War II and after the Vietnam War.

“The formula is safe asylum, protection and solutions,” he said.

The tested and proven procedure is to set up asylum centers in neighboring countries where refugees can be evaluated for their needs and skills, be matched to a host country, and receive training in language and culture. The Obama Administration has called for a summit to address the Syrian refugee crisis.

“I think the elements of a solution are falling into place,” Purcell said. “To succeed, it is necessary to place crisis victims in the center of decision-making from the beginning. We want our government to play our usual humanitarian role.”

Anyone wishing to aid the refugees can do so through several agencies, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Catholic Charities and World Vision.

“Just remember,” Purcell said, “that behind all these statistics are people, individuals fleeing for safety.”


College of Arts and Sciences