06.19.15

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee, To Recognize World Refugee Day

The United States has long been a safe and welcoming home for those fleeing persecution around the world.  The refugees and asylum seekers who join our communities help to create new businesses, build more vibrant neighborhoods, and enrich us all.  They are also a reminder of our history as a nation of immigrants and our American values of generosity and compassion.  Saturday marks World Refugee Day, and to honor it we must renew our commitment to the ideal of America as a beacon of hope for so many who face human rights abuses abroad. 

Millions of refugees remain displaced and warehoused in refugee camps in Eastern Africa, Southeast Asia and other parts of the world.  Ongoing political struggles and military conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa are dislocating large populations.  Too many are without their families or safe places to find refuge.  Some, though far too few, have been able to flee and rebuild their lives. 

Peter Keny, one of the “Lost Boys” of South Sudan, is one of those inspiring refugees who escaped a civil war in his home country and has rebuilt his life in my home state of Vermont.  He is just one of thousands of refugees Vermonters have welcomed over the years.  Peter was 19 when he came to Burlington in 2001, and in the years since he has learned English, completed high school and is earning a college degree.  In describing his voyage to the United States and ultimately to Vermont, Peter told The Burlington Free Press that arriving here “was like a dream come true.”  I ask that the article, “A found Man Returns to South Sudan,” be made part of the Congressional Record.

I am proud of Vermont’s long history of supporting refugees by opening its communities, schools, and homes to those in need.  It is not always easy, but it is a powerful example of our belief in the most basic ideals of human dignity and hope, and our commitment to responding to the suffering of others.  We are fortunate to have remarkable organizations like the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program leading the effort with its decades of experience and award-winning volunteer program, and the tremendous legal advocacy provided by the Vermont Immigration and Asylum Advocates.  The hard work of these and other organizations and the daily welcoming gestures of Vermonters all over the state have made Vermont a role model for the rest of the country.

On this year’s World Refugee Day, it is also important to acknowledge that there is more that we as a country can and must do.  I remain deeply concerned about the administration’s expanded family detention policy.  The women and children it is placing in prolonged detention have fled extreme violence and persecution in Central America. They come seeking refuge from three of the most dangerous countries in the world; countries where women and girls face shocking rates of domestic and sexual violence and murder.  Here in the United States, we recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, a law we hold out as an example of our commitment to take these crimes seriously and to protect all victims.  The ongoing detention of asylum-seeking mothers and children who have made credible claims that they have been victims of these very same crimes is unacceptable.  I again urge the administration to end the misguided policy of family detention.

We must also do more to address the humanitarian crisis in Syria.  Almost four million Syrians are officially recognized as refugees by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The vast majority of these are women and children, including hundreds of thousands of children under the age of five.  The United States traditionally accepts at least 50 percent of resettlement cases from UNHCR.  However, we have accepted only approximately 700 refugees since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, an unacceptably low number.

Congress also plays an important role.  Soon, I will reintroduce the Refugee Protection Act to improve protections for refugees and asylum seekers, and provide additional support and improvement to the national resettlement program and groups like the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program.  This bill, which I have long championed with Representative Zoe Lofgren, reaffirms the commitments made in ratifying the 1951 Refugee Convention, and will help to restore the United States to its rightful role as a safe and welcoming home for those suffering from persecution around the world. 

As we pause to take stock on World Refugee Day, let each of us reflect on what this great country means to those escaping persecution.  Let us now and always live by and burnish the light of Lady Liberty’s torch, our eternal beacon of hope to those struggling to breathe free. 

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