Since 1981, my program at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School has cared for more than 10,000 refugee patients, many of whom have been tortured and suffer from post-traumatic stress. Our clinic, one of the first of its kind in America, sprang from the well of generosity and magnanimous spirit we call the United States, and a moral obligation to help those in need.
Many people confuse the terms “asylum seeker” and “refugee.” Asylum seekers apply for status at the border or after arriving here, whereas refugees have their status recognized outside the United States by a UN agency. Today refugees form a growing crisis of unfathomable numbers. According to the UN, the world has about 80 million displaced people who have fled their homes. A little more than half of them have gone to other areas of their countries, but about 30 million of them are refugees who have left.
These numbers, however, haven’t sounded the alarm for America. Instead, our role as a helping hand has significantly diminished. We accepted, on average, 99,000 refugees per year after the Refugee Relief Act passed in 1980 to facilitate their resettlement. But under President Trump, that number dropped to 30,000 refugees in 2019 — which amounts to just 102 refugees per one million US residents. Even worse, the Trump administration set a ceiling of 15,000 refugees to legally enter America in 2021.
It is my sincere hope that President-elect Joe Biden’s administration will uphold his campaign promise of admitting at least 125,000 refugees per year.
By definition, all refugees have experienced human rights violations, including the injury and murder of children, family members, and neighbors; gender-based violence, including rapes of entire villages; and torture. Their medical and mental health burdens are enormous, so we must not ignore the impact their resettlement can have on America’s cities and towns. The number of refugees admitted must always be determined by weighing the socioeconomic costs, stresses, and strains on local American communities who would be receiving them.
But new refugee policies would not require severe sacrifice, only a recommitment to the American ideals on immigration, clearly stated on the Statue of Liberty and in the claims that we are a “shining city upon the hill” of freedom. Like the Good Samaritan, we must bandage the wounds of children, women, and men who have been left suffering along the roadside.
— Dr. Richard F. Mollica is director of the Harvard Program for Refugee Trauma and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.