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(Kaci Farrell contributed to this post and preparations for the roundtable)

Last week, I hosted a roundtable here at CGD to discuss how the United States and other rich countries might better provide safe haven and opportunity to potential migrants from developing countries that are in acute need—particularly the victims of natural disasters.

This question has been at the forefront of my mind since the earthquake ravaged Haiti on January 12.

Simply having the chance to leave Haiti has lifted more Haitians out of extreme poverty than all of the billions of dollars in aid, all of the foreign investment, and all of the trade preferences that Haiti has received from the United States during the past thirty years. (The research underlying that statement can be found in this CGD paper. I further describe the dynamic impact of mobility, particularly for Haitians, in these Washington Post and Foreign Policy articles.) It doesn’t make sense to me that allowing some flexibility in human mobility—one of the most effective, lowest-cost ways to help Haitians—has been playing such a tiny role in international efforts to help Haitians.

While the U.S. has worked expeditiously to assist Haiti’s people and government to rebuild and recover from this catastrophe, we lack a systematic mechanism for leveraging human mobility—one of the most powerful ways that people in poor countries cope with and overcome shocks. Because natural disaster victims are not fleeing group-based violent persecution, they do not qualify as refugees under international law. Thus, I contend that the U.S. and other rich countries must either create a new category of entrants or find some means of handling a finite number of natural disaster victims through existing policy or administrative channels.

Note well: Creating a category of entry does not mean allowing unlimited numbers. A category of entry now exists for refugees fleeing violent persecution, for example, but this doesn’t mean that anyone fleeing violent persecution can come. Each year the U.S. and other rich-country governments decide how many people to admit in that category in accordance with national goals and ability to help.

I was thrilled by the quality of conversation among the roundtable participants, which included representatives from the refugee advocacy community and other research institutes. The group discussed the complexities of existing migration and refugee policies, while raising important questions about the purpose and implementation of a new program. Specifically:

  • What criteria should determine what individuals and/or countries are eligible?
  • Should victims of natural disasters be eligible temporary refuge or should they be offered a path to long-term residency or citizenship?
  • Would such a program require legislative action or are there existing tools that could be used to accomplish similar goals through administrative channels? (The United States previously brought hundreds of thousands of Indochinese, Cuban, and Kosovo refugees, among others, into the country when it was deemed it to be in the interests of national security.)
  • How do we differentiate between forced and voluntary migration following a natural disaster?

CGD plans to commission new research to explore these questions and others, as well as current systems and new possibilities. Building on the findings of this paper, I plan to launch a new CGD initiative to move forward toward a viable policy solution.

Stay tuned…

Disclaimer

CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.