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Vol. LXII, No. 18
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
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Hope for “Human Flourishing” in Face of Forced Migration

Ellen Gilbert

Describing a “global challenge rooted in myriad local conflicts,” George Rupp, president of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), delivered a lecture on forced migration last Friday at Princeton University’s Frist Campus Center. The address was part of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies’ 2008 Spring Colloquium on Refugees and Forced Migration.

The International Rescue Committee seeks to bring attention to forgotten or neglected crises, and to pressure governments and international organizations to take action to help and protect refugees, displaced people, and other victims of conflict. It began in 1933 at the suggestion of Albert Einstein, who foresaw a New York City-based committee, with counterparts in cities on the periphery of Nazi-occupied states. Mr. Rupp has headed the agency since 2002, overseeing its relief and rehabilitation operations in 25 countries, as well as its refugee resettlement and assistance programs throughout the United States. Additionally, he leads the group’s advocacy efforts in Washington, D.C., Geneva, Brussels, and other capitals, and regularly travels to program sites in Africa, Asia and Europe.

Mr. Rupp began his talk on Friday by describing the changing conventions of warfare in recent history, from engagements that were almost entirely limited to military combatants, to the widespread killing and uprooting of innocent civilians. As a result of violence, poverty, and disease, today there are between 33 and 35 million people worldwide who, he said, “desperately need help.” He particularly pointed to the “inescapable horrors” of the situations in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Sudan, and the Congo. In central Africa, he noted, the recent “excess mortality” rate, or the number of people dying from other than natural causes, has been comparable to the death toll of the World Trade Center disaster occurring “every day for five years.”

Although the situation remains fragile, he said, two recent surveys of that area show that the mortality rate is declining, thanks to greater access being given to human relief agencies and U.N. peacekeepers. Mr. Rupp lauded what can be accomplished with the cooperation of world-wide agencies and “authoritative governments.” He was not shy about criticizing the U.S.’s lack of generosity in providing refugee aid in the form of money and safe haven as a welcoming place to which refugees can immigrate. The U.S. is “near the bottom of the list of countries providing assistance,” he said, citing the pervasive “self-deception” that we are more generous than we actually are as a result of our participation in past humanitarian arrangements, like the Marshall Plan. In point of fact, he said, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands lead the developed world today in assisting third world nations. Similarly, he noted, the U.S. has allowed in only 5,000 Iraqi refugees, a “grotesquely small” number, in comparison to the 25,000 who were welcomed in Sweden, where the population is considerably smaller than that of the U.S.

The “most basic lesson” to be learned about displaced people, Mr. Rupp said, is that catastrophe prevention is “vastly preferable” to emergency intervention. He noted the negative effects of current trade policies that benefit the rich, like the U.S. subsidies to cotton farmers in this country that enable them to undercut African cotton farmers. He called for increased foreign assistance that would support health care, education, and libraries in developing nations.

Describing his work as “exhilarating,” Mr. Rupp spoke about the joys of watching displaced people “get back on their feet.” Over 12,000 people are currently working for the IRC worldwide, with “six or seven” times as many volunteers as paid staff. The fact that most of them are locals is a real boon to the “tough love” stance the agency must take in the face of heart-rending situations. Rather than simply giving supplies to oppressed people and leaving them dependent on others, IRC workers encourage them to gain skills that will enable them not only to survive, but to thrive when they move back to their homes, or relocate to new communities. When they do come to the U.S., Mr. Rupp said, “they add to the vitality of this country.”

Mr. Rupp was himself the son of immigrant parents. He was born in New Jersey, received an A.B. from Princeton University in 1964, a B.D. from Yale Divinity School in 1967, and a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1972. He is the author of numerous articles and five books, including Globalization Challenged: Commitment, Conflict, and Community. After graduating from Harvard he became the John Lord O’Brian Professor of Divinity and dean of the Harvard Divinity School. Later he served as president of Rice University, followed by nine years as president of Columbia University. In 2006 he received Princeton University’s annual Woodrow Wilson Award, which is given to an undergraduate alumnus or alumna whose career embodies the call to duty in Wilson’s speech, “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.”

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