Thursday, August 21, 2008

Something wrong in the refugee policies

The conversation about evil communities who don't want to take poor little refugees, I mean hardworking young refugees, continues in Aamulehti.

Very often, when I start writing about my own time as a refugee, I start sounding like a grumpy old lady who is talking about how she used to go to school very day, 50 km in the snow, uphill both ways. I don't mean to, I really don't. The thing is, even though our treatment as refugees was certainly not up to the Finnish standards, we did have it much easier. One can talk all one wants about the evils of not having an official integration program of one's own, and the horrors of not having the taxpayers support the refugees forever, but nine months after coming to the US as refugees my parents bought their very own townhouse. Those people who are waiting for years in Finland in refugees centers for a municipal apartment in some community that doesn't want them, what have they got?

I know that the USA tends to select refugees more carefully than Finland, and that they send back the really antisocial element, but I don't believe that the quality of the refugee material is all there is to it.

The pervasive attitude here, both among the people who are for taking refugees, people who are against taking refugees, and everyone in between, is that refugees shouldn't be expected to work. People tend to view them as temporary visitors despite all the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and as entitled to support rather than responsible to support themselves. (Let's leave the senior citizens outside the scope of this posting.)

Imagine that you are twenty, maybe without any useful skills. Imagine that you have left the war behind in Iraq, come to a rich foreign country and gotten the residence permit. Yeah, the people there are weird and speak a weird language, yeah, most prospective employers want you to speak it too, yeah, everyone is a bit suspicious of you. Still, nobody is shooting at you, nobody is kicking you out of the country, and there is free education if you want to learn something useful and make yourself more employable. Would you like to a) have a real job and a place of your own, or b) study something and have a room in the student housing, or c) do nothing at all and live with several other guys in a room in a refugee center, waiting for a municipal apartment that might or might not come? There certainly are people who would answer 'c' all by themselves, but I strongly suspect that behind at least 3/4 of them there is a social worker who says "don't worry about anything, we'll take care of you".

When we came to the US, we saw a social worker once. She gave us a booklet about life in Boston, told us where to apply for the benefits for the elderly and health insurance, told us that the rest of us would be fed for 4 months by the refugee organization, in which time it would be nice to find a job, and for 18 months more by the state, in which time it would be necessary to find a job, gave us the address of the college that arranges free English courses, told us where the jobs are advertised, and wished us a nice life and welcome to America. Yes, the people who write about the plight of refugees for Turun Sanomat would have a heart attack and all flowers would fall off their hats (now that I think of it I should have warned them in the beginning of this entry), but the jobs were promptly found. And they were reasonably good jobs, too. And it was a recession at the time.

And no, we were not the coolest refugees ever. Everybody found jobs: engineers, manicurists, teachers, gas station attendants, doctors, an Afghani woman working in a kosher bakery, you name it. The flower-hat aunts might have a heart attack upon hearing about the harsh fate of refugees in the US, but the numbers talk for themselves: the refugees who came to Finland in the early nineties had the unemployment rates from 40% to 60% in 2000, but in the US refugees had an unemployment rate of 3.4% in 2000. The unemployment rate (in 2000) was 5.4% among those refugees who arrived in 2000.

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