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The Humanitarian Journey: From Root Causes to Recovery

Published onJan 27, 2022
The Humanitarian Journey: From Root Causes to Recovery


This symposium seeks to confirm the reemergence of the Global Humanitarian Cooperation (GHC) model of multilateral action that the teams from the game refugee decade (1979–88) pioneered and that governed international cooperative action until the Arab Spring era of 2011. I concluded then that a new default model, which I later called Nationalism cum Isolationism (NCI), had replaced the GHC. However, recent signs from Europe and the Biden administration suggest that a return may be occurring. That is good news, if true, but it is still early days.

Keywords: migration, humanitarian crisis, data, root causes, multilateral action, durable solutions

All these years later, I have the distinct memory of standing outside the C Street entrance of the U.S. State Department in 1979 and pondering the future of the post–Vietnam War refugee program that I had just been ordered to salvage. I recall questioning, can it even be saved?

Vietnam desk officer Jim Bullington had reported to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Kissinger, 2013, p. 483) that more than one million Vietnamese allies needed immediate rescue; the Cambodian holocaust, just coming into view, showed much of that country in a death spiral; our Laotian allies the Hmong faced annihilation. French Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) was collapsing under the control of hostile communist totalitarian regimes. The withdrawal of American forces left behind Southeast Asia and endangered allies.

In his landmark book on the history of the Indochina refugee exodus, author Larry Clinton Thompson (2010, p.1) called the Vietnam War the most divisive event in American history since the Civil War. He wrote,

The war shattered the faith of many Americans in the honesty of their government and the idealism of their society. The fall of the three Indochinese countries—Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos—to communist armies in 1975 was the low point of American fortunes during the Cold War.

America’s post–World War II refugee apparatus was weak and seemingly unable to cope with the weight of this new crisis. True, our country had earlier resettled many displaced persons from the World War II era, but this sluggish apparatus was on its last legs.

Where would one turn for help?

I started with possible mentors: former UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadruddin Aga Khan, U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrook (Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and the Pacific), and U.S. Ambassador Ben Read (Under Secretary of State for Management), my boss.

They provided remarkably similar advice, summarized here: Your highest priority should be to identify the root causes of flight from Indochina; almost every other mechanism that would later be put in place should flow from the root-cause answers; identify partners and assure a steady flow of data and information to keep root cause analyses and other data systems relevant to fast-changing events; keep your eyes on ground developments, supplemented by occasional views from on-high; use this information to formulate strategies and be unafraid to act decisively when the time comes.

From that point, the United States and its global partners applied that advice with flexibility for every global humanitarian crisis of the ensuing years—from Southeast Asia to Afghanistan and South Asia, to Russia and the Far East, to the Horn and East Africa, to Syria and the Middle East, and finally to the Americas.

I cite those experiences to segue to a coming global symposium sponsored by the Harvard Data Science Review, USA for IOM, and USA for UNHCR, to be their second in a series of symposia designed to show the increasing value of data science to analyses and solutions for global humanitarian problems. The planned symposium title is “The Humanitarian Journey: From Root Causes to Recovery.”

Earlier, in May 2021, the global data science community met virtually for three days to analyze and try to better understand some of the most perplexing and disturbing challenges of spiraling global migration: displacement, disinformation, and unplanned human mobility. While no one expected that a three-day symposium could solve those problems, our hopes for improved linkages and better understanding among authorities, experts, and practitioners working on these global problems were clearly advanced, according to participant reactions.

A key question arose from those reactions: How can improved data and information systems be applied more universally to the growing list of life-threatening human crises we now see around the globe and those that will inevitably follow?

The sponsors of the May 2021 symposium concluded that the follow-on symposium should focus on a limited number of contemporary and past human crisis situations, including the application of data science to root-cause investigations and to programs and priorities that necessarily flowed from them; experts would lead discussions on resulting progress, or lack thereof, toward crisis solutions. Recognizing that each crisis has both unique and common characteristics, the reviews would look for elements that might have applicability to future human crises … and save lives.

The second symposium will be organized around case studies: Southeast Asia (Indochina), Syria and the Arab Spring, Tigray and the Horn of Africa, Venezuela, Afghanistan (including the recent U.S. withdrawal and evacuation of U.S. citizens and allies), and the current U.S. Southwest Border.

Case studies will also address the impact of climate change, which has been placed higher on the U.S. agenda recently through its inclusion in the new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) issued by the Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines on October 21, 2021. The report notes that climate change is a major factor driving human movement throughout the world and has the potential to result in conflict and forced displacement. The NIE names 11 countries that are especially vulnerable to extreme weather events, including Afghanistan, Colombia, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Iraq, Myanmar, North Korea, Nicaragua, and Pakistan (Harris & Birnbaum, 2021).

As a springboard to the second symposium, I highlight the Indochinese crisis as the best model, I believe, for coping with long-term and complex human crises. I will briefly mention how two other ongoing crises, Syria and the U.S. Southwest Border, have deviated from that model with alarming results.

We will try to answer the question: Does history still have anything to teach us?

1. Southeast Asia

This crisis began with the Fall of Saigon in 1975 and continued through completion of the UN’s Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese Refugees in 1997. In one perch or another, I was engaged in post–Vietnam War refugee developments from beginning to end. My involvement revealed discrete and identifiable response stages over the life of this key human crisis. They include:

1.1. Early Warnings and Evacuations

Following the 1973 Paris cease-fire agreement signed by Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese Foreign Minister Le Duc Tho, American forces essentially gave up the battle and Viet Cong troops completed their takeover of the country. On the morning of April 30, 1975, North Vietnam tanks crashed through the gates of Independence Palace and Viet Cong troops swarmed Saigon as the government of South Vietnam fell; early warning intelligence had been circulating for weeks about the imminent withdrawal of U.S. troops, but no actions had been taken by the U.S. Embassy or the State Department to prepare for evacuation of endangered allies (Thomas & Barry, 2009, pp. 35–46).

Tens of thousands of Vietnamese citizens, fearful of past associations with the Americans, panicked and began searching for any way out. Many rushed to the embassy compound. Emergency air and sea exits were set up on the run. More than 150,000 people were rescued in Operation New Life and moved to Pacific locations prior to transfer to America and eventual resettlement by NGOs (Herman, 2013, pp. 25–26). Rory Kennedy (2015) highlighted these dynamic rescues on film. This and a later mop-up operation of 11,000 other seriously endangered refugees found in Thailand were thought by most observers to complete the Indochina refugee program, and rescue organizations were shut down.

1.2. Root Causes

When it became clear that the Fall of Saigon evacuations represented just the beginning, not the ending, of the Indochinese refugee program, I was ordered to State’s new refugee organization in early 1979 to begin work on a permanent humanitarian organization to cope with the much larger population of refugees we could then see fleeing from not only Vietnam but also neighboring Cambodia and Laos.

The new Bureau for Refugee Programs (RP) (later renamed Population, Refugees and Migration) was set up in the State Department on July 30, 1979, and I was assigned to guide essential updating and restructuring; I was also to lead the bureau on an acting basis (Freeman, 1979). Guiding principles, operational mechanisms, and partnerships were established, and new statutory legislation was enacted. President Jimmy Carter signed it on March 17, 1980 (Refugee Act of 1980).

It had taken more than two years after the Fall of Saigon to gather sufficient information about ongoing degradations in the three Indochina countries and get it to the Carter administration and allied officials fast enough for them to act. The delay resulted in the victorious communists over-running origin countries; friendly asylum countries threatened to withdraw their help (Thompson, 2010, p. 1).

U.S. and international teams began immediate searches for root causes. The most obvious were ethnic and geographic enmities developed before and during the war, imprisonment (re-education camps) and murder of enemies, hostile and brutal takeover of communist regimes, relocation and reengineering societies along radical socialistic and agricultural lines, and incompetent governments. Indochina had been brought to its knees.

Author William Shawcross (1987, p. 14) described Indochina’s greatest horror, Cambodia, thusly:

Across the fragile heart of Cambodia have paraded in these years many of the most frightful beasts that now stalk the earth. Brutal civil war, superpower intervention conducted carelessly from afar, nationalism exaggerated into paranoid racism, fanatical and vengeful revolution, invasion, starvation and then, once again, unobserved civil war without end. Cambodia is an awful case study of the failure of diplomacy—as well as an example of the endurance and courage of ordinary people in the face of ghastly treatment.

He added: “…. Cambodia was not a mistake; it was a crime.”

Information networks of several military and diplomatic organizations had data and information that predicted the devastation that occurred, but they were not brought together and disseminated in ways that got readily to the people who needed them. Nevertheless, detailed information on individuals was collected and used by the State Department, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and the NGOs to assess candidates’ eligibility for refugee resettlement in Operation New Life. Thus, resettlement actions began based on a vast data network that expanded and became even more significant in future root-cause investigations (Management and Administration, 1979).

1.3. Stabilization, Asylum, and Durable Solutions

The next order of business was to keep the regional asylum governments engaged in assuring safe asylum during and beyond the negotiations for durable solutions. Those governments (Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Macao) believed that 1) the refugee problem had been dumped on them by the Americans and their allies and 2) they were carrying an inordinate share of the burden. They wanted immediate help to diminish their asylum populations or they threatened border closures (Clark & Cherne, 1979). As the United States and allied embassies had staff generating ground-level information from the camps and asylum governments, we could verify the accuracy of these threats.

This perilous situation and the verifying information collected led the American and allied governments to conclude that the only viable durable solution then was third-country resettlement (in priority order, durable solutions included repatriation, regional settlement, and third-country resettlement). It was inconceivable that anyone could repatriate or settle elsewhere in the region for the time being.

A bargain was struck. America and its allies would assure sufficient refugee resettlement from asylum governments to avoid destabilization; in return, the asylum governments would guarantee safe asylum for those requiring it. Reacting to this bargain, author Richard Smyser said,

The Southeast Asian states agreed to permit boat people and others to land and to remain, but only temporarily; the Western nations agreed and that they would invite those refugees to resettle permanently in the West. (Smyser, 2003, pp. 93, 94)

Immediate work began on a Vietnamese ‘boat people’ rescue and resettlement conference in Geneva, July 20–21, 1979, suggested by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. American, Canadian, Australian, Japanese, and European diplomacy worked at its best at this conference and produced an outstanding result: 64 governments came together to offer 240,000 new resettlement places, $300 million in new funding (a huge amount for the time), offers to rescue refugees at sea, and measures to help assimilate resettled refugees and to secure safe asylum in the region (U. S. Department of State, 1979). Information networks were set in place to assure targeted data flows among governments and around the world to record the results.

President Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale played key roles in these developments. It is significant to note that this was happening at a sour-mood time in America; troops returning from Vietnam had not been welcomed back to the homeland, and the U.S. Congress was enacting severe restrictions on presidential authority and flexibility, including the War Powers Act (Shultz, 1985). It was in that depressing time that Carter decided to launch a refugee initiative to help our nation revive its can-do spirit.

At a watershed conference in Coolfont, West Virginia, in late 1979 with U.S. resettlement NGOs, the U.S. team worked to establish national refugee resettlement parameters (that have endured over the years) and set the stage to negotiate record budgets with Congress (Goldman, 1979). The team also reformed refugee intake and resettlement procedures (including stringent vetting procedures for resettlement candidates), created an Orderly Departure Program so people could leave Vietnam safely rather than risk lives in unseaworthy boats, initiated the largest English Language (ESL) training program in history, established global medical screening programs, launched antipiracy initiatives, and made many other programmatic improvements in Washington and the field (Coolfont Conference, 1979).

Partners around the world worked to assure the largest and most secure refugee resettlement program in history. U.S. communities in every state took part in this record-breaking effort. When results became clear, Geneva Conference partners named the model that flowed from the efforts “Global Humanitarian Cooperation” (U.S. Department of State, 1979).

1.4. Protection

In refugee orthodoxy, Durable Solutions are grounded in protection. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights pledged to assure the inherent dignity of all people, and refugee regimes honored that mandate (Gerson, 2018). Within this stage, responding teams gave sustained attention to the people most vulnerable to dangers in Southeast Asia: piracy survivors (especially women and children) and other refugees in distress on the high seas; holocaust survivors still in Kampuchea (Cambodia), on the Thai-Kampuchean Border, or in Thailand; vulnerable Laotian (Hmong) and Vietnamese escaping by land routes; mistreated Asian American (Amerasian) children and parents in Vietnam, and former South Vietnamese political prisoners forced into reeducation camps because of close ties to the United States.

1.5. Reform

America’s leading role in international refugee matters had become disproportionate to other nations by the mid-1980s. Making matters worse, the refugee bona fides of some Indochinese were coming into question. Congressional budget reductions imposed under the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act (1983) in 1984–85 had severe consequences on refugee program funding. As global populations grew exponentially, they multiplied pressures on budgets and programs previously skewed toward costly resettlement programs.

The refugee program had to adjust priorities to free resources for relief and assistance to surging global refugee populations. The times required donor governments and multilateral organizations to share burgeoning resettlement and financial burdens in more concrete and transparent ways. But a major U.S. concern was that the weak and overly bureaucratic multilateral system allowed less-committed governments to sidestep their responsibilities and shift their share to the ‘traditional donors,’ of which the United States was the most prominent.

Reform initiatives looked toward (a) achieving more equitable burden-sharing among governments, (b) assuring that the changing profiles of many asylum seekers did not lead to abuse of refugee designations, and (c) forging multilateral reforms and solutions.

The State Department formed two groups to pursue these reforms: the Informal Consultative Group (ICG) to coordinate policy, financial, and operational parameters to guide our respective partners (Canada, Australia, Japan, and the deputy UN High Commissioner for Refugees), and the Ray Indochinese Refugee Panel (named for Iowa Governor Robert Ray) to obtain ground-level information about refugee motivations and begin thinking about an endgame strategy (U.S. Department of State, 1985).

1.6. Recovery and Solutions

As mentioned above, the guiding principles of the early Southeast Asia strategy were to provide safe first asylum and help to provide vulnerable groups in exchange for generous third-country resettlement. They had worked as envisioned from the time of the Geneva Conference in 1979 up to about 1983. Then the strategy began to unravel as resettlement countries were increasingly afflicted with compassion fatigue, and ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) governments, sensing declining interest, retreated and started pulling in the welcome mat. To make matters worse, many persons still fleeing Indochina countries had characteristics more befitting immigrants, yet were drawn to refugee resettlement because of its attractiveness and availability. The donor and the resettlement governments had little incentive to keep up past generosity.

A new strategic approach was needed to continue aid to victims in ways that also aimed at bringing the long-running humanitarian programs to a humane and respectable conclusion. Endgame strategies had to take account of the existing environment and the needs and capacities of helping governments. Those governments wanted to resist the temptation to pull up stakes and leave, but leaving was what they faced unless a more rational Southeast Asia humanitarian strategy was devised and put in place quickly. Shoring up public support for governments’ refugee undertakings through expanded and committed burden-sharing was crucial (Loescher, 1993, p. 87). Rather than running away from these new realities, governments came together in unprecedented cooperation to forge a refugee paradigm for the future. To avoid mistakes, information networks were reinvigorated to ensure credible data for problem analyses and options.

The most significant outcome of these efforts (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR], 2000, p. 84) was the UN Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese Refugees (CPA) negotiated by the ICG and the Ray Panel (1984–88), progressively bringing in more governments until consensus was achieved. These results were advanced to a UN meeting in 1989 and received global endorsement, with provisions previously thought unthinkable, including returns to Vietnam and sharing out un-resettled populations. Legendary UN official, the late Sergio Vieira DeMello, guided those negotiations with great diplomatic skill.

Former Secretary of State George P. Shultz (he died recently at 100) made a landmark speech at the State Department in April 1985 (Shultz, 1985). He summed up the Indochina experience at that halfway point in the following way: “The work of the people in this Department has saved countless lives. Your dedication to the refugees of Indochina marks one of the shining moments of the Foreign Service.” If he could have seen it through to the end, I believe he would also have said they helped stabilize a remarkable region of the world and put it on the road to recovery and prosperity.

2. Results

The Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) brought the Indochina crisis to a historic humanitarian conclusion (UNHCR, 2000):

—Reduced clandestine boat departures through official measures, including information and shared data campaigns aimed at organizers of boat departures and law enforcement measures to combat piracy;

—Promoted legal migration through the Orderly Departure Program (ODP);

—Provided all asylum seekers with temporary asylum until their status was proved and a durable solution found;

—Determined asylum seekers’ refugee status under international standards and criteria;

—Resettled in third countries those recognized as refugees and all Vietnamese in camps prior to the regional cutoff dates;

—Returned those found not to be refugees and used relevant durable-solution options to reintegrate them in their home or neighboring countries, including to Vietnam.

Cambodia and Laos humanitarian crises were concluded similarly through international cooperation.

Over the full life of the Southeast Asia program, 1975–97, UNHCR reported that almost 2 million refugees were resettled in third countries, two-thirds in the United States. More than 750,000 more were repatriated or relocated by UNHCR through other durable solutions (Purcell, 2019, p. 468). Factoring in the unknown number of unsuccessful escape attempts, at least 3 million (and perhaps more) people were caught up in Southeast Asia’s extensive refugee crisis (Robinson, 1998, pp. 270, 276, Appendix 2).

American efforts beginning in 1979 were guided by leaders unafraid to put Indochina victims centrally in their thinking and action. The resulting solution framework guided the United States’ and the international community’s efforts around the world in the ensuing years to historic durable solutions, with situational revisions. Global Humanitarian Cooperation was validated as the default humanitarian system and became the preferred mode of humanitarian cooperation among governments and other international partners. Regarding Indochina, UNHCR concluded,

The legacy of the Indochinese program is that the international community and UNHCR stayed engaged over a long and challenging period to find a combination of solutions that eventually brought the crisis to a relatively humane end. (UNHCR, 2000, p. 319)

Information and data networks were the links that made it possible to recognize trends, options, and interactions promptly as we moved forward from root causes to recovery. Information networks informed governments and partners constantly whether monthly first-asylum populations continued to decline in all countries, whether asylum countries detected and corrected protection threats in camps, whether pirates were detained and charged in courts, whether monthly resettlement offtake met targets, whether resettled refugees assimilated as planned, and hosts of other problem-solving data needs.

With the Global Humanitarian Cooperation model in hand, I will comment on two significant divergencies since 2011 that I believe have made global cooperation more difficult, if not impossible. They are the Syrian and the U.S. Southwest Border crises.

2.1. Syria

To understand fully the roots of the crisis in Syria, go back to March 2011, when a group of students in Deraa, Syria, painted on their school’s wall the Arab Spring slogan: “The people want to topple the regime” (Hudson Institute, 2016). Syrian president Bashar Assad’s security forces arrested and tortured protestors. People across the country took to the streets to support the students, and Assad’s forces responded with deadly force, shooting into unarmed groups of demonstrators. Many were killed and thousands arrested and tortured. A new movement took root.

In The Washington Post, Fred Hiatt reported that the Arab Spring event, one of many, had devastating consequences to the Middle East. Civil War and bloodshed soon engulfed Libya. In Iraq, American troops were withdrawn, and the Shiite prime minister turned the U.S.-trained armed forces into a radical sectarian militia. Soon, a deadly Islamic State organization named ISIS appeared in both Iraq and Syria. Unimaginable consequences followed, including a wider war spilling across borders, and as described, “radical jihadists established the faux-state that al-Qaeda could never achieve” (Hiatt, 2015). The region was destabilized, and millions were uprooted and on the move.

From a prewar Syrian population of 22.4 million, the next few years saw half the country’s citizens either displaced within Syria (5.6 million), self-evacuated to neighboring asylum countries (5 million), or killed in the conflict (250,000–300,000). Those in neighboring asylum countries included 3 million in Turkey, 1.1 million in Lebanon (where they accounted for 25% of the population), and the rest in Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq (United Nations, 2015). The massive disruption happened as prominent, able nations failed to comprehend the disaster’s reality and help survivors.

In a post-9/11 mindset, there were no serious efforts at root-cause investigations, as governments were fearful of what might be asked of them if that information became available. Many analysts and reporters concluded that Europe—and the international community—failed at a critical point, September 2015, when they agreed to admit almost a million asylum seekers directly to Germany and other states (Sly, 2015). Those governments failed to explore the possibility of refugee admissions under the proven Global Humanitarian Cooperation model. This decision allowed unvetted asylum seekers to self-select their asylum locations and durable solutions regardless of their resettlement bona fides or whether preparations for their arrival had been arranged (Hansen, 2017, pp. 1,4,7,17). Many assimilation problems followed, and this breakdown allowed the broader humanitarian community, including the United States, to continue ignoring this problem.

At a comparable point in the Southeast Asia crisis, multilateral teams were negotiating a successful endgame strategy. However, rather than responding to the Syrian crisis to bring the humanitarian community together, as done in the Southeast Asia crisis, divisions split them further; devastatingly, Global Humanitarian Cooperation was abandoned as a working model. In its place came a new model that I referred to as “Nationalism cum Isolationism.” In America, it was called “America First.”

Abandonment brought significant costs to the millions of victims, to the affected states, and to the global humanitarian system. The six crisis stages in our model were muted. I offer an explanation for them: by 2015, the use of traditional durable-solution approaches—repatriation, regional settlement, and third-country resettlement—had been diminished to the point of irrelevance, and there were few outspoken advocates to make the case for them. Data show that as Global Humanitarian Cooperation progressively diminished, and the endangered populations rose to epic levels, use of conventional durable solutions plummeted (Purcell, 2019, p. 411).

It is hard to understand that a decade into the Syria crisis, more than 3 million internally displaced persons in the northwest province of Idlib struggled to survive, awaiting word whether global leaders would continue to allow Russia and Turkey to block UN cross-border feeding. Mercifully, a last-minute reprieve at the UN Security Council on July 9, 2021, kept the Bab al-Hawa cross-border transfer point open for six more months (with a possible conditional renewal for six more months) but ignored action on two other cross-border transfer points. David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee, called this the bare minimum to avoid failure (DeYoung & Fahim, 2021). These same half-hearted patterns carried over to the U.S. Southwest border crisis.

2.2. U.S. Southwest Border

With plans to stem the increasing flow of irregular migrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle States (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras) to the United States, Secretary of State Antony Blinken attended a May 2021 meeting of the Central American Integration System in Costa Rica. Those states are the intended recipients of the Biden administration’s four-year commitment of $4 billion to help address root causes of migration to the United States.

Can top-down investigations of root causes assure information as reliable as on-the-ground inquiries?

This is just the latest chapter in a hemispheric problem that has challenged the United States and the international community without notable success since the earliest days of the U.S. refugee programs. Let me remind you of a bit of that history.

In 1979, death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala and human rights violations in Nicaragua produced large numbers of refugees and internally displaced people (IDP). Right-wing elected governments and military dictators in El Salvador and Guatemala were trying to contain left-wing insurgencies. In Nicaragua, Contra rebels were at war with Daniel Ortega’s Sandinistas (Purcell, 2019, p. 336).

Elements in the American and European religious establishments, opposed to right-wing tendencies witnessed in Central America, came close to encouraging revolution (Liberation Theology). The U.S.-Soviet influence magnified the conflicts. The Cold War was hot. Central American civil wars uprooted 2 million people. Most of them were internally displaced people or became undocumented persons in other Central or North American countries. Around 150,000 persons were recognized as legal refugees, and they resided in first-asylum camps in Honduras, Costa Rica, and Mexico (U.S. Department of State, 1987). These were dangerous times in the Western Hemisphere as governments acted to address mass movements of people.

During the 1980s, a small fraction of the one-half million people annually (average) who fled to the United States from Central America were awarded refugee status. Lacking the viable possibility to achieve political asylum, most of the others went into an irregular status and faced the omnipresent fear of deportation. Some went to Canada. The uniformly low rates of approvals for asylum in the United States were higher for Nicaraguans than for Salvadorans or Guatemalans. The U.S. administration then took a hard line, favoring the quick return of rejected asylum seekers, although a limited number could stay longer (until conditions improved in their countries) through a process known as Extended Voluntary Departure, or EVD. Eventually, they too had to return (UNHCR, 2000).

Large numbers of economic migrants were also moving northward, and it was often difficult to distinguish them from asylum seekers. The ongoing problem with Central American entrants added fuel to this flammable mix. Sanctuary cities sprang up across America. Right-wing reactionaries tried to indoctrinate fear through warnings of a ‘brown horde’ invading the United States; they argued for more restrictive measures.

The U.S. refugee policy for Central America, the Caribbean, and Mexico during the so-called Refugee Decade (1979–88) followed internationally accepted durable-solution priorities (UNHCR, 2000). It considered most refugee cases to be solvable through repatriation and regional settlement. Therefore, refugee programs and funding emphasized the maintenance of safe regional asylum to allow time for permanent durable solutions to develop. Cuba was considered as a special case.

When legal immigration channels were blocked or unavailable, survivors of economic and security breakdowns felt their only choice was to come to the United States directly and seek mercy from the political asylum system (a failed alternative in my view) that continues to current times. The absence of consistent and effective American immigration policy put such added pressure on refugee systems that the humanitarian community became one of the loudest voices for immigration reform.

Congress passed the Immigration and Control Act of 1986. The act beefed up immigration enforcement and offered legal status to about 3 million undocumented people. A cornerstone was a provision called “employer sanctions” that required employers to supply work authorizations for migrant workers. The act proved to be of little value in decreasing the flow of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers to the United States (Everson, 2013). Columnist Charles Krauthammer (2013) said the law was a “fiasco where amnesty was granted, and border enforcement never came.”

To be fair, there were notable efforts at political reform. The Central American peace process that began in Esquipulas, Guatemala, in 1987 fortified regional leaders’ resolve to end conflicts. The 1989 negotiations to end the Nicaraguan conflict resulted in the Sandinistas being voted out the next year. Formal peace agreements were negotiated in El Salvador and Guatemala in 1992 and 1996, respectively (UNHCR, 2000). As International Organization for Migration Director General, I was honored to attend the 1996 ceremony in Guatemala City celebrating the treaty-signing that ended their long-running civil war (the Western hemisphere’s oldest). Although not all the Central America peace arrangements held, they showed willing spirits to compromise.

Since then I have seen many reforms, legislative acts, treaties, executive orders, and personal attempts at persuasion, all of which essentially came to the same outcome: discouragement leading to abandonment. Basically, we cannot decide on the root causes: are they results of push or pull factors? Should we continue to keep most people out of the country or allow them in?

In May 2021, President Biden directed Vice President Kamala Harris to meet with regional political leaders to address root causes of migration from Northern Triangle countries. The New York Times reporter Zolan Kanno-Youngs (2021) wrote that Vice President Kamala Harris had moved away from border immigration issues. By October, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported the detention of more than 1.7 million migrants along the Southwest border during the fiscal year 2021 ending in September, the highest levels ever recorded (Miroff, 2021).

My preference, as highlighted earlier, was to go directly to the people affected and learn from them the reasons for their flight. In many cases, it was inconceivable that one would discuss root causes with the perpetrators of the violence we were trying to combat.

Those all-important root cause answers are prerequisites to solutions. I offer the career experiences of my colleague Bob Gersony as revealed in Robert Kaplan’s new book, The Good American, as proof of this ground-level approach (Kaplan, 2021).

But if we were to chart recent humanitarian trends, we would almost certainly regard the last decade’s practices— lurching from extreme leniency to extreme restrictiveness, and back—as an unqualified failure. Decimated U.S. humanitarian admissions programs only recently have begun to show comeback signs. For 20 years, political asylum has been the default entry route for unauthorized immigrants, while governments have been unwilling to set up safer durable-solution alternatives. Orderly Departure Programs, such as those that contributed mightily to Indochina solutions for both refugees and immigrants, have not been pursued aggressively. After President Biden set an early tone for greater leniency, Vice President Harris told prospective immigrants, “Don’t come.” Confusion reigned, as it has for most of the past 40 years, making Southwest border progress assessments impossible for the six response stages highlighted earlier.

Nevertheless, I believe that most Americans could support greater generosity if it came from consistent immigration policies featuring greater burden-sharing and equity, protection of all interests, and strict law enforcement directed toward obvious criminals, violators, and queue-jumpers—and if they really believed that orderly migration was America’s preferred option. A recent Washington Post editorial agreed, saying:

Americans broadly sympathize with the admission of refugees and asylum seekers, but a precondition of that support is a modicum of order in admissions. Surges such as the one last month in Del Rio inevitably generate a backlash in popular support, not to mention political repercussions. That won’t help the administration’s pro-immigration agenda. (“Tread Cautiously,” 2021)

My most favored corrective option would be a return to the proven Global Humanitarian Cooperation model—featuring guaranteed safe regional asylum and expanded entries, as needed, to many countries—through UN refugee admissions procedures rather than political asylum. This option’s high favorability in my view is based on firsthand, cumulative knowledge that systems that do otherwise—bringing victims directly to the national borders of solution countries (e.g., Germany, United States)—bring with it the seeds of its demise. Corrections require 1) bringing solution governments together to deal with the precedents to failure as in Syria and forging a solutions-compact with all involved governments; 2) constructing durable solutions they would collectively support and work to implement (sharing-out, as mentioned earlier); and, above all, 3) solution governments proving they were fully and actively back in the game.

The realization and attainment of solution-compact benefits for contemporary crises would require a sea change in attitudes—current restrictive attitudes would diminish in favor of greater openness to constructive immigration possibilities. Good faith, equitable and adequate support by governments, and the multilateral system could assure civilization’s best opportunity, I believe, to achieve durable solutions for crisis victims and regain its own declining stature. President Biden’s recent decision to increase refugee admissions to 125,000 next year is certainly a step in the right direction, but other elements would be needed for a comprehensive and workable strategy. Orderly migration must become more than a slogan.

Also encouraging is the progress the international community has made—especially the governments of the South America region—in the socioeconomic integration of vast numbers of Venezuelan migrants and refugees in neighboring countries, despite negative COVID-19 impacts.

3. The Next Symposium

Using common baseline crisis stages drawn from experience, especially the major postwar crises in Southeast Asia, experts will guide participants in their discussion of the ongoing crises from varied world regions and situations as they have advanced between identified stages. Particularly successful past responses will be highlighted for wider applicability in current or future crises. The timeliness and availability of root-cause information/data as crises have advanced through common stages and the role information/data have played in the establishment of crisis priorities and strategies will be discussed. Questions will include: Were the data refined as crises changed or matured, and how did the data contribute to crisis resolution? Was ground-level information sought and was it important to solutions?

I am hopeful that this symposium will confirm the reemergence of the Global Humanitarian Cooperation (GHC) model of multilateral action that the teams from the refugee decade (1979–88) pioneered and that governed international cooperative action until the Arab Spring era of 2011. I concluded then that a new default model, which I later called Nationalism cum Isolationism, had replaced the GHC model. However, recent signs from Europe and the Biden administration suggest that a return may be occurring. That is good news, if true, but it is still early days.

Two reference books will help illuminate suggested strategies: We’re in Danger! Who Will Help Us? Refugees and Migrants: A Test of Civilization by James N. Purcell (2019), Foreword by George P. Shultz, and The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government’s Greatest Humanitarian by Robert D. Kaplan (2021).

The latter book is especially relevant because it reveals the growing recognition of and focus on the use of ground-level data to find root causes involving refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants as change agents. This book reports on the amazing life of Bob Gersony, whom I had the privilege to know and work with early in his career. Over four decades, Bob estimates he interviewed about 8,200 people around the world in 54 crisis assignments. He says he interviews terribly busy people who are crucial to understanding root causes and finding crisis solutions, such as those collecting firewood to survive, people selling corn and beans for basic sustenance, or people like nurses working in the middle of cholera epidemics. He says that what you learn should be integral to policy formulation. That was certainly the case throughout his career (Kaplan, 2021).

I am excited that this second symposium has ground-breaking potential to produce new ways of thinking that can further undergird our work. My hope is that participants will capture the growing excitement sparking from this initiative.

All interested stakeholders are invited.

Disclosure Statement

James N. Purcell has no financial or non-financial disclosures to share for this article.


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©2022 James N. Purcell. This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) International license, except where otherwise indicated with respect to particular material included in the article.

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