Why you should care

Because for some, $1,200 is “break it or make it” kind of money.

The man from Eritrea (or Syria, or Afghanistan) walks gingerly into the arrivals terminal at Dulles (or Hartsfield, or LAX), clutching a plastic bag that contains the papers he needs to start his new life. He looks lost and uncertain. But wherever this refugee came from and wherever he’s landed, he already has something in common with his new countrymen: debt.

Little-known fact: When the United States gives asylum to the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the refugees foot the bill for their ride over. The American government fronts the money to the International Organization for Migration, a sister agency to the United Nations, which buys the tickets; refugees are expected to begin repaying the debt six months after they arrive. The average cost is $1,200 per person, a pretty penny for people who’ve fled war and persecution and are trying to start a new life with no savings, next to no English skills and no job. We have a solution: Take money for the airfare from someone else — specifically from the civil servants at IOM and the U.N. Aren’t they out to make the world a better, more prosperous place anyway?

As it happens, international civil servants have a pretty sweet life: Many in the U.N. and its affiliates have diplomatic passports; six-figure, tax-exempt salaries; and de facto tenure, because it is so very hard to get fired. You might see them in the business-class compartment of long-haul flights, or holing up in the last remaining five-star hotel in some humanitarian hellhole. The dissonance is jarring — even if the salaries and perks are “lower than in the private sector,” according to one IOM source.

There are other solutions, of course: The U.N. could redirect funds for refugee airfare in some other manner — say, by chopping 10 percent from its agencies’ per diems. Or the U.S. could take a cue from Canada, says IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle, and allow groups of citizens to sponsor new refugee arrivals. For the 69,933 refugees who came to the U.S. last year, anything would be better than the status quo.

One might ask why refugees should receive special treatment. After all, most who come to this nation of immigrants paid their own way. But refugees are a special case. They bring little with them except, in many cases, psychological trauma from war or persecution. Many have lost homes, even homelands. Unlike other immigrants, refugees are expressly forbidden from working in their host country. Their modest camp expenses are paid for, but most refugees couldn’t start saving up for a new life in America even if they wanted to.

So why does the “pay your own way” system for refugees exist? The theory behind it stems from an up-by-the-boostraps, all-American mentality: Self-help is ennobling. “This isn’t charity,” says Chris Boian, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which operates camps all over the world. “This is helping people help themselves and recover their own basic dignity.”

Look, we’re all for basic dignity — we just suspect that dignity doesn’t start in the red. It comes with work and being able to send money back home and to support a family. It’s time to give refugees economic freedom as well as political freedom, and release the debtor’s ball and chain that hinders progress toward their American dreams. And ours too.

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