How we think about refugees is a fiction

From refugee camp to Princeton University, a story of incredible grit and luck. Episode 26 with Ty McCormick.

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

Asad Husein was born in Dadaab, once the world’s largest refugee camp, in eastern Kenya. Today he’s a student at Princeton University. His story is a miracle of grit and luck. It didn’t have to be that hard.

Asad’s family fled civil war in Somalia in 1991-92. I was 7 then and the government made every child in France bring a kilo of rice to school for Somali refugees. I remember pouring mine into the large sack and, ever the skeptical kid, wondering how they were going to manage all the different cooking times. I’m 37 today. The rice wasn’t much help and those refugees are still there.

Dadaab and its sister camp Kakuma in northwestern Kenya, which hosts mainly South Sudanese refugees, are a home of sorts to some 400,000 people. They were supposed to be a temporary refuge; “that fiction has collapsed,” says American journalist Ty McCormick, my guest this week. There are now third-generation refugees born in the camps to parents who’ve known no other place on Earth. The Kenyan government gave the UN an ultimatum that ends today to close both camps. But there is no plan, no country to open its doors, and the risk is hundreds of thousands being pushed back into still unstable Somalia and South Sudan.

That’s because of two other fictions: first, that legitimate refugees will find their way to new homes through resettlement. That golden legal route – the only one the UK government finds acceptable under its new plan to upend the asylum system – is in fact a massive traffic jam, rife with bureaucracy and opportunities for corruption.

The final fiction is that of the good immigrant. Young-man-done-good stories like Asad’s can hide that for every one we gain, we’ve lost many more along the way. Just as talented people lost to suicide, to dangerous journeys across seas and deserts, to extremism or to a simple void of opportunity. And why should talent be the measure of a life’s worth anyway?

Ty McCormick does not fall into that trap. Asad, his sister Marian and their family’s story, told in “Beyond the Sand and Sea”, is as inspiring as it is infuriating. It illustrates the maze of refugee resettlement, the resilience and power of humans and the absurdity of requiring it. I talked to him about it all this week.

Listen to the episode or read the transcript for the full story, or read a very condensed version of my conversation with Ty McCormick below.

Listen to the episode

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The interview

Isabelle Roughol: Can you detail some of the obstacles that keep refugees like Asad where they are?

Ty McCormick: On the most basic level, there's the question of identity. Asad was born effectively stateless in the camp. Somalia, his parents' home country, does not recognize him as a citizen and Kenya doesn't recognize him as a citizen. He's born into this kind of limbo where his whole official status and identity are tied to a single piece of paper – his family's ration card. That's the very first impediment to any sort of access to the world beyond. Because if you don't have an ID card, you can't do much of anything. You can't purchase a car. You can't purchase land. You can't get a job. You can't do virtually anything. Life is so attenuated, so limited in so many ways by the regulations that the Kenyan government puts in place. The camp is essentially an open prison. And you have a population the size of New Orleans barred from leaving, barred from working, barred from doing virtually anything.

Then there are all of the invisible barriers that are put in place by Western countries where these refugees are hoping to be resettled. And that's where it really begins to be absurd. You have this impenetrable unknowable bureaucracy that you interface with in the camp. You have no way of knowing where your application goes to. It sits for years and you periodically get a notification saying that you have to report for a medical exam, but no sense of why any of these things are happening.

Meanwhile, families are getting ripped apart. Marian goes to the US, the rest of the family is left behind. Fourteen years pass. She's wondering: "What happened to my family's case?" It's a combination of the incredibly complex nature of the inter-agency process and a system that is designed not to be transparent and designed not to give refugees a window into the decisions that are ultimately responsible for determining the rest of their lives.

There is this Groundhog Day sense to what the refugees are put through. You write: "People lived as if they were saving part of themselves for their real lives." It's essentially a giant waiting room.

There's this assumption that lies underneath all of our refugee policy, which is that these things are temporary. We set up camps and we mobilize emergency humanitarian relief because there will be a discrete crisis. It will subside and people can go home. But when the Cold War ended, the nature of conflict changed. We started to see a lot more people displaced as a result of low-level insecurity and instability that prevented people from returning home for decades.

The Somali and South Sudanese cases are two of the most powerful. The two refugee camps, Dadaab and Kakuma, were set up in 1991 or 1992. And they are virtually unchanged today. This idea that they're temporary safe havens for people, that fiction has collapsed. Refugees are living in a situation where this is their permanent home. But they are barred from building permanent dwellings. They are barred from doing any of the things that we associate with a normal life. What does it mean to be a permanent exile trapped in this system that is denying the permanence of these places?

What would a better refugee system look like?

I think you would have to do two things in tandem. You would have to improve resettlement, make it more transparent, scale up the volume of it. Right now there are about 36 or 37 designated resettlement countries. I think a big part of the solution has to be beginning to get middle income countries involved in this. China has to be part of the solution. It takes in no refugees through the UN resettlement system. As China takes on a bigger leadership role in international relations, that is something the West should push China to do, to show that it is ready for that leadership.

At the same time, in the countries that are hosting refugees, you gradually have to rescind the restrictions on movement and work and treat them as citizens. There's all sorts of economic research that shows that’s actually to the benefit of the host community. The economy of Dadaab is huge by the standards of that region of Kenya. It's all a black-market economy. If you were to bring it out into the open and tax it and treat it like any other economy, it would be a boon both for the local community and for the Kenyan government. We need to move toward that kind of arrangement with the host countries with the understanding that the rich world is going to take on more of that burden.

Would voters have an appetite for that?

Refugee resettlement is actually surprisingly popular. Three cities in Texas are the number one destinations for refugee resettlement. It's Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth. And of course Buffalo, New York. There's a combination of new rising cities in the South and the Southwest and post-industrial cities in the Rust Belt and elsewhere that have figured out that resettling refugees is a great way to revitalize your city, to reverse population trends that are unfavorable, to spur economic activity. Immigrants disproportionately start businesses in this country. Even at the level of city councils, people realize that. The vast majority of Americans do support resettlement. It's a cowardice that resides more in Washington than anywhere else.

What’s the outlook on that with the Biden administration?

The beginning of the Biden administration is in some ways a return to a more normal state of being for the US. But from a policy perspective a lot of those things haven't changed yet. Biden has been extremely slow to reverse many of the things that on the campaign trail, he was very quick to say he was going to change. He signed some executive orders on day one that rescinded some of the meanest aspects of the Trump immigration refugee apparatus, but has kept in place a lot of the emergency measures that are justified at least nominally under the guise of the coronavirus crisis. For instance he hasn't raised the resettlement cap.

There's this real reluctance to change things because Biden's getting beat up about what's happening on the Southern border by the Republicans. If I'm speaking frankly, he thinks Americans are too stupid to tell the difference between asylum at the border and refugee resettlement. And these are two totally separate issues entirely. I think there's a sense that these issues could get conflated in the minds of voters and that he's going to be seen as soft on immigration if he follows through on the promises that he's made. So the vestiges of the Trump era are still with us. That meanness is still with us.

Asad and Marian are incredible people of grit and resilience. Why should it take being that exceptional to make your way out of a situation like this? Ultimately, is it a story of achievement or is it a story of luck?

It's a story of both. It was a real challenge to write a story that is both a tragedy and a triumph. An unfair and twisted reading of it could be that "if all immigrants could just work as hard as Asad, then they would be fine." The reality is that for the vast majority of people in these circumstances, even with the talent that someone like Asad has, you have to have luck break your way over and over and over and over again in order to get where he is.

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Isabelle Roughol Twitter

Journalist, podcaster, media consultant. Telling stories & building better newsrooms. Writes The Lede. Ex- LinkedIn News, Le Figaro, The Cambodia Daily. 🎓 Mizzou '08, Birkbeck '25.