After her husband was captured by a militant group, Hala faced the impossible choice of staying in war-torn Aleppo or seeking asylum in Europe for herself and her four children. Fleeing to Europe would mean leaving behind her mother and brother, her home, her job as an engineer—Hala would have to abandon a life she had built over 40 years. A PBS documentary followed Hala and her children through Europe as they became part of a group of more than 65 million forcibly displaced persons around the world.
Threatened populations are fleeing their homes in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, with more than half of the world’s displaced persons coming from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. Like Hala and her family, many people from these regions have looked to Europe for a new life, prompting the European Commission’s Migration and Home Affairs to adopt a European-wide resettlement plan in 2012 to relieve pressure on EU countries like Italy and Greece that have hosted more refugee populations than other EU countries. However, since 2012, refugee populations have almost doubled; Brussels reconvened in 2015 and passed a revised resettlement plan, asking member countries to accept nearly twice the amount of refugees. Still, refugee flows to Europe have continued to rise. To relieve the burden on high destination countries like Germany, some states have increased their resettlement programs, accepting more refugees than required by EU standards.
On the southwestern tip of continental Europe, Portugal has been far removed from recent refugee flows. Seeking refuge in Portugal from the Horn of Africa and the Middle East inevitably means braving the unforgiving Mediterranean seas, trekking across the barren Saharan deserts, or crossing a multitude of state borders. Consequently, Portugal only received about 900 asylum applicants in 2015, with the plurality seeking asylum from the Ukraine; compare this number with the nearly 500,000 asylum applicants received by Germany in 2015. However, given the increasingly urgent refugee crisis in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, Portugal has signaled its intent to accept a greater role in resettling refugees: Portugal’s Prime Minister António Costa has more than doubled the refugee resettlement quota determined by Brussels.
Within the context of Portugal’s increasing efforts to address the refugee crisis, in mid-June 2016 the U.S. Department of State invited Portuguese experts in the refugee resettlement process to participate in the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). For three weeks, Portuguese visitors traveled the United States to meet with their American counterparts and learn about United States refugee protocols. Meridian International Center administered this IVLP “Refugee Resettlement and Integration,” hosting Portuguese leaders from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the NGO Sector and local government. The Portuguese visitors attended meetings with representatives from establishments such as the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in D.C., the International Rescue Committee in Phoenix, and the Refugee Women’s Network in Atlanta. The program’s itinerary reviewed how these organizations safeguard national security and provide refugees with the physical, psychological, and educational services they need to smoothly acclimate to a new life in America. During meetings, IVLP participants often raised questions concerning unaccompanied child refugees, human trafficking victims, and the efficiency of the lengthy screening processes for refugees hoping to enter the United States.
As a nation with a long history of immigration, the United States has considerable experience in methodically reviewing refugee cases; since 1975, the U.S. has welcomed more than three million refugees. Specialized divisions of federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services collaborate to handle refugee casework. The current U.S. vetting procedure typically stretches from 18 month to 24 months, but it can take as long at seven years before refugee applicants are admitted to the United States. This vigorous process includes referral analysis, communication with the external resettlement center, security investigations and interviews, medical screenings, sponsorship assurances, cultural orientation, and resettlement logistics. The meticulously constructed program is a stark contrast to the Portuguese vetting process, which only spans about three months.
Before departing for the March 2016 EU Summit, Portugal’s Prime Minister Costa told parliament: “We have to be resolute in tackling it [the migration crisis], to maintain the essential value of human dignity.” Recent flares of violence in Iraq may mean more refugees are headed to Europe. With new expertise, 11 Portuguese IVLP alumni will return to the continent with fresh ideas for handling new arrivals.