Millions of people around the world are forcibly displaced each year due to rising conflict, environmental threats, and socioeconomic turmoil. Many of these refugees, including people from Syria, Afghanistan, and Ukraine, remain displaced, prompting action from U.S. and international governments.
To recognize #WorldRefugeeDay, Dean Amaney Jamal speaks with Eric Schwartz MPA ’85, president of Refugees International, in this episode of the Dean’s Dialogue podcast. They explore the challenges current refugees are facing and how public policy can help. Schwartz also reflected on how his Princeton training shaped his 30-year career in human rights.
Schwartz previously served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration at the State Department. He was the senior human rights and humanitarian official at the National Security Council, managing humanitarian responses to crises in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Prior to this, he served in several roles within the U.S. government.
Just before his appointment to Refugees International, he was dean of the public affairs school at the University of Minnesota. In addition to his MPA from Princeton, he holds a law degree from New York University, and a bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York at Binghamton.
Jamal: You were in Poland in March 2022 when a flood of Ukrainian refugees were crossing the border. Tell us more about this moment and where things stand now.
Schwartz: I felt it was important that we get to Poland. Refugees International is a reporting and advocacy organization focused on the rights and well-being of forcibly displaced people around the world, as well as those who are affected by humanitarian disasters. I felt it was important we get there — and that we get there with the full faith and credit of the organization. I went with a few colleagues to the Polish border to see what was happening, come back, and report as quickly as we possible could. We traveled about 400 miles around the country visiting border crossings. One of these crossings was near an extermination camp where millions of Jewish people were killed during the Holocaust. What a poignant moment for us to see evidence of the absolute destruction of humanity and at a moment in which so many Ukrainians were being victimized by the Russian attack and aggression.
We saw people fleeing in large numbers. It was difficult to speak with people or take testimonies because they’re right in the middle of it, but we were able to talk to many people who spoke about the attacks on schools and killings of civilians. The stories were compelling. My own personal dismay was tempered by the responses we were witnessing on the Polish side of the border as well as in Europe where governments were prepared to offer temporary protection to fleeing Ukrainians for a year, but really up to three years with the opportunity to work. That’s very important because there are over 7 million Ukrainian refugees right now in addition to the 8 million internally displaced within the country.
So, we came back, and we reported on that and have been involved in the discussion and debate about the U.S. response and international response. And we continue the efforts to report and should be issuing another report on the situation probably within the next month or two.
Jamal: You mentioned the horrors of the Holocaust and witnessing our own brutal history. How does the commitment to ensure this doesn’t happen again — anytime, anywhere — motivate you personally in terms of the work you’re doing at Refugees International?
Schwartz: It’s the reason you do the work. When I was dean at the Humphrey School, I used to say the people at a school of public affairs are interested in doing many things, both domestically and internationally. What unites us as an institution is that we want to spend much of our professional lives trying to make the world a better place. We’re each trying to do that in our own way — addressing the needs globally of those who have the fewest rights or are subjects of injustice abuse. That’s been most compelling to me. It’s coupled with the realization that this work should be less about supporting these people and even more about understanding and appreciating that everyone is a rights holder. Our responsibility is to put individuals and groups in the strongest positions to assert their own rights and promote social justice and human rights on their own terms.
Jamal: Many of the same people who have become displaced have now had their rights stripped away. How does Refugees International come into this space? Are there other structural institutional fixes being deployed to ensure these refugees don’t lose out on everything?
Schwartz: This is an important question, but it’s so broad. I’ll talk about our own experience at Refugees International. For us, this means translating a rhetorical commitment to enhancing local capacity into something that is real and meaningful. For example, one of our senior advocates worked very closely with LGBTQ activists in Central America on LGBTQ refugee rights, coming together with those organizations and putting together a report on the region. This was done very much in collaboration, thereby helping to enhance their capacity to work together and bring those concerns to policymakers in Washington. This is the kind of effort where we’re saying: it’s important to do this. And then it becomes about operationalizing that. How do we turn rhetoric about promoting local capacity and translate it into reality? It also means advocating with respect to the U.S. government and other governments, which have said for many years that there’s a need to be involved in humanitarian assistance delivery, but the commitment made hasn’t been totally realized. Part of the reason it hasn’t been realized is because those organizations have reporting requirements, and so forth, and haven’t developed the proper kinds of accountability capacities. If you don’t work assiduously about doing it, it doesn’t get done. The rhetoric simply becomes rhetoric or simply exists as rhetoric. So, it’s those sorts of measures. We say, ‘This is what we’re trying to achieve. Let’s sit down and figure out how we’re going to do it as a program and operational matter.’
Jamal: Let’s stay on this theme. Can you speak about the red tape, or how bureaucracy gets in the way?
Schwartz: I think that’s why you go to a public policy school! I mean, that’s the challenge in life, isn’t it? I had the benefit of both a legal and graduate school education. On the graduate school side, that’s where the passion is, whereas law is a bit of a normative discipline. It’s about the way things should be, and in the policy world, it’s more of an analytical experience. I found that environment to be a mindset of ‘Let’s figure out how it can be done.’ That can be frustrating for someone who goes into public policy school as an advocate. The challenge is translating your desires to enhance the human condition. It’s critical the school experience doesn’t diminish this passion but helps translate it into effective policy. For me, that’s been a lifelong challenge.
An example: We’re working on a report on migration between Colombia and Panama. The conditions there are terrible. It would be easy to make the argument that improvements must be made to improve conditions. Yet, there are tens of thousands of forced migrants using that route going north in situations in which I don’t think any of us would argue they shouldn’t be going north. If we were in their situations, given the violence, uncertainty, we would also want to get out. They need solutions, but what is the policy answer? What’s the framework you use to address protection concerns, broadly described as ‘migration management’? You have to take that passion for protection and translate it into policies that are going to be workable, meaningful, and acceptable within national policy. That’s the challenge an organization like ours confronts. It’s also a lifelong challenge for someone who brings passion to the policy environment.
Jamal: How do you deal with being stuck in a space of what is right morally or ethically? You are working to ensure the humanitarian and overall well-being of migrants, but putting them on that path north might also mean you’re facilitating illegal migration. What is legally permissible?
Schwartz: Under international refugee law, if someone is fleeing prosecution and shows up at the border, they have the right to request protection. So, in the broadest sense, they are not acting unlawfully. Fundamentally, people who are fleeing persecution have a right to request protection. Let’s remember that these challenges are not insurmountable. Look at what the government of Germany did with respect to the Syrian exodus and the hundreds of thousands of Syrians that the government of Germany accepted in 2015 in a successful way. Look at our response to the Ukrainian and Afghan exodus. Advocates in our community have noted that Hondurans, El Salvadorians, and Haitians have not received the same kind of response as Ukrainians and Afghans. That’s a challenge, but it’s not an insurmountable challenge. Look at the government of Colombia and what it’s done with respect to the Venezuelan exodus. There are some 2 million Venezuelans in Colombia. The government of Colombia has taken significant and substantial measures to regularize the status of Venezuelans. So, these challenges are not insurmountable, and they better not be in a world where you have a hundred million people who are forcibly displaced — some 50 to 60 million displaced within their countries of origin, and some 26 or 27 million refugees who are outside of their countries of origin. That number is such a fraction of the world refugees that if there ever was a manageable set of humanitarian challenges, this is one of them.
Jamal: You spoke about the varying responses to different refugee communities based on ethnicity, culture, background, or even residents’ geography. What influences the way these perceptions are propagated?
Schwartz: The principle that guides my organization and my own thinking about my professional career is the principle of humanity. And the principle of humanity dictates that the suffering of anyone, anywhere should command the attention of humankind. This could be a child in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where there are nearly 6 million displaced people, or Ethiopia, where there are more than 4 million displaced people. Or the 5 million displaced people in Afghanistan, or Ukraine, where there are 8 million internally displaced. It’s no different than the suffering that either of my daughters, for example, might have experienced in some way that should be a concern to the world, and quite frankly, to me.
What this all means is that you work hard to avoid the distinctions we exist in within political life, and as an advocate, you figure out ways to point out this reality and those contrasts, so people begin to appreciate that we need to respond to all humanitarian situations in responsible ways. One of the ways to do that is public education and increasing levels of contact and communication between populations and host communities. There are many efforts underway to enhance connections between host communities and the refugees both on the global level and domestically.
Jamal: We’ve now formed the Afghanistan Policy Lab at SPIA. One of the ideas behind the lab is to have our experts in residence come up with policy recommendations on how to rebuild Afghanistan with the goal of focusing on how the policy community provides humanitarian assistance and ensures that women’s rights don’t further regress in that country while working (or not working) with the Taliban regime. I’m sure you’re confronting a similar issue as you’re looking at displaced populations within Afghanistan. How are you navigating that space? And do you have any advice for us at our own lab?
Schwartz: I don't think you have any alternative but to engage the authorities in some way, shape, manner, or form as we are doing as well. We’re continuing to report and advocate around Afghanistan. This is a much longer discussion, but I think the tools you use inevitably have to be a combination of public reporting and frankly, public shaming –– where that’s appropriate –– and pressure, as well as engagement and talking directly to the Taliban authorities. The Taliban, like any government in the world, is susceptible to pressure and public criticism. We’re doing ongoing work with Afghanistan as well. I invite folks at Princeton to be in touch with us on this.
Jamal: Can you tell us how the School helped pave the road to your career?
Schwartz: The School is a great place for anyone who comes to public life with strong ideas about how the world should be a better place. It’s very much for people who see themselves as an advocate more than an analyst. The School shouldn’t squash that passion, but it can play an important role in how to translate it into policy. If you want to change the world, there are a lot of ways to do it. One way is through policy, how governments and societies decide to order their existence. If that’s the route you’re going to take, having that analytical grounding is extremely important. The classes are relatively small, and the students are extraordinary. My most important personal relationships in life –– my closest friends –– are mostly, if not all, from the School. The environment is residential, and the people have very similar objectives. It just created an environment for collaboration, mutual respect, and care among students.
Jamal: What was your favorite course?
Schwartz: I took a great national security course with Barry Posen. I remember confronting him and asking how someone with a liberal worldview could accommodate also being a realist in terms of international politics. There are many experiences in my memory that were so valuable and important; that’s one of them.
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The Dean’s Dialogue is a monthly podcast hosted by Amaney Jamal, dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. The show is produced and edited by B. Rose Huber and receives support from Sarah Binder, Egan Jimenez, Daniel Kearns, and Brittany N. Murray.