Becca Heller on the global refugee crisis

Conversation with Becca Heller, co-founder and Executive Director of the International Refugee Assistance Project (September 15, 2015)

Taryn Higashi (TH): When and why did you found IRAP?

Becca Heller (BH): I founded it as a law student at Yale in August 2008 with John Finer. There were eventually five students who came together, motivated by different things. One was a reporter at the Washington Post in Fallujah. Another was a veteran from Afghanistan, trying to get people out. I had been doing an internship in Israel between my first and second years of law school. I kept hearing about Iraqi refugees over the border in Jordan, and felt as a US citizen I had an obligation to understand the situation they were in. Somehow despite reading a fair amount of news every day, it had escaped me that there was a major Iraqi refugee crisis. At this point, we’re five years out of the US invasion of Iraq.

I went to Jordan and met with six families over a week. I was really surprised—each one independently identified their biggest issue as a legal [one]. For all of them, the way out was being recognized as refugees by the UN and ideally referred for settlement. But the processes were unbelievably complicated and bureaucratic and no one understood what was happening to them and why. Everyone thought they were on a wait list and if they waited long enough they’d get a call from someone who would say, your number is up and you can get on a plan. I finagled a meeting with the US Embassy and asked them questions about refugee processing, including how long is the “wait list.” Their response was, “what waitlist?” I realized that when you’re down at the bottom of a really deep, dark hole, you have to believe there is some kind of light at the top. I think the refugee community itself invented [the concept of a wait list] to get out of bed in the morning. That really struck me. This motivated me to go back. At the very least, if you have accurate information about what’s happening with your case and how long you can expect to wait, you can make a plan. If you think you’re getting on a plane in a day, you might do things like sell possessions that you need or not get work or not seek healthcare.

TH: Fast forward to today, how are things different?

BH: I don’t think they are that different. At the time, it was mostly Iraqis who were in the Middle East. The biggest difference is the rise of ISIS and the conflict in Syria. The numbers are much, much larger. In 2008 it looked like Iraq might calm down. That was two years before we pulled the troops out and felt things were fairly stable. Syria was also host to the largest number of refugees in the region. It contributed to some stability in the region. Syria took in something like a million Iraqis. Now, you have tons of Syrians fleeing Syria. You have Palestinians and Iraqis who had fled to Syria fleeing Syria. And you have countries that don’t have the absorption capacity that Syria did being forced to take everyone. It’s the volume that’s different.

TH: Why, in this moment, are refugees gaining more exposure in the media than they had in the past?

BH: Because everyone is showing up in Europe. You can’t ignore the problem when it’s literally showing up on your doorstep. Refugee intake is immigration law, but it’s also foreign policy. When you’re a Western country and you agree to take in refugees, it’s a political statement. Everyone was so excited by the Arab Spring. The excitement and the hopes Assad would fall I think prevented countries from taking in large numbers of Syrian refugees because it would have been an admission that Assad wouldn’t fall anytime soon. Resettlement is only used when refugees won’t ever be able to go home. It’s only now that people are taking in really large numbers because I think the problem is starting to wash up on their shores.

The Central American minors issue is not so different. There’s been incredible gang violence in Central America for a long time and they’ve been targeting children. The issue coming to the US border forced the US government to do something about it.

TH: How has your vision changed about what’s possible since founding IRAP?

BH: At the very beginning I just wanted to help people. The goal was to provide assistance. The longer I worked on it, I realized there were serious problems with the way refugees are processed. I went to law school intending to be an immigration lawyer and I realized that refugee law was an area that no one was practicing. I also realized there was a great need for systemic reform. On a personal level I’m obsessed with efficiency. When we started we said: which organizations are already working on this so we can call them and volunteer, since it’s super inefficient to create a new organization. After a year of looking around we realized nobody was. Not just for Iraqis, but there were not [any] organizations saying the resettlement process is a legal process—you should have a lawyer assisting you because your life literally depends on it.

The following summer, I got a call from the head of UNHCR of North America asking if IRAP could help with some cases. I was both excited and flattered, and dismayed that I was who they were calling! (A 27-year old law student who can’t legally practice law yet). It motivated me to go beyond helping a handful of people to try to build a legal aid movement for refugee law, systemic advocacy, and reform.

TH: What do you see as the direct and indirect impacts of the refugee crisis on the US?

BH: There’s relevant context to understand. The US takes more resettled refugees than any other country in the world combined. We fund about one-third of UNHCR’s budget. Refugee protection and resettlement globally is a US issue to some extent, because of the influence we yield over all parts of the process. Simultaneously, the US has taken one of the more active roles on the ground in the Middle East. It’s hard to dispute that the power vacuum in Iraq was not directly correlated to US foreign policy, and that contributed to the rise of ISIS.

We have some responsibility for helping to alleviate the refugee crisis—both as a leader on the humanitarian side to light the way, and to take responsibility for the humanitarian fall out of our foreign policy. If we’re serious about wanting partners in the Middle East we can’t just send in the military. The US has dropped more bombs on Syria than we have admitted Syrian refugees, which is not a good way to build relationships or alliances. Both European and Middle Eastern countries are paying close attention to how the US responds to the crisis.

TH: What are the most strategic ways that funders and individuals can help with the crisis?

BH: Funders can assist first with what’s going on in the field, and second, in advocacy with the US government to play a larger and better role in alleviating the crisis. I’ve been trying to get across the notion that you don’t get on a boat if you have another option. The option that is supposed to exist is for people to flee to countries of asylum first and register with the UN, be screened for vulnerabilities, and be referred for appropriate services. That may include resettlement, medical care, [and] if you are a survivor of trafficking or LGBTI it may include additional protection. In reality, the UN is so overwhelmed that even the first step of the screening is not occurring in the majority of cases. There’s an enormous role for NGOs to play in supplementing the role of the UN in the identification and referral process.

Another recommendation I have for funders is supporting NGOs to screen and refer cases either to UNHCR or to destination countries for resettlement. The UN put out a report yesterday that they have 100,000 Syrian refugee slots to fill, but at current staffing levels they can only refer people to half the slots. Without someone to identify those cases, the slots will go unfilled. There’s a big role for NGOs to play there.

TH: What have you learned?

BH: Don’t give up. IRAP has worked on thousands of cases. We build our advocacy on what we’ve learned in individual cases. When we meet people at a high level, if we say, x is a problem, they’ll ask for examples. It’s really helpful to be able to say here are 45 examples. It also has a nice ripple effect of bringing to their attention the specific cases.

Other lessons are not being partisan and building nontraditional coalitions. We’ve done work on organizing Middle East veterans on refugee issues and trying to play well with others. Realizing that we’re all in this together, no one is acting in bad faith.

TH: Can you say a little more about how the refugee resettlement system fits within the overall immigration process?

BH: If IRAP has a thesis, it’s that refugee law is immigration law. It is governed by the immigration and nationality act; the agencies and individuals responsible are the same. And refugees need lawyers the same way someone needs a lawyer if they are in a deportation proceeding. It’s one of the highest stakes immigration processes you can be in. For refugees, the beneficiary happens to be outside of the US, trying to get in.

TH: What is your wishlist for an audience of funders? Now that you’ve been working for several years, what do you think is possible?

BH: We recently had a staff retreat and we talked about our five-year goals. We all said, “Help more people!” That still remains a primary goal. A medium-term vision for the Middle East and a slightly longer vision for the world: I talked about how funders should be supporting NGOs to supplement their capacity to support UNHCR. My specific vision for IRAP is that we engage in capacity building and training campaigns for grassroots NGOs with deep ties in vulnerable communities. Then we prepare the legal submissions for those cases, because your paper trail goes everywhere. If you register with UNHCR and a mistake goes into your file, you will be rejected for resettlement. There’s a huge role for organizing, bundling, and presenting those referrals. Our field staff can help with IDs for the cases. From a resource perspective, that would involve additional field staff. It would be helpful to have someone who could do advocacy with UNHCR to smooth the way for the referrals model. In the long-term, my hope is that legal aid for refugees becomes a widespread area for pro bono practice. When we recruit lawyers, we say, “you could save a life from your desk.”

TH: Anything else you'd like to share?

BH: I think a lot of people look at the refugee crisis and see it as overwhelming, not our problem. I think the “not our problem piece” is slowly being solved. The main thing I want people to understand is that it’s large and complex, but not hopeless. There are concrete, specific things that the international community can do and that funders can support. 


Becca Heller is the director and co-founder of IRAP and a visiting clinical lecturer in law at Yale Law School. She has received numerous awards in recognition of her work with IRAP. IRAP has recently been selected to partner with UNHCR to build their capacity for refugee resettlement in the Middle East over the coming year.

Note that the International Refugee Assistance Project has been a grantee of Unbound Philanthropy, as part of the Executive Director Discretionary Fund, and that Taryn Higashi has recently joined its Board of Directors