Georgia governor urges cautious approach to refugee crisis

Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration doesn’t want to see the number of refugees resettling in Georgia increase, despite pleas from humanitarian officials urging the U.S. to take in substantially more Syrians fleeing their war-torn country.

In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday, Deal urged a cautious approach to the desperate refugee crisis unfolding across the Mediterranean Sea and Europe. The governor repeated his assertion - disputed by some advocates - that Georgia takes in more than its fair share of refugees.

Georgia – the eight largest state with a population of 10 million – accepted the ninth largest number of refugees among states last fiscal year at 2,694. In all, nearly 70,000 refugees were resettled in the U.S. that year. Deal’s administration confirmed Tuesday it has asked the State Department to keep the number of refugees resettling in the Peach State “static” going into the next fiscal year.

“We will be welcoming,” Deal told the AJC. “But we want to make sure we’re not taking a disproportionately large share of them compared to other parts of the country.”

Their homelands beset with deprivation and violence, tens of thousands of Afghans, Eritreans, Syrians and others are embarking on perilous journeys across the Mediterranean in hopes of making it to Europe. Hundreds have died along the way.

Much of the crisis is being driven by the civil war in Syria. International attention was galvanized by a photo, which surfaced in the news media, of a three-year-old Syrian child’s body lying lifeless on the beach. The young boy, his older brother and his mother drowned off the coast of Turkey as they were fleeing their native homeland in a rubber raft.

Federal records show Georgia has taken in less than 3 percent of the more than 1,500 Syrian refugees who have arrived on U.S. soil since the bloody conflict there began.

Deal’s wary approach to the escalating crisis was echoed by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, typically one of the region’s most forceful advocates of a welcoming policy to immigrants and refugees. He said he needed more time to evaluate the city’s position and that he would likely follow the lead of the Obama administration, which is weighing its options.

“I’m not going to get ahead of the federal government with regards to the Syrian refugee crisis,” he said.

Humanitarian officials have repeatedly disputed the idea that Georgia is taking in more than its fair share of refugees.

“We have the capacity to resettle more refugees as part of our national response to a time of crisis,” Paedia Mixon, CEO of Atlanta-based New American Pathways, a refugee resettlement agency, said of Georgia. “We have a lot of generous people in this state who would be very welcoming.”

Since 2011, when the Syrian the conflict began, 46 Syrians have been resettled in Georgia, federal records show. All of them have resettled in either Atlanta or Stone Mountain. Ten other states have received higher numbers Syrians during that same time frame, including neighboring Florida.

Nationwide, 1,557 Syrians have been resettled in the U.S. since 2011. The International Rescue Committee, a refugee resettlement agency with a busy office in Atlanta, is calling on the U.S. to do more, urging the nation to take in 65,000 Syrian refugees by the end of next year.

“Not only are Syrians resorting to desperate measures to seek a better life for themselves and their families in Europe, but they are dying in the process,” David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, said in a prepared statement last week. “The Mediterranean Sea has become the graveyard for desperate refugees seeking safety and a better life.”

The State Department issued a statement Tuesday, saying the U.S. is expected to welcome more Syrian refugees this month and next year.

“Our primary goal is to provide humanitarian assistance and protection to refugees in the places to which they have fled, so refugees can return home when the conflict ends,” State Department spokeswoman Danna Van Brandt said. “That’s why the United States is the single largest donor to this crisis, with over $4.1 billion in humanitarian assistance since the start of the crisis.”

The Deal administration has previously called on the U.S. State Department to sharply reduce the numbers of refugees being resettled in Georgia, citing state and local taxpayer costs associated with taking in the refugees, school budget shortfalls and other concerns.

Local resettlement agencies have long pushed back, beyond arguing that Georgia has a moral obligation to embrace refugees. They say refugees attract millions of dollars in federal aid money, form a ready pool of eager employees and ultimately create businesses and pay taxes.

Federal and state agencies work with private resettlement organizations, which determine where refugees should be located. Factors include where relatives reside and the availability of jobs, affordable housing, public transportation, English classes and interpreters.

The federal government provides refugees with funding that partially covers the cost of rent, furniture, food and clothing. Private contributions supplement that funding.

Last year, the U.S. State Department confirmed it had limited the number of all refugees coming to Georgia, based partly on the Deal administration’s concerns. The number of refugees who have been resettling in Georgia dropped by less than 1 percent over the past two fiscal years, from 2,710 to 2,694.

Many refugees end up settling in cities like Clarkston, which already boasts a large concentration of newcomers. Deal said he’s long fielded complaints from local officials about their areas being strained by refugee populations, and he called on the federal government to “tighten” its relocation policies.

“When they decide where they bring in individuals,” Deal said, “they need to do a better job of making sure they haven’t put an over-concentration of people from different countries, some of whom have been natural enemies of each other. Trying to put them side-by-side in a small community like Clarkston is not doing a service to those individuals.”

The governor added the U.S. needs to do its “fair share” in embracing refugees.

“We need to have a big heart,” he said. “But it needs to be done with some consideration to the public about the impact on local communities — not to get an over-concentration on one particular area, and to make sure that other states are bearing a similar cost associated with those relocations.”