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U.N. refugee expert talks resettlement in the age of Trump

Larry Yungk

Larry Yungk, a Washington-based senior resettlement officer for the U.N. Refugee Agency, traveled to Minneapolis recently for the opening of a photo exhibition called “Where the Children Sleep” – a display of photos of Syrian refugee children by Swedish photojournalist Magnus Wennman.

The agency is co-sponsoring the exhibit at the American Swedish Institute, which is featuring others – including a video project on recent Nordic immigrants – throughout 2017 on the theme of migration, identity and belonging. First shown in Sweden, the photos will be on display at the insistute until March 5.

While in Minneapolis Yungk sat down with MinnPost for a conversation about resettlement in Minnesota – which has taken in about 20,500 refugees over the past decade – and around the globe.

The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity:

MinnPost: There must be other photographers or artists highlighting refugee issues, but you came to Minnesota for this exhibit.

Larry Yungk: We were invited to come up here and participate in this and we are happy to do that. We think it’s a great way for people to sort of understand the situation, particularly of Syrian refugees, [though] I think [the exhibit] is representative of all refugee situations. We are so often speaking (about refugee resettlement) in huge numbers and I think that’s very hard for people to digest at times. This really is just the opposite – getting in personal, looking at individual children.

MP: Minnesota has long played a role in refugee resettlement. Does the state have a reputation with your agency in terms of being a good place to work with?

LY: I have been doing resettlement since 1980 and with the UN since ’87, and you can go back and look and really see that each year Minnesota is normally one of the top 10 or 15 resettlement states – and, given its population, its per-capita level is pretty high. It’s been fairly consistent over the years. It’s kind of interesting because the number that come to Minnesota – being here at the American Swedish Institute – is very close to what Sweden does each year. Around 2,000 is generally about what the Swedish quota is per year, so to me that was sort of an interesting parallel.

MP: As you look ahead, what is your biggest concern for refugee resettlement around the globe?

LY: There are never enough places to meet the need. So a big job that we’ve had over the years is to try to get new countries to do resettlement, particularly in Europe. We have seen in recent years that the Nordic countries like Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark have always traditionally taken refugees for resettlement. But what we haven’t seen, and what we are now seeing, are countries like Germany, the UK, France actually initiating resettlement. 

We also look, to some extent – though the numbers wouldn’t be that high – to certain developing economies like in South America – Brazil, Argentina, Chile would be ones.  We do some very small resettlement and continue to try to build it up in places like (South) Korea and Japan where you have advanced economies. The challenges there are that, often, these are places that don’t traditionally even have immigration that much.  When you come to the U.S. or Canada or Australia or even South America – Argentina, Chile and Brazil – those are countries that have a history of immigration.

MP: So, what are the challenges for these (emerging) host countries?

LY: The U.S. has decades of history (with resettlement) and they have specialists that know how to go overseas and interview and they have all of the systems in place to do this, whereas a new country doesn’t have any of those systems.

[For] countries that aren’t traditionally resettlement countries, it’s getting people used to this sort of more multicultural aspect. In the U.S. – even though there are tensions at the moment, maybe, over some of these things – there are a lot of differences that nobody would notice that would still be an issue in another country. Whether you are Swedish or Norwegian or Italian or Greek or something, in the U.S. probably people don’t make much of it. People might notice if you are Somali.

In other countries, if you are just not of that nationality it is kind of like, “All right, how do we bring this person in?” How does integration work into some of these cultures? [Some] countries, I think, have a very sincere interest in doing this, but it’s having to learn, “How do we accommodate that?”  Japan would be a good example – a country that I think very sincerely would like to be doing more resettlement and yet it’s a challenge.  Japanese families and histories go back thousands of years. There’s a thing of being Japanese. If you bring a refugee there, how do you blend that with being Japanese?        

MP: What can people in Minnesota do to bridge that divide if they feel they are not really connected to these newer refugee groups – or newer immigrant groups?

LY: There are usually lots of opportunities. One would be just as straightforward as coming to an exhibit like this and beginning to try to learn a little bit more about the background of people so that when you encounter someone, you have some context to put that into. I think in your day-to-day encounters, you may begin to notice people that you didn’t see before. I think it’s OK to say, “Gee, are you from Somalia?” or “Where are you from?” and to just say hello and to just connect. And then, of course, through things that people belong to – whether that is churches or other organizations or PTA or schools – to try to be the person who sits with the newcomer and just tries to introduce yourself and connect. You get to know individuals. And in doing that, you are helping, also, those people to get to know Americans.

MP: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the (U.S. presidential) inauguration and what your agency thinks about whether our American policy toward refugees is going to change a lot based on the rhetoric in the campaign.

LY: We have had an office in Washington since the early ‘80s. We’ve worked with multiple administrations. We certainly approach working with this one as we would any and trying to find out what the issues are to see what issues, questions, things they have for (the U.N. Refugee Agency) and … to see where those areas (are) where we can move forward.

Once we are able to see what the proposals are in more detail we will be in a better position to assess where things are going. Certainly, the U.S. has a long history of being a leader in refugee protection and assistance, resettlement and I think that was true across parties and across generations. So I think our feeling is that there will continue to be common ground here.  

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 01/27/2017 - 09:54 am.

    The refugees would rather live in their

    own country. The refugees seek safety, so let’s put up safe zones protected by NATO and let them ride out the ISIS war safely in their area. This approach was tossed aside by Obama but is now being embraced by Trump administration. After the disaster that is our Mid East policy gets straightened out and some sense of normalicy returns to affected countries, the refugees can go back to their country to help rebuild it…. Win-win…

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/28/2017 - 03:44 pm.

      Really being embraced isn’t it?

      Perhaps you might point us to this provision in the recently enacted executive order? Don’t worry, we won’t be waiting. Funny how countries with Trump business interests apparently have NO issues with terrorism isn’t it? I’d ask you to look up that rather haunting image of the drowned 2 year old Syrian refugee, so you can take a good look at what it is you’re supporting, but I know the effort would be a waste.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/29/2017 - 11:03 pm.

      Tell you what I DO see

      A dictator flaunting the rule of law. Betcha didn’t think you were voting THAT in did ya? Or maybe you did, its so hard to tell with the Trump crowd these days…

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 01/29/2017 - 05:15 pm.

    Matt, if Obama had backed a NATO based

    Safe zone that poor little child would not have to flee death from ISIS with his parents and may be alive today. .. Look at the Boston bombings and the Tsarnaev brothers to see why you want to vet people coming in from countries that promote “death to America”. Trump has been in office for a week and will have to be proactive to make up from the “leading from behind” (please explain that concept Matt, very confusing) past 10 years. Bush had no idea how to clean up the mess he started and Obama came in supporting the Arab Spring. Once he realized what all the intel folks were saying was true about Arab Spring, Muslim Brotherhood driven, it was too late. It has caused Europe to implode with refugees, violence, budget issues and overall chaos there. With no government to vet refugees with there is no chance we can guarantee who’s coming into our country.

    I doubt in a week Trump could undo the disaster that was Obama’s Mid East policy,( after all you blamed Bush for 8 years of 1.5% GDP growth under Obama) but given time hopefully refugees will stay in their area in safe zones. This makes common sense, so in this administration, it has a chance.

  3. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 01/29/2017 - 05:42 pm.

    Walling out?

    We’re not walling out, we are walling ourselves in…soon we will be all alone defending ourselves from each other? Me-and-mine existence is a way to go,eh?

    Fungus among us?
    Fungus of fear and hate could be our next security/insecurity dilemma, ruled by Trump and his policy followers… a leader who uses executive order as a main line policy tool and before you can say totalitarianism we may wonder what happened?

    Thank the gods, whomever, for the marchers…who are mow, essentially, Congress Of the Street… those who dissent in the streets and protest loudly such dictatorial commands…bless them, yes…

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