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Obama: Refugee Crisis 'a Crisis of Our Shared Security, Not Because Refugees are a Threat'

President Obama speaks during a Leaders' Summit on Refugees at the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

During a leaders’ summit convened by the United States on the plight of refugees at the United Nations today, President Obama called for “collective action” on a crisis that’s “one of the most urgent tests of our time.”

Before the 50-nation refugee summit, Obama sat down with a CEO roundtable as the White House announced 51 U.S. companies “made new, measurable, and significant commitments to aid refugees in the United States and around the world” that amount to “investing, donating, or raising more than $650 million” for refugee support, education and employment opportunities.

The list of companies includes AirBNB, Citigroup, Facebook, Goldman Sachs, Google, HP, IBM, Ikea, Johnson & Johnson, Mastercard, Microsoft, Soros Fund Management, TripAdvisor, Twitter, Uber, UPS and Western Union.

Obama said at the roundtable that the private-sector commitments amount to “educational opportunities for more than 80,000 refugees,” including those in camps, and “employment opportunities for more than 220,000 refugees.”

He noted that Newton Supply Company, a small Texas business that makes handbags, “is going to make 90 percent of their bags with local refugees.”

George Soros, the president said, “is making an extraordinary investment of up to $500 million in companies that come up with sustainable long-term solutions to help refugees.”

“I want to emphasize that, from their perspective, this isn’t charity, this is part of their overall mission and makes good business sense,” he said.

At the meeting with other world leaders, Obama said the globe is “facing a crisis of epic proportions — more than 65 million people have been driven from their homes, which is more than any time since the Second World War; among them are more than 21 million refugees who have fled their countries.”

“It’s a test of our international system, where all nations ought to share in our collective responsibilities because the vast majority of refugees are hosted by just 10 countries who are bearing a very heavy burden, among them Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia — countries that often have fewer resources than many of those who are doing little or nothing,” he said.

“It’s a crisis of our shared security, not because refugees are a threat. Refugees, most of whom are women and children, are often fleeing war and terrorism. They are victims. They’re families who want to be safe and to work, be good citizens and contribute to their country.”

Obama noted that in the U.S. “refugees are subject to more vigorous screening than the average tourist.”

“So the challenge to our security is because when desperate refugees pay cold-hearted traffickers for passage, it funds the same criminals who are smuggling arms and drugs and children. When nations with their own internal difficulties find themselves hosting massive refugee populations for years on end, it can risk more instability,” he said.

“It oftentimes surfaces tensions in our society when we have disorderly and disproportionate migration into some countries. It skews our politics and is subject to demagoguery. And if we were to turn refugees simply because of their background or religion, or for example because they are Muslim, then we would be reinforcing terrorist propaganda, that nations like my own are somehow opposed to Islam, which is an ugly lie that must be rejected in all of our countries by upholding the values of pluralism and diversity.”

Obama added that just as “failure to act in the past, for example, by turning away Jews fleeing Nazi Germany is a stain on our collective conscience, I believe history will judge us harshly if we do not rise to this moment.”

He told the UN summit that Americas resettles “more refugees than any other nation” and is “determined to do our part.”

“As president, I’ve increased the number of refugees we are resettling to 85,000 this year, which includes 10,000 Syrian refugees, a goal we’ve exceeded even as we’ve upheld our rigorous screening,” Obama continued, personally thanking German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “and the people of both those countries, because the politics sometimes can be hard — but it’s the right thing to do.”

He said the U.S. “will contribute at least $50 million to help middle-income countries and will do more to help low-income countries so that refugees and their host communities can flourish and grow stronger together.”

In the new fiscal year, Obama announced, America will “welcome and resettle 110,000 refugees from around the world, which is a nearly 60 percent increase over 2015 — we intend to do it right, and we will do it safely.”

The co-hosts of the summit — Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Jordan, Mexico, Sweden and the United States — issued a joint statement in which they recognized “no routine mechanism exists yet to facilitate the kind of voluntary responsibility-sharing for refugees that was demonstrated today or to more comprehensively address other challenges arising from large-scale refugee crises.”

“We therefore commit to working together in support of the development of the Global Compact on Responsibility Sharing for Refugees, and to develop tools and institutional structures to improve the international architecture and lay a foundation for addressing both the immediate and the long-term challenges of managing refugee flows effectively and comprehensively.”