Even as the number of refugees hit 26 million at the end of 2018 — a historic post-war high — the Trump administration has dramatically cut back on the number it is allowing into the U.S. The administration recently announced a proposal to cap admits in financial year 2020 (October 1, 2019 – September 30, 2020 at 18,000, the lowest since the country’s Refugee Act of 1980 was passed.
The stated reason? The administration feels that previous administrations’ refugee policies did not adequately take into account national security or foreign policy concerns. “The previous allocations by continent or region were not directly connected to our national security or foreign policy priorities,” a senior official told reporters on a September 26 briefing call. “The administration’s proposed allocation links refugee admissions directly to U.S. national security and foreign policy priorities.”
The U.S. also says it has to clear the backlog for asylum applications (i.e., related to those already in the U.S. or presenting themselves at a port of entry and has decided to combine refugee and asylum counts. The southern border of the U.S. has become the focal point for new asylum claims and the U.S. expects to process 350,000 new asylum cases, as per a September 27 media note from the State Department.
“Indeed, it would be irresponsible for the United States to go abroad seeking large numbers of refugees to resettle when the humanitarian and security crisis along the southern border already imposes an extraordinary burden on the U.S. immigration system,” the note read.
The administration has also given local governments the right to refuse refugees for resettlement for the first time in history. The U.S. will admit refugees from priority categories this year rather than acceng them solely from pre-determined regions of the world. First, a quota of up to 5,000 places for those being persecuted for religious beliefs. Second, up to 4,000 places for Iraqis who have helped the U.S. Third, up to 1,500 spots are being reserved for nationals of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The remaining 7,500 of the 18.000 spots are being reserved for categories not covered above, including family reunification cases, the official said.
Backlog for asylum requests
The historically low caps were opposed by religious groups and humanitarian organisations. Critics, The New York Times reported, have noted that the backlog for asylum applications occurs in immigration courts whereas refugees are already vetted before they enter the U.S. Some also argued that an asylum backlog should not prevent the U.S. from helping those in need of protection in other parts of the world.
Roughly half (51% of Americans said the U.S. had a responsibility to accept refugees, while 43% said it does not, according to a May 2018 Pew Research Center survey. A quarter of Republicans had said the U.S. does have a responsibility to take refugees, while three quarters of Democrats felt that way. A higher proportion of racial minorities, women, and those with higher levels of education said the U.S. had a responsibility to take refugees relative to whites, men and those with lower levels of education.
There are just under 71 million displaced persons worldwide, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR. Forty-one million of these are internally displaced, 26 million are refugees, and some 3.5 million are asylum seekers. In 2018, some 67% of refugees came from Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia, and 80% of refugees live in countries that neighbour their countries of origin. It is no surprise then that Turkey has topped the list of host countries for refugees since 2014. Pakistan and Uganda have, at least in the last two years, come in at second and third place, respectively.
The U.S. has, at least since the early 1980s, led the world in acceng refugees. However, soon after Donald Trump assumed office in 2017, he temporarily suspended the resettlement of Syrian refugees along with banning individuals from seven Muslim majority countries from entering the U.S. on most visa categories. Refugee numbers dropped from 85,000 in 2016 to 53,700 in 2017, and the Pew Research Center reports that since 2017, the U.S. has admitted many more Christian refugees than Muslim refugees.
As was discussed in this column earlier, the Trump administration is clamping down on legal and illegal migration to the U.S. The changes to refugee policy, it would appear, are very much in line with this broader theme.
(Sriram Lakshman is The Hindu‘s Washington correspondent