Trump upending world’s biggest refugee programme

This year is expected to see the fewest applications granted — 30,000 — since the United States’ refugee programme began in 1980.
Sunday 15/12/2019
Cutback. US residents in support of continued refugee resettlement hold signs at a meeting in Bismarck, North Dakota, December 9. (AP)
Cutback. US residents in support of continued refugee resettlement hold signs at a meeting in Bismarck, North Dakota, December 9. (AP)

For decades the United States has been the world’s leading safe-haven destination for refugees.

In 1980, the refugee cap was set as high as 231,000 people. Every year since 2000, the average annual figure was 70,000-80,000. At the height of humanitarian disasters in Syria and Myanmar, former US President Barack Obama’s administration set the 2017 cap at 110,000.

This year, however, is expected to see the fewest applications granted — 30,000 — since the United States’ refugee programme began in 1980. A lower figure is expected to follow for next year.

In September, the White House announced plans to admit 18,000 people under the programme in 2020. Initially, it wanted to admit zero refugees in the coming year but was walked back by Republican and Democratic politicians.

Approximately 4,000 of those places will be taken by Iraqis who helped or otherwise worked with the US military, 5,000 for people fleeing religious persecution and 1,500 for at-risk Central American migrants.

“The current burdens on the US immigration system must be alleviated before it is again possible to resettle large numbers of refugees,” the US State Department claimed in September.

It added it has been forced to deploy its workforce to deal with asylum applications coming through on the United States’ southern border but, in a callous and thinly veiled reproach, stated: “Prioritising the humanitarian protection cases of those already in our country is simply a matter of fairness and common sense.”

Observers and immigration specialists know that’s an argument that holds little water.

Let’s put the global threats facing persecuted people in context: There are around 2.5 million people in Syria’s Idlib province, where Syrian government and Russian bombardments from the air are a harrowing aspect of everyday life.

Yet, this year, just 563 Syrian refugees are to be resettled in the United States. Muslims and Christians are being affected alike. From 2016 until this year, Muslim admissions plunged 87%, to 4,943 people, while for Christians the figure declined 37%, to 23,754.

This is happening at a time when the number of refugees globally is at an all-time high of around 26 million people, half of whom are children.

The non-partisan Migration Policy Institute said the steep decline “has not affected all refugees equally” and “refugee admissions from particular countries, most notably from the Middle East, with an attendant plunge in the resettlement of Muslim refugees.”

Moreover, “overall, refugee admissions fell from most countries from Fiscal Year 2016 and Fiscal Year 2019 but the majority of the drop is attributable to three countries: Syria (from 12,587 to 563), Iraq (from 9,880 to 465) and Somalia (from 9,020 to 231), three of the countries labelled “high-risk.” Taken together, admissions from these 11 designated high-risk nations have fallen 95%,” the institute said.

Refugees, of course, have long been an easy scapegoat for right-wing politicians and nativists who claim that immigrants take jobs and profits out of the hands and mouths of “real Americans.”

However, it’s long been established that refugees and immigrants, in general, do exactly the opposite — they create jobs, revive blighted neighbourhoods and fuel local economies.

In addition to the tens of thousands of desperate people around the world now left to deal with persecution and poverty without the prospect of resettlement in the United States, thousands more working in refugee assistance fields inside the country could lose their jobs as well. That’s because the much-reduced number of approved refugee applications require fewer workers to process those cases.

It is on the global stage, where the fallout will be felt most keenly and not where you may expect. US generals and leaders in the US Defence Department have long viewed the refugee programme as a means to strengthen the United States’ political and diplomatic standing around the world.

For example, if the United States agrees to unburden the cash-strapped Lebanese government of thousands of Syrian refugees, it gives Americans an “in” concerning Lebanese political affairs. Accepting refugees doesn’t just help desperate civilians but also has a huge weighty political dimension.

Unlike the exchange of goods and services between countries (in which trade deals can be formed with relatively little fuss once negotiation has been successful), the exchange of people is much more complicated since human lives don’t stand still.

Desperate refugees don’t — can’t — end their quest for a safe haven just because the United States has shuttered its doors. That means that Canada, the European Union and European countries are better placed to reap the economic benefits of refugees and command influence and better political ties, especially with Middle Eastern countries.

The sum fallout of the refugee cutback is that the United States’ global standing vis-a-vis the refugee programme is to suffer more in the Middle East than in any other region. The big question for Arab countries amounts to: “Does America even matter anymore?”