The Trump administration is expected to lower the cap on refugees resettled to the United States to an historically low number. They are doing so based on a completely wrong assumption about how refugee resettlement works.

According to several reports, the Trump administration is poised to lower the maximum number of refugees that will be allowed to start a new life in the United States to around 45,000. This is a sharp reduction from the 110,000 cap that the Obama administration set in its last year in office. It would be the lowest number in decades.

The stated reason for this move? To save money.  From Axios:

A source close to Tillerson said the Secretary of State didn’t think now was the time for a “philosophical argument about American diplomacy.” The source said Tillerson was “practical” and agreed with the consensus view within the Trump administration that the administration can help exponentially more people by investing in refugee settlement near Iraq and Syria.

This notion that is is cheaper to provide aid to refugees in the countries to which they fled rather than resettle them in a third country like the United States was stated  explicitely in Trump’s UN address last week. 

For the cost of resettling one refugee in the United States, we can assist more than 10 in their home region. Out of the goodness of our hearts, we offer financial assistance to hosting countries in the region, and we support recent agreements of the G20 nations that will seek to host refugees as close to their home countries as possible.  This is the safe, responsible, and humanitarian approach. [emphasis added]

The idea that there is some offset between helping refugees in their host countries or resettling them in a third country reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how refugee resettlement works.

There are 22 million refugees around the world today. The vast majority of these refugees have fled across one border — from Syria to Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan; from South Sudan to Uganda; from Myanmar to Bangladesh; from Somalia to Kenya, etc. Of these refugees most will either stay in their host countries or return home. For a tiny fraction of these refugees, those two options are not viable. This cohort faces some sort of extraordinary hardship that makes resettlement to a third country, like Canada, the United States, or in Europe, their only option. The UN Refugee Agency vets these cases, and recommends certain individuals and families for third country resettlement.

In 2016 there were 17.5  million registered refugees. Of this number, the UN Refugee Agency made just 162,500 eligible for resettlement. These are the extraordinary cases: people with certain medical conditions, victims of torture, or families facing some particular hardship. I’ve told the story of a few of these cases, including an Iraqi family seeking resettlement in Denver because of death threats leveled at the the head of household, who worked for a US military contractor. This family was due to arrive in July, but was prevented by Trump’s travel ban. Last year, though, I interviewed a gay Syrian who did make it to the US. He had fled to Turkey, only to face death threats from ISIS operatives in Turkey. He was resettled to the United States and has testified before the UN Security Council about war crimes committed by ISIS.

The point is, these are truly exception cases. They have no alternative but to find refuge in a country like the United States. That the President and Secretary of State seem to think that providing humanitarian relief is a cost-efficient alternative to accepting refugees for resettlement reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of why some refugees are eligible to come to the United States, while most are not.

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