US leadership on global refugee issues faltering

US leadership on global refugee issues faltering

Refugee advocates are waiting to see how many refugees the Trump administration will allow for resettlement in the US for fiscal year 2019; a number that should be announced by October. Last year, Trump’s government lowered the ceiling that the country would accept to 45,000 — less than half the maximum the Obama administration had set for the previous year and the lowest number in the history of the modern US refugee resettlement program. It appears likely that the administration will maintain that low rate or decrease it further. 

Since World War II, the US has been a global leader in funding, advocating for and resettling refugees. It has been the largest single donor, by far, to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), as well as helping to fund many other organizations that assist refugees. Washington was a leading player in working with other countries to develop a new global compact on refugees. Every year since the current US refugee resettlement program began in 1980, it has accepted more refugees for formal resettlement (which differs from the asylum seeking process) than the rest of the world combined. “Since 1980, the US has taken in 3 million of the more than 4 million refugees resettled worldwide,” according to the Pew Research Center.

Previously, Democratic and Republican presidents alike had maintained the leading US role on refugee issues. The Trump administration, however, has changed every aspect of US refugee policy in ways that are severely eroding the country’s leadership position. While Washington so far remains the largest donor to UNHCR, the administration announced in August that it would cut all US aid to UNRWA, depriving the agency of a third of its funding. Refugee advocates worry about potential cuts to other programs that assist refugees. 

The US’ overall role in helping shape how the world responds to global migration challenges — of which refugee flows are an integral part — is slipping. Last December, Washington pulled out of UN talks for a new global compact on migration, though it remains part of talks toward a global compact on refugees. In June, members of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) rejected the US nominee to lead the organization — only the second time since 1951 that the IOM’s leader will not be an American. The rejection was due to the US withdrawal from talks on the global compact on migration, the Trump administration’s policies on immigration, and anti-Muslim and other comments made by the US nominee. 

The Trump administration has changed every aspect of US refugee policy in ways that are severely eroding the country’s leadership position

Kerry Boyd Anderson

The historic decline in the number of refugees that the US is willing to resettle is perhaps the biggest blow to US leadership on this issue. In the past, Washington was in a stronger position to ask other countries to do more to support refugees because it was the largest donor to UNHCR and UNRWA and because it modeled good behavior through its resettlement program. It is easier to ask others to do good when you are doing so yourself. 

Not only has the Trump administration significantly reduced the ceiling on the number of refugees it is willing to admit, but it has not even come close to meeting the ceiling. Projections based on data from the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center up to Aug. 31 suggest that it is unlikely to take in even half the number of refugees allowed for fiscal year 2018. While the ceiling was 45,000, it appears very likely that only about 20,000 refugees will be admitted. 

Furthermore, the current government is shifting away from a focus on resettling the most vulnerable refugees. The IOM has reported that two-thirds of the world’s refugees (not including Palestinians) come from five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia. While the US has admitted a significant number of refugees from Myanmar in fiscal year 2018, which ends in a few weeks, it has taken only 60 Syrians, 744 Afghans, 12 South Sudanese and 250 Somalis, according to the Refugee Processing Center

The current administration has also reduced the number of people admitted on Special Immigration Visas (SIVs) — a program for Afghans and Iraqis who worked as translators for US forces and who now face reprisals. In July, The Atlantic reported that half as many were admitted in the first half of 2018 as in the first half of 2017. 

The US role as a global leader advocating for refugees is faltering at a time when the number of refugees has increased. This diminishment of US influence abroad is a blow to US diplomatic interests, but it is especially unfortunate for the refugees, who are losing their most powerful advocate at the time of greatest need. 

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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