By Kristy Siegfried
Migration Editor, IRIN
US President Donald Trump’s executive order, has suspended refugee resettlement to the United States for the next four months, blocked entry of Syrian nationals entirely until further notice, and reduced the country’s total refugee admissions for fiscal year 2017 by more than half.
The actions of the new US administration represent a serious setback for efforts by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR – along with major international NGOs – to push wealthier states to take in more refugees at a time of record levels of global displacement.
UNHCR estimates that at least 1.2 million refugees are in need of resettlement. This means they’ve exhausted all other options – these people cannot return home for the foreseeable future and have no prospect of integrating in the country hosting them. But the number of refugees currently resettled to third countries represents a tiny fraction of that need. Between January and November 2016, just 115,000 refugees departed for resettlement countries.
Currently, around two thirds of the refugees referred for resettlement by UNHCR every year end up in the United States. In the 2016 fiscal year, the country resettled nearly 85,000 refugees and former president Barack Obama had recommended raising that figure to 110,000 in 2017.
According to Trump’s executive order entitled “Protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States”, refugee resettlement to the United States this year will be capped at 50,000, around the same level as 10 years ago, when the demand was significantly lower.
Doris Meissner, who heads the US immigration programme at Washington DC-based think tank, the Migration Policy Institute, described the executive order as a “radical” departure from the long-standing US record on refugee admissions and “a system of values that looks to protect people who are in deep need”.
The 120-day suspension of the programme is intended to allow the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to review current application and screening procedures to determine if they are sufficient to ensure that those approved for resettlement “do not pose a threat to the security and welfare of the United States”. If deemed necessary, additional screening procedures may be introduced.
The process of applying for resettlement and being screened for admission to the US already takes up to two years. The suspension means that even those refugees who had been approved and were close to boarding a plane will have to sit tight until the review has been completed.
For Syrian refugees, the wait is likely to be even longer. The executive order states that processing of Syrian nationals is to cease entirely, until “sufficient changes have been made to [the US Refugee Admissions Programme] to ensure that admission of Syrian refugees is consistent with the national interest”.
Syrians made up nearly 16 percent of refugee admissions to the United States in 2016 and have been the top nationality submitted by UNHCR for resettlement in recent years.
None of the actions outlined in the executive order are unexpected. Trump alluded to all of them during his presidential campaign. In fact, there were fears he might end refugee resettlement to the United States entirely.
Refugee rights advocates can also take heart from the fact that the Obama administration managed to bring more than 25,000 refugees into the country between the start of the fiscal year in October last year and Trump’s inauguration on 20 January. Another 25,000 refugees could be admitted by this October, following the lifting of the suspension.
But while the programme is likely to continue in some form, it will not be the example it has been for the last 40 years to other countries still lagging behind on refugee resettlement.
It’s not only about numbers but moral leadership.
That has been the role the US has played in the international protection system. – excerpted from an analysis by IRIN