October 29, 2019; CNN
Nonprofits who work in refugee resettlement and services have been scrambling since 2017, and they’re about to be dealt a potentially crushing blow.
CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez reports that a US moratorium on refugee resettlement that has been in place since early October is now extended to November 5th. Five hundred flights were canceled this month, and no alternatives were provided, stranding hundreds of people awaiting their new homes.
This (hopefully) temporary moratorium exacerbates an already historic drop in the number of refugees resettled during the Trump administration. According to the Pew Research Center, about 10,000 fewer refugees have been accepted under Trump than were accepted during a single year of the Obama administration. (Eighty-five thousand refugees entered the US in FY 2016, as opposed to 76,200 between January 2017 and October 2019.)
For FY2020, the administration has proposed a cap of 18,000 refugees, less than half of the previous record low for set caps. The last time refugee admissions dropped suddenly was after the 9/11 attacks, and even in 2002, the US admitted 27,000 people.
The administration claims that the asylum crisis at the border must be “dealt with” before refugees can be admitted in large numbers. Pew specifies that refugees are people who already clear the security, medical, and other hurdles and have legal permission to enter the US, while asylum seekers cross the border before entering legal channels.
Apart from the moral and humanitarian implications of this refusal to offer shelter, the new low cap presents a dilemma for nonprofits that serve refugees, whose income from the government is often remitted on a per-person basis; no people means no revenue. In the past three years, 51 programs have closed. One refugee program director said, “I worry about the future. The biggest stress is we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The moratorium extension is also hard on families who expected to welcome their loved ones into new homes, says Nate Bult, vice president of public and government affairs at Bethany Christian Services. “When you get that phone call once, twice, three times, the refugees we’re working with are concerned it may never happen.”
That such a concern could be valid seems unbelievable when looked at in the context of global refugee numbers. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, estimated in June that 70.8 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes, including 25.9 million refugees. (Obviously, the UN doesn’t define “refugee” as someone with legal permission to enter the US; instead, the condition is defined by meeting the parameters of the 1951 Refugee Convention.) Of those nearly 26 million people, says the UN, only 92,400 have been resettled. And for the first time in decades, the US is not the top host country; instead, Germany is host to over a million refugees.
If and when the moratorium is lifted and refugees are allowed in, the difficulty is not over, even for those lucky few. On September 26th, the president issued an executive order that could allow cities and states to refuse to accept refugees for resettlement. Both municipal and state governments must consent to accept refugees before they can cooperate with the Department of State’s Reception and Placement Program.
Russell Smith, CEO of Refugee Services of Texas, called the decision an “abdication of US leadership” and “a betrayal of American values.”
Meanwhile, House Democrats have introduced a bill that would establish protections for climate change refugees. A separate program would take at least 50,000 people starting in 2020. This bill will almost certainly fail in the current administration, but it demonstrates a refusal to cede the idea that refugees are welcome here.—Erin Rubin