If current trends hold, the United States could resettle fewer refugees in fiscal year 2018 than Canada, which has about one-tenth the population.
During the first year of the Trump administration, the U.S. relinquished its role as the world’s leader in resettling refugees, accepting fewer refugees in 2017 than all other nations combined for the first time since the passage of the Refugee Act in 1980. Refugee resettlements declined in the U.S. last year more than in any other country in the world, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Advocates and experts now expect the U.S. to fall even further behind the international community once the Trump administration announces its new refugee ceiling for fiscal year 2019, which many forecast will drop below the current 45,000.
The U.S. has been the “overwhelming leader in resettlement—not only admitting people directly, but also encouraging others to do so,” said Kathleen Newland, a co-founder and senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, which studies global migration trends. “We have led by example. And I don’t think our call for other countries to do it would have much credibility if we weren’t doing it ourselves.”
The U.S. resettled more than 69,000 refugees in 2015 and nearly 85,000 in 2016, the final two years of the Obama administration. The number fell to 33,000 in 2017, the first year of the Trump administration, and with just 19 days left in fiscal year 2018, it’s expected to plummet to 20,000, less than half of the current ceiling.
When the Trump administration set the 45,000 mark, it was a historic low for the country, which has kept a relatively high refugee ceiling. It also marked a dramatic shift in the way the U.S. has approached refugee resettlement—moving away from seeing it as an international obligation to framing it as a potential national-security threat.
Donald Trump has made that sentiment clear over the course of his presidency. In June, at a meeting of the National Space Council, Trump said he didn’t want the U.S. to turn into a “migration camp.” He added: “You look at what’s happening in Europe, you look at what’s happening in other places, we can’t allow that to happen to the United States.” At the start of his presidency, Trump signed an executive order that temporarily banned the travel of refugees and immigrants from some Muslim-majority countries and called for a 120-day suspension of the refugee program.
The administration’s decision to lower the refugee ceiling is reflective of a general attitude to crack down on legal immigration. While it’s not clear what the cap will be in the upcoming fiscal year, reports suggest the administration will either maintain the current ceiling or lower it.
As it stands, the U.S. is on pace to fall behind other countries in the number of refugees admitted. The Pew Research Center analysis of data from the UN refugee agency found that the U.S. had resettled 33,000 refugees in 2017, less than half as many as other countries had resettled. Canada trailed the U.S. slightly, resettling 27,000 refugees. This year, however, Canada could outpace the U.S. in the number of refugees admitted. According to UNHCR, the resettlement admission target for Canada in 2018 is 27,000, which is more than those admitted to the U.S. a month away from the end of the fiscal year.
The scaling back of the U.S. resettlement program comes at a time when the number of refugees worldwide is climbing. The UN refugee agency estimates that there are nearly 25 million refugees. More than half of them are children. Syria leads the world in refugees, with 6.3 million, followed by Afghanistan (2.6 million), South Sudan (2.4 million), Myanmar (1.2 million), and Somalia (986,400). In response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, Barack Obama raised the nation’s refugee ceiling to 110,000 during his final year in office. By contrast, the Trump administration is expected to take in fewer than 100 Syrian refugees in fiscal year 2018.
While the uptick in Syrian admissions under Obama was significant, it didn’t match Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, which took the largest share of Syrian refugees. The U.S. also generally trails other countries in how many refugees it admits per capita. Newland noted that even when the cap was set at 85,000, the per-capita share was lower than that of other countries—“less than 0.3 refugees per 1,000 U.S. residents, compared to a 1.29 rate in Canada and 1.14 in Australia.”
Still, the U.S. has by and large outpaced other countries in admissions. After World War II, for example, the U.S. admitted 250,000 Europeans displaced by the war. A wave of Vietnamese refugees also arrived to the U.S. after the Vietnam War. Only after 9/11 did the U.S. see a drop in admissions from nearly 70,000 to 27,000, according to data from the Refugee Processing Center.
While Trump has argued that refugees could inhibit the country—or worse, endanger it—reports show that refugees are extensively vetted before they are accepted for resettlement. Attempts to alter refugee policy under the pretense of national security could have ramifications across the world and at home.
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