Last month, for the first time since records began, the number of refugees resettled in the US hit zero.
The nosedive is the result of a State Department freeze on admissions, according to a World Relief press release, resulting in hundreds of canceled flights and yet more uncertainty for the thousands of refugees hoping to resettle in the US. The department has issued an admissions ceiling of 18,000 for the financial year 2020—the lowest in almost 30 years, and well below the number of displaced people already in the pipeline to be resettled in the US. (Ceilings for 2018 and 2019 were 45,000 and 30,000, respectively.)
There couldn’t be a worse time for it. The UN estimates there are around 26 million refugees worldwide, many of whom are victims of torture or women and girls fleeing persecution or violence. Others may be victims of the war in Syria, where the withdrawal of US troops has generated chaos and further devastation. Barely half a percent of the 26 million will be resettled at all, and even then only after a process of intensive screening from admitting states, noted Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in a statement released yesterday. “At a time of record forced displacement in the world, lower admissions constrain UNHCR’s ability to deliver on its refugee protection mandate and diminish our humanitarian negotiating power at the global level,” he added.
While states are barred from expelling asylum seekers or returning them “to any country in which they would face persecution,” they are under no legal obligation to accept any number of refugees. In the mid-1960s, the early years of modern refugee programs, according to the Center for Migration Studies, the US representative to the UN described the proper, legal treatment of refugees and asylum seekers as a “credit” to the US, rather than “a burden.” In recent years, however, the US government has come to see these obligations as a humanitarian headache—one that places an undue toll on US taxpayers.
In 1980, when records began, the US admitted more than 200,000 refugees to a country of around 270 million people. Nearly 30 years on, the US population has risen more than 40%, while the number of refugees resettled is down by more than 80%.