'Total chaos' in refugee resettlement following Trump order, say NGOs

A family from Nepal referred for resettlement to the United States. Photo by: N.Gurung / UNHCR

This article was updated on Feb. 10 to reflect the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling.

President Donald Trump’s ban on refugees from entering the U.S. has — at least for now — been suspended. But the resulting scene for those involved in refugee resettlement is chaotic, exacerbated by concern about the longer term prospects of the United States’ role as a host country, according to several resettlement, legal aid and advocacy organizations. A cap on refugee arrivals at less than half the previous expected figure remains in place.

“We don't know when people will be brought over, or how many those numbers will be. It’s very complicated — total chaos,” said Bill Swersey, senior director of communications and digital media at HIAS, one of the nine refugee resettlement organizations contracted by the U.S. federal government, in a phone interview early this week. “Everybody is confused. It is like we are riding a rollercoaster. First there is a ban, then it is rescinded… We don’t know when we will receive new people. Last week, there was one Syrian refugee family that arrived.”

President Trump signed an executive order at the end of January that temporarily banned the entry of all refugees for 120 days, including those from seven predominantly Muslim countries: Libya, Somalia, Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Sudan and Syria. Syrian refugees also faced an indefinite ban, since overturned, in the order.

Following widespread national protests, a federal judge in Washington state temporarily suspended the order, permitting the entry of visa holders and refugees. On Thursday evening, in a blow to the Trump administration, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the suspension of the order. The three judges noted that the presidential administration provided no evidence that nationals of the seven countries named in the ban present a threat to national security. The case is now likely to go to the Supreme Court.

Somali refugees under pressure to repatriate after US ban

A U.S. executive order on immigration could close a final door to resettlement for the most vulnerable Somali refugees. Analysts tell Devex the block could also backfire for security, empowering extremist voices in Somalia and creating a new pool of recruits.

Nevertheless, some elements of the executive order remain in place and are likely to have long lasting effects. This includes a reduction of the number of refugees the U.S. will welcome — now curtailed to 50,000 per year, less than half of this year’s expected admission of 110,000.

The U.S. has already admitted more than 32,100 refugees this fiscal year, leaving less than 20,000 slots available for the year ending Sept. 30 under the provisions of the order. This creates pressing questions about who would take these slots and the long-term impact this cap could have on shifting the tide of global refugee resettlement.

“That is a huge concern. Over time we have incrementally worked up to more sufficient numbers and that is a highly discretionary thing the President sets a cap for every year,” said Kate Phillips-Barrasso, the International Rescue Committee’s senior director of policy and advocacy. “We worry if the caps are lower it just sets us back many, many years with the resettlement we are doing. Globally, it is a drop in the bucket with respect to the need for the people who need to be resettled. It is really an option that is available to very few people.”

Although it is not clear which refugees will be prioritized for the remaining places, the U.S. tends to admit the most vulnerable people — including mothers who head households and people living with disabilities — according to Phillips-Barrasso.

Less than 1 percent of the world’s 21.3 million refugees are resettled throughout the course of their lives. The Trump administration’s cap could place a further strain on the process, said Betsy Fisher, policy director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, which provides free legal assistance to refugees in 55 countries.

“It throws people into a significant limbo. The resettlement process is commonly 18 to 24 months and we have seen cases where people wait for years and years. They have already been living in a great deal of uncertainty,” she said.

The U.S. has historically been the largest participant in the U.N. refugee agency’s global resettlement program. Canada, Australia, Norway and the U.K. also take large numbers of refugees through this program.

“It is hard to see any countries being able to come forward and make up for this reduction,” Joel Charny, director of the Norwegian Refugee Council USA, wrote in an email to Devex. “I expect the 50,000 cap to remain in place in subsequent years as well.”

In 2016, a total of 114,916 refugees were resettled as part of the U.N. refugee agency’s program. The U.S. admitted 84,995 people during fiscal year 2016. The greatest number of refugees entering the U.S. came from the Democratic Republic of Congo, followed by Syria, Burma, Iraq and Somalia.

The complex application, screening and assignment process takes an average of two years to complete, but there are some cases that stretch far longer — for example, a Somali man in Kenya who has been waiting 21 years for resettlement — says Joel Millman, spokesperson for the International Organization of Migration.

Nonetheless, the top host countries for refugees overall are developing nations: Turkey is home to approximately 2.5 million refugees, while Pakistan has 1.5 million. The U.S. stepping back as a host of refugees could serve as a disincentive for already strained countries to continue to open their borders.

US-Australia refugee resettlement agreement in question

Will President Trump honor an agreement with the Australian government to resettle refugees currently held in offshore detention? Either way, analysts warn Devex that the lack of details about the accord could mean that fewer individuals may benefit and the process could be further delayed.

“If we are shutting down our borders and not willing to shoulder a minor responsibility in terms of its volume, what does that say to other countries about what the needs are to live up to their responsibilities under the Refugee Convention? This may embolden other countries to shut things down and not let [refugees] in. This worries me very much,” said Phillips-Barrasso. “Countries that border any country going through spasms bear the brunt of this. Turkey is now the largest hosting country in the world.”

Refugees awaiting entry to the U.S. are also now finding themselves in a precarious situation. They are unable to take advantage of the ban’s temporary suspension by entering the U.S. quickly, as some visa holders have done — although some refugees who were scheduled to arrive early this week have been able to do so, according to the International Rescue Committee.

“The ban has put a wrench in the resettlement machine process,” said Geno Teofilo, a spokesperson for the Norwegian Refugee Council. “Now some of them will be allowed to go but how long will that last? We don't know. The refugees don't know. It is confusing; it is disheartening.”

Fisher added that “People are left in limbo and the problem is that the security and medical checks refugees undertake all have expiration dates, so if someone is cleared for travel then they have to wait because the cap has been filled, or an executive order temporarily stops their admission. Those people will have to undergo the same screening, same medical checks once there is room for them to travel.”

UNHCR reported that 800 refugees were immediately barred from entering the U.S., and the order could impact up to 20,000 refugees who could have been resettled during the 120-day ban. Refugees who were denied entry last week may have returned to shared homes or to refugee camps, where space is tightly limited. They are likely to have given up their possessions before making the journey to the U.S., including ration cards.

“We try to be optimistic, because this is going to be a delay,” Millman of the IOM said in a phone interview. “Most of the people who want to be resettled are out of their country and are waiting in a third country, so as long as they are safe that is the first thing we care about.”

While the organization is accustomed to responding to large-scale emergencies and projects and operating in uncertain contexts, he said, the order’s broader message of discrimination by nationality and religion is difficult.

“We don’t like seeing people told that they become too dangerous because the places they are fleeing from are so dangerous. It seems like that is a recipe to really change the perception of what refuge is, what asylum is,” Millman said. “So we hope that message comes through and people come to understand that someone from Yemen should not be discriminated against because they are from Yemen. Yemen is a dangerous place and it is going to generate people who need our help so we don’t want that to be a consideration.”

Editor’s Note, Feb. 10: This article was updated to reflect the ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals

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About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.

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