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Refugee resettlement

Nazanin Ash: The Trump administration is tearing apart U.S. refugee policy

Why resettling refugees is a matter of national security

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Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

Last week, the U.S. government announced the lowest cap on refugee admissions since the modern refugee resettlement program was established in 1980. And this year, the country is on track to take in fewer refugees than at any time in the past 50 years. Nazanin Ash, the International Rescue Committee’s vice president of global policy and advocacy, says that slashing the number of refugees resettled in the U.S. shouldn’t just worry us from a humanitarian angle. Refugee resettlement is a key component of American foreign policy and national security. By cutting the number of refugees we admit to the U.S., she says, we’re making the country less safe.

Before she joined the IRC, Ash was at the Department of State, where she served as deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and foreign assistance and aid effectiveness specialist. She got her start working in the field of global public health, responding to the AIDS epidemic, both on the ground in Kenya, and as a high-level coordinator here in the U.S.

Historically, the U.S. has had a good track record with resettling refugees. Between 1980 and 2016, the United States has more or less consistently resettled roughly two-thirds of the refugees cleared by the UNHCR annually, meaning that every year for the past couple of decades, we have welcomed around 70,000 refugees into the country.

Nazanin Ash, the IRC’s vice president of global policy and advocacy

But since the election of Donald Trump, those numbers have plummeted drastically: In 2017 and so far into 2018, the U.S. has accepted only one-third of refugees submitted for resettlement by UNHCR, even though the number of refugees submitted for resettlement by that agency has fallen by almost half. In real terms, that means only 24,559 refugees were admitted in 2017. We haven’t seen numbers this low since 2002 and 2003, in the aftermath of 9/11.

Those numbers don’t tell the whole story. The composition of refugees resettled here has changed, too: The number of Muslim refugees entering the US plummeted by 94 percent between 2016 and 2017, and the number of Syrian refugees resettled in the US in FY2018 hovers in the double digits. The American political climate around refugees and immigration has become so toxic that since President Donald Trump was elected, over 27,000 asylum-seekers have crossed into Canada from the U.S. overland.

“Over five million Syrians are displaced into neighboring countries,” like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, Ash says. “It matters to U.S. policy for these neighboring countries to be generous and helpful hosting refugee populations — to keep their borders open, to provide protection and safety to refugees and not to force their return prematurely. That can be incredibly destabilizing and that can amplify the consequences of conflict. Of the 15 largest returns of populations since 1990, a third of them have resulted in the restart of conflict.” But those countries are less inclined to host refugees if they don’t think at least some of the people entering their countries might be resettled in places like the U.S. and Western Europe.

Refugee policy serves our strategic global national security and foreign policy interests

This conversation explains why public opinion about refugee resettlement has changed so drastically in recent years. And we talk about how to get ordinary people and policymakers on board with the idea of resettling refugees in the U.S.

Related Resources

How to Save the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program — International Crisis Group

Slamming the Door: How Trump Transformed the U.S. Refugee Program — Reuters, Yeganeh Torbati and Omar Mohammed

The economic case for accepting refugees — Chicago Booth Review, Tarek Hassan

How America’s refugee policy is damaging to the world and to itself  — The Economist, Donald Kerwin

The Wrong Time to Cut Back on Refugees — The New York Times, Michael Mullen

Breaking down the stats as the U.S. plans to cut refugee arrivals to 30,000 — The International Rescue Committee