A day after announcing that the U.S. plans to accept the fewest number of refugees in modern history next year, the State Department justified the decision by saying many refugees don’t want to come to the U.S. anyway.
Heather Nauert, the State Department’s chief spokesperson, defended the Trump administration’s decision to accept a maximum of just 30,000 refugees in 2019 — the lowest cap in the 43-year history of the U.S. refugee program — in part by positing that most refugees would rather remain in their war-torn homelands.
"When you talk about refugees,” Nauert said, “those are people who by and large do not want to come to the United States.”
Despite the Trump administration’s position, a majority of Americans — 66 percent — support taking in refugees fleeing violence, according to a new poll by Pew Research Center published Wednesday. The latest study does not take into account how this support breaks down between Republicans and Democrats, but support for refugees increasingly falls along party lines.
Nauert didn’t specify whether she’d actually polled the world’s population of more than 25 million refugees, but Nazanin Ash, vice president for global policy and advocacy and the International Rescue Committee, one of nine national organizations working with the State Department to resettle refugees, said returning home simply isn’t an option for most refugees.
"Do they want to go home? Many will say yes,” Ash said. “But it’s what comes after that first part that’s important. It’s ‘Yes, if it’s safe to do so. If my children could be safe, if I could return to my land.’ Refugees who are in the resettlement program by definition want to be resettled. They have signed up.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Monday that the Trump administration plans to slash refugee admissions for the second consecutive year by cutting the total number of people who can be admitted from 45,000 in 2018 to 30,000 in the coming year. That’s down from a cap of 110,000 that was set during President Obama’s last year in office.
In practice, far fewer refugees will likely be allowed into the country. The Trump administration has weaponized the resettlement programs’ labyrinthine bureaucracy, experts say, using red tape and enhanced security screenings to slow the flow of refugees to a trickle.
This year, the U.S. is on pace to admit just 22,000 people who have fled violence and persecution in their native countries, including Iraqis who helped the U.S. military and civilians seeking to escape U.S.-involved conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria.
“We’re worried that even though the ceiling is at 30,000, even fewer will arrive next year, and it will be similar to this year, where less than half of the actual ceiling arrived,” said Mia Witte, Associate Director for Resettlement at Church World Service, a national organization that resettle refugees. “We might realistically see 15,000 admissions, which would be terrible.”
Beyond claiming that refugees would rather not come to the U.S, the Trump administration has justified the move by saying the U.S. will support programs that help refugees abroad so they can remain closer to their homelands. The administration has also said it intends to devote resources for the refugee program toward clearing a growing backlog of asylum cases, though critics maintain the U.S. has the resources to do both.
The U.S. is gutting its refugee program at a time of unprecedented global need. Nearly 70 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced from their homes due to war, climate change, and other factors, according to UNHCR. Of those, more than 25 million are refugees, and 1.2 million are in need of resettlement to the U.S. and other countries. Children currently make up half the world’s refugee population, according to UNHCR.
President Trump has long been a critic of refugee resettlement, and one of his most infamous campaign pledges was a promise to ban Syrian refugees and other Muslims from entering the country. A poll conducted by Pew earlier this year found that only 26 percent of Republican voters think the U.S. has responsibility to accept refugees — down from 35 in 2017. Democrats, predictably, break the other way, with 74 percent saying the U.S. has a responsibility to take in refugees. Overall, 51 percent of Americans said the U.S. has a responsibility to take in refugees.
Despite the highly polarized atmosphere surrounding a program that’s historically enjoyed bipartisan support, resettlement experts say Americans across the country remain ready and eager to help as many refugees as they can.
“When you talk to people from communities across the country, there are people from both sides of the aisle all wanting to receive and support refugees,” Witte said. “But without the federal government’s approval, efforts to make this program work, we’re just not able to realize that.”
But the longer-term problem is that the cuts to the program by Trump could take years to reverse, since resettlement agencies are being forced to close offices and lay off staffers. And in the meantime, the U.S. is now in a position of passing the buck along to other, poorer countries such as Lebanon, Bangladesh, and Uganda.
"What we hear increasingly from those countries who are hosting and always will host the majority of refugees is they say, 'If the US won’t, why should we?'” Ash said. “We’re already seeing that domino effect. The words are quite literally 'If wealthy nations won't, why should we?' That’s a dangerous trend for the world’s refugees."
Cover image: A Syrian refugee boy stands in front of his family tent at a makeshift camp for refugees and migrants next to the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, November 30, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis/File photo