The FY 2020 Refugee Ceiling?

15,000 could cover all UNHCR urgent and emergency submissions worldwide next year

By Nayla Rush on August 27, 2019

President Trump's determination of the FY 2020 refugee resettlement ceiling is set to take place very soon. If we are to believe a report by Politico, refugee admissions this upcoming fiscal year (October 1, 2019, to September 30, 2020) are set to drop dramatically, perhaps even to zero. Outraged responses were quick to follow.

All Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee — the Senate committee of jurisdiction over all refugee and immigration laws — forcefully condemned this anticipated cut that would, in their view, "do grave damage to our nation's values, our security interests, and our global standing" and "confirm that the Trump administration is outright abandoning our role as the humanitarian leader of the world."

Senior staff members of resettlement agencies also sounded the alarm. (These are the religious or community-based voluntary organizations, previously known as "volags", that work with, and are mostly funded by, the Department of State to resettle refugees inside the United States.) Jen Smyers of the Church World Service told Politico that the proposal for a near-shutdown of the refugee program could mean, in the long-term, "that the capacity and the ability of the United States to resettle refugees would be completely decimated." Elsewhere, Hans Van de Weerd of the International Rescue Committee responded to the reports of zero U.S. refugee admissions next year: "If confirmed, this decision is catastrophic for some of the most vulnerable people for whom resettlement is a life-saving last resort." Van de Weerd accused the White House of "abdicating America's legacy as a safe haven for persecuted people".

Away from moralizing and alarming stands, let's try to put matters into perspective. First, resettlement is not now being used as a lifeline for the most vulnerable refugees. Second, the United States is still the number-one resettlement country in the world, and it still leads the humanitarian appeal to help refugees and displaced populations abroad — not to mention the thousands of individuals to whom it grants asylum on its soil every year. Third, resettlement is only a few drops in the ocean.

And yet, the program does not need to be ended; it just needs to be rightly applied, as a ticket out only for those refugees who are genuinely at risk in the countries they've fled to. With that in mind, a 2020 refugee ceiling of 15,000 would cover most if not all of the UN's urgent and emergency submissions worldwide next year.

Resettlement, as It Is Applied Today, Is Not a "Life-Saving Last Resort" for Refugees

Contrary to common claims, for most refugees, resettlement is not a matter of life and death. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the agency with the international mandate to determine who is attributed refugee status, to provide refugee assistance, and to decide who is eligible for resettlement in third countries, including the United States. Data on its 2017 and 2018 resettlement activities shows that the vast majority of refugees referred to third countries for resettlement (including the United States) are neither the most vulnerable nor in urgent need of relocation. Almost all refugees (83 percent) submitted by UNHCR for resettlement in 2018 (figures are for the calendar year) were classified by UNHCR itself to be in "normal circumstances", where "there are no immediate medical, social, or security concerns which would merit expedited processing." Only 17 percent were "urgent" or "emergency" submissions. In 2017 (see "UNHCR Projected 2019 Global Resettlement Needs"), 7.5 percent of all submissions were urgent or emergency ones and 92.5 percent were "normal".

The U.S. Is Still the World Leader When It Comes to Humanitarian Outreach

The United States still leads the humanitarian appeal to help refugees on her soil and abroad. It is also the number-one resettlement country in the world and one of the biggest donors to the UN refugee agency.

Despite lower resettlement ceilings in FY 2018 and FY 2019 (45,000 and 30,000, respectively), the United States under the Trump administration resettled more refugees than any other nation in 2017 and 2018. Furthermore, in FY 2018 alone, the U.S. contribution to UNHCR "reached a historic high of nearly $1.6 billion to support UNHCR's response to historic levels of displacement and humanitarian need."

On top of resettling thousands of refugees and assisting millions close to their homes, U.S. humanitarian efforts include assisting thousands of asylum-seekers who are already present on American soil. In a 2017 hearing on "Oversight of the United States Refugee Admissions Program", then-Director of USCIS L. Francis Cissna reminded us of this equally humanitarian outreach: "The way we look at it, the asylum work that we do is complementary to the refugee work. These are all vulnerable populations. These are people seeking relief under the same standard." And as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo underlined last year, the FY 2019 refugee resettlement ceiling determination (lower than the previous fiscal year) reflected the "daunting operational reality" of addressing the "humanitarian crisis" of asylum seekers in the United States. The "Proposed Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2019 Report to Congress" provides us with valuable information in this regard: Since passage of the Refugee Act of 1980 the United States resettled more than three million refugees and granted asylum status to over 683,000 individuals. In recent years, the United States witnessed a significant increase in the number of asylum seekers on its soil:

The number of pending affirmative asylum cases at the end of FY 2018 is about 320,000 (approximately 492,000 individuals), a 10 percent increase from the end of FY 2017 and an increase of over 500 percent since FY 2009. This is in addition to the asylum backlog in the immigration court system, which stands at about 348,000 individuals. [Emphasis added.]

Pompeo was clear last year, the refugee ceiling "must be considered in the context of the many other forms of protection and assistance offered by the United States" and should not be the "sole barometer" to measure U.S. humanitarian efforts.

Resettlement, a Few Drops in the Ocean

Refugee advocates who are outraged by lower refugee ceilings under the Trump administration (past and anticipated) are less mindful of this administration's efforts to assist millions of refugees and displaced people overseas and address the lingering asylum backlog that is undermining the integrity of the asylum system in the United States.

Let's take as an example the Syrian crisis that began in 2011 and resulted in over five million Syrians seeking refuge in neighboring countries (including Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and others). While many were quick to denounce the drop of resettled Syrian refugees into the United States, they were oblivious to the fact that the United States is "the leading donor of humanitarian assistance in response to the Syria crisis", with more than $9.1 billion directed toward Syria-related humanitarian assistance since the beginning of the crisis. This reflects "the steadfast commitment of the United States to providing lifesaving support to the people of Syria impacted by conflict both inside Syria and throughout the region." As detailed in a 2019 State Department fact sheet,"the United States is providing urgently-needed food, shelter, sanitation and hygiene, medical care, education, and other relief to help assist the nearly 12 million people suffering inside Syria, as well as the nearly 5.7 million refugees in the region. A portion of this funding also helps support the host communities in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt that are generously hosting Syrian refugees."

In FY 2016, at the height of Syrian refugee admissions under President Obama, the United States resettled 12,587 Syrians, or 0.2 percent of the more than five million refugees there. Yet refugee advocates want us to believe that such small-scale resettlement (or the lack thereof) is a game-changer. Even if these numbers were to double, triple, or more, the reality is that resettlement remains a few rain drops in the ocean.

As Oxford economist Paul Collier has noted:

Migration to the West is a peripheral aspect of what to do when there's a conflict. ... Look, the refugees overwhelmingly are and are going to continue to be in countries that border the areas of the conflicts, so the fate of refugees does not really depend on whether a few thousand more come to the rich societies. What matters is what happens to the millions. [Emphasis added.]

The Trump administration has been clear from the beginning about how best to help refugees; it is not through expanded resettlement, but through support to refugees "close to their homes to help meet their needs until they can safely and voluntarily return home". As mentioned above, this administration's overseas assistance to refugees and displaced populations is beyond commendable.

Should We Get Rid of Resettlement? Is It Immoral?

Millions of refugees are living under terrible conditions in their own regions and resettlement of a few thousand is akin to a few drops in the ocean, so does this mean we should get rid of the resettlement program altogether?

Many, including several of my colleagues, have argued that proximity help should be in lieu of resettlement. Their reasoning goes along those lines: It makes more sense to help refugees where they are instead of bringing them here since we can assist many more over there with the resources available to us. Steven Camarota has estimated that "for what it costs to resettle one Middle Eastern refugee in the United States for five years, about 12 refugees can be helped in the Middle East for five years, or 61 refugees can be helped for one year." Art Arthur invited readers to #StandWithRefugees, but do the math; meaning, use a cost-benefit approach and utilize American taxpayers' money to "do the most good for the largest number of those displaced around the world." Mark Krikorian went even further, calling refugee resettlement immoral, and explaining how it was "morally unjustifiable to help the few at the expense of the many". Krikorian uses this powerful image: "each refugee we bring to the United States means that 11 others are not being helped with that money. Faced with 12 drowning people, only a monster would send them a luxurious one-man boat rather than 12 life jackets."

I don't fully agree with these stands. Let me explain.

Resettlement is definitely not the appropriate answer (whether financially or morally) when randomly used. Choosing to offer a lucky few a better life in the United States and leaving behind millions of others who are undergoing common hardships is, indeed, not morally commendable. But resettlement properly understood is not about helping a "few at the expense of the many". Rather, resettlement, if applied as originally intended, is about getting one off the boat (to use Krikorian's metaphor) to a safe place because, unlike the other 11, that one cannot survive long enough to make it to shore. It is about throwing that one life jacket to the one on the boat who cannot swim.

The resettlement program does not need to end, but the way it is applied today needs to change. As underlined by the State Department, the U.S. resettlement program is intended to serve refugees "who are especially vulnerable; those who fled violence or persecution and cannot safely stay where they are or return home." But that is not who the United States is currently resettling (see here and here). The majority of refugees resettled here could have stayed in the countries they fled to. While most did, undoubtedly, suffer from unemployment, destitution, and despair in their country of first refuge, those hardships alone are not grounds for resettlement. Otherwise, most refugees, millions of them, would be eligible to be resettled into Western countries.

FY 2020 Ceiling: Whom Should We Resettle, and How Many?

Currently, most refugees chosen for resettlement in the United States are selected solely on the basis of referrals from UNHCR. As noted earlier, we know that only 17 percent (13,823 refugees) of UNHCR global resettlement submissions in 2018 were urgent or emergency ones. In 2017 that number was only 7.5 percent (5,639 refugees). In both years, the United States was the top resettlement submission country, with 36 percent of all submissions. Assuming UNHCR's global urgent and emergency submissions are up to 15,000 next year, and the U.S. focus is on resettling 36 percent of those cases only, then the FY 2020 resettlement ceiling should be 5,400. Should the United States decide to resettle 50 percent of those cases, we'd get a ceiling of 7,500. For 100 percent support, the ceiling maxes out at 15,000.

There are other considerations, some say, that the U.S. government should take into account when determining resettlement ceilings. For instance, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reportedly urged the Trump administration to keep the FY 2019 refugee ceiling at 45,000 (it was finally set at 30,000) to be able to keep reaching out to Iraqi nationals who "have risked their own lives and their families' lives by aligning with our diplomats and warfighters." Mattis explained that "[w]hen the authorization of the Special Immigrant Visa program [for Iraqi nationals who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. government] for Iraq expired in 2014, the United States Refugee Assistance Program Priority 2 program became the means for the USG to provide safe passage for these Iraqis."

The Iraqi SIV program that began in 2008 ended on September 30, 2014. While new applications are no longer accepted, hundreds of SIVs are issued to Iraqis each year according to official data (890 in FY 2015, 2,049 in FY 2016, 2,455 in FY 2017, and 605 in FY 2018).

While the commitment to help those who risked their lives for us should remain strong, the solution is not by creating more spots within the resettlement program, a program vulnerable to fraud and corruption. At a time when stories about alleged corruption in refugee resettlement at the UNHCR are being published, and widespread reports of UNHCR staffers accepting bribes from refugees in order to refer them for resettlement in a Western country are being documented, the United States needs to reassess its total reliance on UNHCR instead of expanding its refugee resettlement program. If the U.S. government deems it appropriate, it can reactivate the SIV program for Iraqis or find other official routes to help those who assisted U.S. troops abroad.

The United States must not diverge from the raison d'être of the resettlement program, a protection tool for exceptionally vulnerable refugees in situations where it is impossible for them to remain in their host country. Even if the Trump administration decides to resettle all urgent and emergency cases submitted by UNHCR worldwide next year, a FY 2020 refugee ceiling of 15,000 is more than sufficient and utterly commendable.

Topics: Refugees