The Trump Administration's Long Overdue Revision of the Refugee Resettlement Program

By Nayla Rush on September 30, 2019

The Trump administration announced last week a number of measures to be implemented to the refugee resettlement program in FY 2020, which starts tomorrow. These include a lower refugee ceiling of 18,000 (a drop from last year’s 30,000); an end to the random selection of refugees for resettlement, to be replaced by a new focus on categories of special humanitarian concern such as religious minorities or Iraqis; a reduced reliance on the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) for the pre-vetting and selection process of refugees; and a possibility given to state and local governments to opt out of the program altogether and refuse to welcome refugees in their localities.

The revision of the refugee resettlement program is long overdue. Here’s a quick reaction to Thursday’s announcement (I’m sure I will be revisiting this issue pretty soon).

A Proposed FY 2020 Refugee Ceiling of 18,000

President Trump’s proposed FY 2020 refugee ceiling is set at 18,000. The official FY 2020 ceiling presidential determination will take place this week following consultation with Congress.

Let’s put these numbers in perspective. First, as I've written before, resettlement is just the tip of the iceberg of refugee protection and as such, it should not be the sole barometer of U.S. humanitarian efforts to assist refugees. 

Out of some 26 million refugees worldwide, and the 1.2 million refugees in need of resettlement according to UNHCR, only 81,337 were referred for resettlement in 2018 (0.3 percent of all refugees and 7 percent of those considered to be in need of resettlement), and only 75,188 in 2017. If the United States were to resettle all (some 80,000) that wouldn’t solve the problem of the millions stranded in countries close to their homes. Proximity help and working towards the safe and voluntary return of refugees have been the focus of the Trump administration since day one.

Proximity help cannot be in lieu of resettlement for certain cases, and these are the cases we should be resettling. Resettlement must only be a ticket out for those refugees who are genuinely at risk in the countries they've fled to. With that in mind, as I said last month, a refugee ceiling of 15,000 would cover most if not all of the UN's urgent and emergency submissions worldwide next year. Here’s why: only 17 percent (13,823 refugees) of UNHCR global resettlement submissions in 2018 were classified by the UNHCR as "urgent" or "emergency" cases. In 2017 that number was only 7.5 percent (5,639 refugees). A refugee ceiling of 18,000 gives plenty of margin to resettle all sensitive cases next fiscal year.

Put an End to the Random Selection of Refugees for Resettlement

The Trump administration is choosing to put an end to the random selection of refugees for resettlement that was based on UNHCR referrals and geographic divisions. Instead of abiding by regional directives and UNHCR submissions, the administration intends to prioritize certain populations of special humanitarian concern.

The proposed FY 2020 allocations are as follows: 5,000 slots designated for religious minorities, 4,000 slots for Iraqis who have assisted the U.S. military and diplomats, and 1,500 refugees who are nationals or habitual residents of El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras (in an effort to address the recent asylum surge and prevent genuine refugees from making the dangerous trip to the United States). The remaining 7,500 will include those referred to the resettlement program by a U.S. embassy in any location, those referred for family reunification, and those who are currently located in Australia, Nauru, or Papua New Guinea pursuant to an arrangement between the United States and Australia made in 2017.

I wrote about the U.S.-Australia refugee resettlement deal when it was clear President Trump was going to honor a deal made between the outgoing Obama administration and Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s prime minister at the time, to resettle Australia's unwanted refugees in the United States. Of the 1,250 asylum seekers concerned, I believe some were denied refugee status there, 200-300 were resettled in the United States, which means we could resettle around 800 under this category this upcoming fiscal year.

I have often decried the random selection of resettled refugees into the United States. Resettlement should be a protection tool available solely to the most vulnerable refugees but, for the most part, those are not the ones we are resettling (see here and here). The Trump administration is right to reshuffle this whole selection process: it should not be left in the hands of a few (mainly UNHCR staff) and should always be guided by nothing less than urgency and necessity.

Reduce the Role of UNHCR in the Resettlement Process

The Trump administration’s new proposal will reduce the role of UNHCR in the resettlement process whose staff has been entrusted with the entire selection and pre-screening process of refugees chosen for resettlement in the United States. The new system will allow refugees (including religious minorities and Iraqis) to apply for resettlement directly to U.S. authorities; U.S. embassies abroad will be playing a more active role.

Currently, the United States chooses the refugees it resettles mostly on the basis of referrals from UNHCR. Years ago, as I began researching the UN's role in the U.S. refugee resettlement program, I warned of the likely "subjectivity" of UNHCR's national staff (often citizens of the countries where they are working, usually in regions of turmoil and economic unrest). Their appraisals can be at best complaisant and at worst open to the highest bidder. By UNHCR's own admission, "Refugee status and resettlement places are valuable commodities, particularly in countries with acute poverty, where the temptation to make money by whatever means is strong. This makes the resettlement process a target for abuse."

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 is right to reassess its total reliance on this UN agency.

State and Local governments Can Opt Out of the Resettlement Program

In addition to the proposed resettlement numbers, President Trump signed an executive order last Thursday on "Enhancing State and Local Involvement in Refugee Resettlement" that states that "the Federal Government...should resettle refugees only in those jurisdictions in which both the State and local governments have consented to receive refugees under the Department of State’s Reception and Placement Program." Current consultations between the Federal government and states and localities about welcoming refugees into their communities are deemed insufficient. This new order will allow states and localities to give their approval (or veto) before refugees are sent into their communities. Refugees are entitled to certain taxpayer programs and may present special needs some localities cannot sustain or provide. With this new order, "[c]lose cooperation with State and local governments ensures that refugees are resettled in communities that are eager and equipped to support their successful integration into American society and the labor force."

Integration policies and practices are crucial to the success (or failure) of the resettlement of refugees. Refugees are not just parachuted into a void. As Jenny Phillimore, Professor and Director of the Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRIS) at the University of Birmingham has noted, refugees have a harder time integrating when they are sent into localities that have little experience with diversity or refugee resettlement. Positive reception and orientation are, therefore, necessary for a successful integration.

In 2015, Anne Richard, who was Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of the Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) at the time, seemed to agree, noting that the U.S. refugee resettlement program "only functions if we have the support of the American people, very much at the level of communities and societies and towns, to come forward and help these refugees...I certainly would not want to resettle anybody in a hostile community." Point taken.

Topics: Refugees