What the current situation in Afghanistan is revealing about the Biden administration’s refugee policy

Illustration: Sandy Stowe/Oxfam

We must respond now to help Afghan people fleeing their homes and refugees around the world find safety and security, including raising the refugee cap.

The world has been watching as thousands of Afghan families have been forced to flee their homes in search of safety. Before the current crisis, there were already 2.9 million people displaced within Afghanistan, and 2.5 million Afghans living as refugees outside their country. In fact, according to the UN, Afghans account for an astounding 11 percent of the world’s refugees.

As this human tragedy unfolds, Oxfam is warning that without a swift humanitarian response and the urgent evacuation of people in need of safety, we will be confronted with a full-blown catastrophe. To date, however, the actions of the Biden administration have been severely lacking.

In the words of Noah Gottschalk, Oxfam America’s Global Policy Lead, despite having the resources to ensure the safe and immediate evacuation of Afghans in danger, the US response has been “shockingly slow and woefully inadequate.”

That’s why Oxfam is calling on the US to pull out all of the stops and use all the available tools at its disposal to welcome Afghan refugees, particularly human rights defenders, women’s rights activists, and members of ethnic and religious minority groups.

The administration’s failure to act more swiftly only reinforces the disturbing pattern we have seen since President Biden took office—a failure to live up to his campaign promises to create a more just and humane immigration and asylum system grounded in respect for human rights and the protection of people fleeing persecution.

As thousands of Afghans are forced to leave home to seek safety, they join millions of people on the move around the world. Here is more information about the global scale of need, how the US is responding, and what we can do to help.

What does the overall global displacement crisis look like?

Right now, 1 in every 95 people on earth has been forcibly displaced by conflict or persecution, amounting to more than 82 million people. Among them are more than 26 million refugees, around half of whom are under the age of 18. The root causes of global displacement are stark: hunger, extreme poverty, and the growing threat of climate change in addition to violence, conflict, and persecution are leaving people with no choice but to leave their homes in search of safety.

In emergencies, women and girls are often impacted the most. What are some of the particular challenges they face?

Every day, countless women face gender-based violence and persecution that forces them to leave their homes in search of safety and security. They have little hope of protection from their own governments, who are frequently complicit in or indifferent to the violence.

Refugee and displaced women and girls are at greater risk from gender-based violence, with refugee women twice as vulnerable to sexual violence. One in five displaced women living in humanitarian crisis and armed conflict have experienced gender-based violence.

Many, like Joy and Katerine, women who left their home countries in search of asylum who are now living in Tijuana, are subjected to further violence in Mexico and other countries of transit as they make their way to the US. Oxfam has called on President Biden to fix the US asylum process to provide lifesaving refuge to people fleeing persecution because of their gender. In many countries that are in conflict, women continue to be at the forefront advocating for human rights and peaceful resolutions, like these peace activists in South Sudan.

What can the Biden administration do to better welcome refugees?

President Biden came to office promising to undo many of the harmful policies implemented by the previous administration, but more than six months later, we have seen far too little progress, and far too much continuity with the anti-refugee policies of the past. From continuing to send asylum seekers at the border back into harm’s way to failing to keep immigrants in crowded detention facilities safe during a deadly pandemic, the Biden administration’s policies have fallen far short of his commitments and our nation’s legal obligations. While the president has taken some positive steps, such as releasing comprehensive immigration legislation that would create a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented people in the US, this remains stalled in Congress. The good news is that President Biden doesn’t have to wait for Congressional action: he has the power to protect countless people, including by ending the cruel and illegal policy of expelling refugees back to danger and fixing asylum rules to ensure they protect survivors of gender-based violence.

How has Oxfam responded to the global refugee crisis?

Oxfam has worked with local leaders all over the world to prevent the conditions that cause families to flee. We help displaced people with immediate basic needs for clean water, shelter, food, and work, but we also advocate for their long-term well-being, both in their own nations and in the countries that host them. We also:

  • Engage with allies and all levels of government to focus on peace and find inclusive and sustainable solutions to the conflict and violence that impact so many lives.
  • Push for wealthy countries to be more responsive to this global crisis and to do their fair share by responding to the needs of refugees and welcoming them for resettlement.
  • Advocate for public policies that will protect the rights of displaced families as they strive to rebuild their lives and guarantee their children a better future—in their own countries or the ones in which they settle.

In Central America for example, we are supporting communities to challenge gender-based violence, corruption, and impunity, like in El Salvador, where we have trained more than 400 women leaders on violence prevention, or Honduras, where an Oxfam-supported women’s shelter has trained nearly 100 case workers to provide emotional and legal support to survivors of domestic violence.

Here in the US, we are advocating for the Biden administration and Congress to reject the xenophobic policies of the past and create a humane immigration system that protects refugees and asylum seekers. So far, Oxfam’s legal efforts have enabled thousands of children seeking asylum at the border to reunite with their families in the US, and together with our partners we successfully pushed the administration to commit to welcoming more refugees from around the world this year. But with crises on the rise, we still have more to do.

Refugee admissions

This month, we expect President Biden to announce the number of refugees the United States will admit over the coming fiscal year. Oxfam calls on him to respond to the urgency of the moment by committing to resettling 200,000 refugees.

“President Biden’s original goal of admitting 125,000 people is simply no longer an appropriate commitment in light of the current moment and scale of global need,” says Gottschalk. “The United States cannot simply turn its back on families forced to make the last-resort decision to flee their homes in search of safety. Afghan refugees, and refugees around the world, make the difficult decision to leave everything behind in the absence of any other safe or viable option.”

Demand the Biden administration support the Afghan people and refugees worldwide with actions, not words, by raising the US refugee admissions goal to 200,000.

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