What is the US' commitment to protecting refugees?

OGB_121404_Zahera_,Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh - Covid-19 response (3).jpg
Zahera Khatun (name changed) pictured in Cox's Bazar refugee camp, Bangladesh. Close to a million Rohingya people fled violence in Myanmar to seek refuge in Bangladesh. Photo: Fabeha Monir/Oxfam

Your guide to understanding the presidential determination for refugee admissions and how President Biden can save lives by resettling refugees in the US.

Historic numbers of people are fleeing war, conflict, and serious human rights violations worldwide, and yet, instead of offering shelter to those refugees, the United States has been slow to meet the current moment and respond to the global need. More than 26 million people have fled their homes to seek safety in other countries, yet less than one percent of them will be able to find safety in a third country through resettlement. And only a small fraction of that one percent can hope to find safety in the United States.

On September 20, the Biden administration announced that it would welcome up to 125,000 refugees over the coming fiscal year. It’s part of a process that takes place every September, where the president, after consulting with Congress, determines the maximum number of refugees who can be resettled in the US in the next 12 months. This announcement fulfills a campaign promise to resettle up to 125,000 refugees during his first full fiscal year as president. However, it fails to meet the urgency and need of the current moment, and risks leaving thousands of refugees out in the cold, particularly in light of the growing need to provide safety and protection to newly-displaced Afghan families.

Read on to learn about the US refugee admission process and the role of the presidential determination.

How does refugee resettlement work?

Resettlement is an option offered to people who cannot return to their home country safely, and also cannot stay in the country they fled to without continued or additional risks. In most cases, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) identifies and screens these people and then works to find them a new home in a third country that accepts resettled refugees. Resettlement is a very specific type of protection, offered only to refugees who have needs that cannot be met through other means .

In the US, the number of slots is set by the annual presidential determination. For decades, the US has resettled more refugees than the rest of the world combined under both Republican and Democratic presidents. But under the Trump administration, the refugee resettlement program was intentionally decimated and the US  dramatically shirked its responsibilities and the longstanding bipartisan tradition of welcoming people fleeing persecution.

What is the presidential determination?

The Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions sets a maximum target number of refugees that the United States will welcome in a fiscal year. A variety of factors can contribute to the actual number of refugees resettled each year, but typically presidents seek to set a goal commensurate with need. US officials work in partnership with resettlement agencies and local communities to resettle as many people as possible within the annual goal.

Why does the presidential determination matter?

The lower the presidential determination, the fewer people in need of protection who can be resettled in the US. Globally, the number is seen as an indicator of US commitment to protecting refugees and upholding human rights. When that number dips, the rest of the world may see it as an example of the importance (or lack thereof) of the need to protect refugees—and many countries set their own resettlement numbers accordingly.

How many refugees does the United States resettle each year?

Between the start of the US Refugee Admissions Program in 1980 and the end of the Obama administration, the average annual presidential determination had been 95,000. While President Trump was in office, his administration gutted the refugee resettlement program, dramatically cutting its goals and the number of people resettled. In his last fiscal year in office, for example, President Trump set the target number at 15,000, and failed to meet that low threshold.

Migration Policy Institute

Why does the US resettle refugees?

Resettlement is a life-saving measure for a small percentage of some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Refugees contribute greatly to the economy and communities in which they are living and are weaved deeply into the fabric of the United States. Welcoming those in need of refuge is a fundamental part of our national story.

Refugee resettlement helps make the US a global leader in protecting human rights and sets an example that the rest of the world heeds and emulates. Refugee resettlement also helps to create stability in the US and the regions refugees flee and is an important foreign policy tool in showing solidarity with the low- and middle-income countries which host the vast majority of the world’s refugees.

What is Oxfam advocating for?

As the global displacement crisis worsens, the wealthiest nation on Earth absolutely has the capacity and resources to make a bolder commitment that upholds the full potential of this nation’s promise.

“With the lives of tens of thousands of people on the line, the reported refugee resettlement goal is simply insufficient to meet the vast scale of global need,” Noah Gottschalk, Oxfam America’s Global Policy Lead, states. "While the goal of welcoming up to 125,000 people fulfills a promise made by President Biden on the campaign trail—and reaffirmed in May—it no longer meets the urgency and need of the current moment.”

Oxfam will continue to push the Biden administration to increase the number of refugees welcomed by the US and to rebuild a refugee resettlement infrastructure intentionally decimated under the previous administration.

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