What is the US' commitment to protecting refugees?

By Oxfam
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

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 is shutting them out, admitting fewer refugees than at any time since the US Refugee Admissions Program began over 40 years ago. Twenty-six 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. And now, the Trump administration has proposed capping refugee admissions for the coming year at just 15,000 people, the lowest number ever. What does this mean for refugees? And for the US as a whole? Read on to learn about the US refugee admission process and the role of presidential determinations.

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 specific needs that cannot be met through other means .

The number of refugees resettled each year depends on both the global scale of need as well as on the number of spaces governments open to refugees. 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 US has shirked its responsibilities and the longstanding bipartisan tradition of welcoming people fleeing persecution.

What is the presidential determination?

The presidential determination on Refugee Admissions (or PD) is the maximum number of resettled refugees to be accepted into the United States 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 PD commensurate with need and US officials work in partnership with resettlement agencies and local communities to resettle as many people as possible within the annual ceiling.

Why does the presidential determination matter?

The presidential determination is a ceiling, not a goal. The lower the number is, the fewer people in need of protection will be resettled to 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. Since coming to office, however, the Trump administration has dramatically cut both its admissions ceilings and the number of people resettled. Last fiscal year, for example, President Trump set the limit at 18,000, but admitted less than two-thirds of that number. This year, we’re on track to admit even fewer vulnerable people.

Has the United States always resettled refugees?

While the refugee resettlement program has been functioning since 1980, the US was accepting relocated refugees through informal processes even before that.

Migration Policy Institute

Why should 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 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 mostly developing countries which host the vast majority of the world’s refugees.

What does Oxfam think about this year’s presidential determination number?

“President Trump’s heartless decision to slam the door on refugees is un-American, immoral, and will have disastrous consequences for the lives of thousands of vulnerable families fleeing horrendous violence and persecution,” says Oxfam America Senior Migration and Protection Campaign Lead Isra Chaker. “While it may be tempting to overlook this announcement as just the latest in this administration’s shameful and cruel track record of xenophobic policies and statements, the reality is this decision deals a devastating blow to countless families for whom resettlement to the US is a matter of life or death.”

With 26 million refugees around the world, the US can and should do much more to welcome families who desperately need to find a safe place to go.

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