What is the US' commitment to protecting refugees?

By Oxfam
Kutupalong Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, has housed thousands of Rohingya refugees for more than two years. Photo: Kelsey-Rae Taylor/Oxfam

Your guide to understanding the presidential determination for refugee admissions

More people than ever before 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 formal resettlement program began almost 40 years ago. Nearly 26 million people have fled their homes to seek safety in other countries, yet of those fleeing, less than one percent will find safety in a third country through a formal resettlement program. And only a small fraction of that one percent can hope to find safety in the United States.

In the coming weeks, the Trump administration will decide the number of refugees to be resettled in the US over the next year. Now's the time to get up to speed on how refugee resettlement numbers are determined—and the need to speak out and defend this important program.

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 Refugee Agency (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 the world’s most vulnerable refugees.

The number of refugees resettled each year depends in part on the number of spaces governments open to refugees. In the US, this number is called the presidential determination, and is set by the president in consultation with Congress. Historically, the US has resettled more refugees than the rest of the world combined. But for the past several years, the number of spaces available for protecting refugees from human rights violations has shrunk alarmingly.

What is the presidential determination?

The Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions (also referred to as the “presidential determination,” or PD) is the number of refugees to be accepted into the United States in a fiscal year through its resettlement program. A variety of factors can contribute to the actual number of refugees resettled each year being higher or lower than the number set in the presidential determination.

Why are we hearing so much about the presidential determination right now? Why does it matter?

The presidential determination is considered a maximum number for resettlement. 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 resettlement numbers accordingly. So far, other countries have not stepped in to fill the gap left by US withdrawal over the past two years, which means that fewer refugees worldwide are finding protection.

How many refugees does the United States resettle each year?

Since the program began in 1980, the average number of refugees resettled in the US has been 95,000 per fiscal year. The cap in the last fiscal year was set to 45,000, yet the US resettled a paltry 25,000. This was due to a combination of low number of slots offered and multiple attempts by the Trump administration to limit refugee admission. In the current fiscal year, the PD is at a historic low—just 30,000—and the US is on track to resettle between 25,000 and 30,000 refugees.

One proposal for the upcoming presidential determination is to set refugee resettlement at zero.

A zero determination will leave tens of thousands of people in genuine danger. This plan would effectively shut down the refugee resettlement program and redirect its resources, and it will not be quick or easy to restore that in the future.

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?

Our nation was founded by immigrants and has been enriched by all those who have arrived on our shores. 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. Turning our back on the oppressed means forsaking what it means to be American.

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 on displacement and persecution.

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

Oxfam believes the upcoming presidential determination should set a minimum target of 95,000 resettled refugees. Senator Markey and Representative Lofgren have introduced legislation to make this happen, and Oxfam supports this initiative. The bill includes provisions to monitor and support the refugee resettlement program to make this a reality. Beyond that, Oxfam is advocating for future presidential determinations to be set at 125,000 refugees to be resettled each year.

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