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Under Trump, the US will admit the lowest number of refugees in decades

The Trump administration announced it will resettle no more than 30,000 refugees next year; aid agencies say the US is “abdicating humanitarian leadership”.

By Sophie McBain

The United States on Monday announced it was capping the number of refugees admitted to the country at 30,000, the lowest number since the US’s refugee resettlement programme was established in 1980.

This is the second consecutive year that the Trump administration has restricted the number of refugee resettlement places: last year it more than halved the number of places to 45,000. It has cut these numbers despite the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, warning that we are currently witnessing the highest levels of displacement in human history, with over 68.5 million people having been forced from their homes by violence and persecution.

It’s important to remember that countries including the United States rarely meet their resettlement quotas, so the US is unlikely to meet its new cap of resettling 30,000 refugees in the coming year. According to The Associated Press, for the current fiscal year (which ends 30 September), the US has admitted just 20,918 refugees.

Globally, only one per cent of refugees are resettled. The vast majority of the world’s refugees live in developing countries that lack the financial and political resources to support them. Resettlement is a way for refugees deemed by UNHCR to be “most vulnerable” – a group that includes the sick and disabled, unaccompanied children and single mothers, victims of gender-based violence and LGBTI refugees who face persecution – to move permanently to wealthy countries that can better support them, mostly in North America and Europe.

The United States has historically been a world leader when it comes to refugee resettlement, offering over half of the world’s resettlement places. By cutting back on this role, the Trump administration is “abdicating humanitarian leadership,” the International Rescue Committee, which helps run US refugee resettlement programmes, said in a statement.

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Following the announcement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo justified the decision by pointing to the US backlog of asylum cases. As numerous observers have pointed out, this is misleading, conflating two very different immigration processes. Under international law, the US is obligated to assess the claim of any individual who enters the country and says they are seeking asylum from persecution. Should their claim be rejected, they may be deported.

Refugees who are being resettled to the US have already had their claim to asylum assessed and accepted, which means they cannot legally be deported by their host country. Then they must pass through two more vetting processes: first they must be assessed by UNHCR as being extra-vulnerable, and second they must pass through the US government’s vetting procedures, which are the toughest in the world, and have become even more strict under President Donald Trump.

“In justifying its policy intention, the Administration has pitted those seeking asylum against refugees. A choice between asylum programs and refugee programs is a false one. The Administration has the resources it needs to effectively administer both programs, as historic admissions levels prove,” Said Nazanin Ash, Vice President of Policy and Advocacy at IRC, said in a statement.

The new restrictions on resettlement numbers form part of the Trump administration’s broader attacks on immigrant communities, from the rising number of deportations, to the family separations carried out under the “zero tolerance policy” at the border and the threats to denaturalize foreign-born Americans and to lift protections from the Dreamers and others with special immigration statuses.

The impact will be similarly devastating. Trump’s policies will mean that tens of thousands more vulnerable people will languish in unsanitary, unsafe refugee camps or struggle on the margins of some of the world’s poorest and most volatile countries.