How to Fix America’s Refugee Policy

by David Kampf

Submitting to fears of asylum seekers besieging the country, the United States is restricting entry and pulling back from international solutions to the global refugee crisis. But this hands-off—and walled-off—approach diminishes Washington’s ability to manage the issue and safeguard the country. Like it or not, the global refugee crisis will not disappear anytime soon and it will continue to pose strategic threats.

It is delusional to think other countries will solve the problem of mass human displacement for the United States and a mistake to let America’s refugee policy get bogged down in partisan infighting over broader immigration policy. To defend U.S. national security and protect refugees, the Trump administration should increase the number of refugees it resettles in the United States, lead a multinational effort to modernize the international humanitarian regime, and increase long-term funding for refugees around the world.

The State of the World’s Refugees

War, violence, and human rights violations have forcibly displaced more than 68 million people around the world. This includes more than 40 million internally displaced people who fled their homes but remain inside their home country, and 25 million refugees who crossed international borders. In 2017, an average of 30 people per minute or more than 44,000 per day were newly displaced. The majority of refugees fled the conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and South Sudan.

A disproportionate burden falls on developing countries, which host approximately 85 percent of the world’s refugees. The bulk of refugees seek shelter in neighboring states and do not migrate beyond their region. Around four in five refugees remain next door to their home country, never reaching Europe or the United States.

Turkey, Pakistan, and Uganda host the largest amounts of refugees, and big numbers of arrivals are affecting the demographics of host states. In Lebanon, one in four people is a refugee, and in Jordan, the ratio is one in three. The United States would host 108 million refugees if it hosted an equivalent number. In other words, if the United States hosted the same proportion of refugees as Jordan, the amount would be 12 times the population of New York City.

While it is commonly assumed that most refugees live in officially planned camps, only 25 percent actually do. Refugees instead seek employment and shelter elsewhere, with a significant number living in urban areas. In cities, many refugees do not have access to international humanitarian assistance and often face discrimination and harassment.

To make matters worse, many of these people are unable to return home for years. Temporary safe havens during emergencies often turn into protracted refugee situations—the majority of refugees are in such circumstances and their average time in exile is 26 years.

The United States has not faced the same influx of asylum seekers that Europe has in recent years. The human flow into Europe topped 1 million in 2015, but illegal entries have already fallen to pre-crisis levels. Given the difficulty that crossing the Atlantic Ocean poses, the United States did not endure the same surge.

Still, given fears that refugees will take American jobs, change or harm communities, and commit crimes or even terrorist acts, the Trump administration decided to decrease the number of refugees resettled and disengage from international efforts to address the crisis.

Washington capped refugee admissions at 45,000 for the fiscal year—the lowest ceiling in decades—and is shuttering resettlement offices around the country. The administration also boycotted an international conference on global migration, refusing to talk about a possible agreement on the issue, and withheld more than half of U.S. funding to the United Nations agency aiding Palestinian refugees.

Why a New Strategy Is Needed

Sober thinking on forced migration has become muddled by wider debates over immigration. Heated rhetoric about defending the homeland from illegal immigrants drowns out the need to protect refugees. But refugees are not illegal economic migrants. Refugees make up 10 percent of the total number of global migrants. Economic migrants move across borders to find better jobs and improve their financial standing. Refugees escape violence and persecution. It is not a choice, but a compulsion.

The forced movements of people beyond borders not only represent clear and present security threats in their home countries, but also pose challenges to the political situation, financial resources, and social stability in the countries where they end up. If the needs of both refugees and local communities are not met, security threats can metastasize, endangering the stability of the host country and region.

Amid chaos in fragile environments, desperate people are likely to keep moving until they have exhausted all their means and resources or they find safety, jobs, and secure livelihoods. If answers are not found in bordering states, refugees will seek refuge elsewhere.

Instability in the countries and regions most affected by refugees directly threaten U.S. interests. Its lack of proximity to geopolitical hotspots is not a sufficient defense. Unless Washington is prepared to suffer the long-term consequences of international insecurity, the administration should shape a global response that is in the interest of both the United States and refugees.

A Realistic Approach

International isolation and wishful thinking that other states will resolve the global refugee crisis are not working. The problem will not solve itself, and allowing instability to fester will only damage U.S. interests. The Trump administration needs to lead the international response with three new policies.

First, the United States should resettle at least 200,000 refugees a year. This increase will not solve the crisis by itself, but the amount is politically, economically, and socially feasible and it will enable wider efforts to improve the international community’s response to forced migration.

Resettling 200,000 people is a drop in the bucket of the total number of displaced around the world. But the symbolism is much more than that and it will not be lost on other countries. This increase will improve Washington’s moral standing and help persuade other developed nations to expand their own resettlement programs. New arrivals can help the economy and improve diversity.

The security threats posed by individual refugees are greatly exaggerated. Refugees are rigorously vetted and there is no evidence that refugees have increased the risk of terrorism in the United States. The United States has been a resettlement leader in the past, taking in more than 3 million refugees over the last 40 years. It has successfully managed to absorb significant numbers of refugees, including the resettlement of hundreds of thousands from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in the 1970s.

Second, the administration needs to lead a multinational effort to improve the global response to forced migration and refine the international humanitarian regime. The outdated approach of housing refugees in camps along the borders with their home countries is not enough, as most refugees have chosen to avoid camps altogether and their relocations are rarely brief.

The current playbook for responding to refugee outflows has not sufficiently incorporated the lessons from the past.

The United States played a major role in establishing the international refugee regime in the aftermath of World War II. The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol detail the responsibilities of signatories, and the United Nations refugee agency was tasked with coordinating the response to people fleeing persecution or serious harm. Starting in the 1980s, the policies and practices of the international community evolved toward a greater emphasis on caring for refugees in camps. More recently, there has been a shift to providing more cash assistance to refugees.

Current policies, however, are insufficient to deal with the current challenges. While there is recognition that an overreliance on encampments is a bad thing, there has not been enough progress to ensure support reaches refugees where they are actually located. Newer efforts have been half-baked. Refugees need the rights and opportunities to find jobs and integrate into local communities. Neighboring countries will continue to shoulder the bulk of the responsibility, but the international community can reduce the burden.

Third, Washington needs to increase funding for refugees. Instead of relying on surges of humanitarian aid to respond to emergencies that rarely fade as quickly as anticipated, money should be earmarked for the longer-term development of individuals and the countries where they seek refuge.

The greatest amount of attention and money typically materializes immediately after the initial outbreak of a crisis. Humanitarian responses are usually focused on providing food, water, medicine, and shelter to those in need. Unfortunately, in protracted situations this aid can create dependency over time among refugees who have no legal rights to get jobs and make a living.

After the immediate response to a new emergency, money would be better spent on longer-term development programs that will not only benefit the refugees, but also the host communities. This requires multiyear funding and sustained attention.

Containing the dangers posed and manifested by the global refugee crisis requires U.S. leadership. Without it, the problems are likely to get worse, not better. Trying to prevent entry into the United States and backing away from international solutions are short-sighted answers to a long-term problem. The United States needs to reverse course to improve its long-term safety and security.

David Kampf is a senior PhD fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies at The Fletcher School.


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