BROOKLYN, NY: While the U.S. boasts the largest resettlement rates in the world, recent years have seen the numbers dwindle, with new laws being passed against taking in refugees, especially from the MiddleEast and North Africa.
In the neighborhood of Rego Park, New York City, cars race down the multilane Queens Boulevard past the grand, gray-colored Rego Park Jewish Center – a reflection of the area’s huge Uzbek Jewish population. The Bukhara Jews, as they are called, were resettled en masse in New York in the 1970s and 1980s, fleeing pogroms in the former Soviet Union. While they continue to speak Russian and Bukharan among themselves, they have by and large been well integrated in the city, setting up renowned restaurants selling food from their homeland and building grand homes along the side streets.
This community – and its successful integration into American society – is the result of a targeted and deliberate policy in the form of the Lautenberg Amendment of 1989, which sought to give shelter to thousands of Jews facing persecution in the crumbling Soviet Union by recognizing a blanket refugee status. Yet U.S. resettlement policy for refugees today has not been as welcoming.
In September U.S. president Barack Obama ordered his administration to ramp up admissions of refugees from Syria to 10,000 by end of fiscal year 2016 after receiving criticism that his administration was not doing enough to help those fleeing violence in the Middle East. Yet more than six months later, the U.S. has resettled only 1,244 Syrians , far behind its 10,000 goal.
In Europe, too, the pathways to safety are narrowing: the E.U. and Turkey have begun the process of returning irregular migrants arriving in Greece after March 20 to Turkey. For every Syrian returned to Turkey, one Syrian is expected to be resettled in the E.U., up to 72,000. But the logistics and speed of the exchange have wavered.
This despite the fact that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has called on all U.N. member states to dramatically increase the number of Syrian refugees admitted for resettlement. Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, noted on March 30 that in 2015 only 12 percent of Syrian asylum seekers were resettled.
According to data from the Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System (WRAPS), a State Department-operated database, the U.S. resettled [more than 69,000 refugees](https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/refugees-and-asylees-united-states#Refugee Countries of Origin) in fiscal year 2015, which ended September 30. The top 10 resettled nationalities were from Burma, Iraq, Somalia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bhutan, Iran, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan and Cuba.
The need for resettlement has not been this high since World War II. There are currently 60 million refugees and internally displaced people throughout the world.
The Middle East is witnessing especially large waves of refugees fleeing ongoing conflicts. In three Middle East countries – Syria, Iraq and Yemen – the United States has played a significant role in the conflicts, either through political support for persecuting governments, arming warring factions or conducting its own bombing campaigns against the Islamic State group.
The UNHCR puts the number of refugees from Syria at more than 4.8 million. There are approximately 380,000 from Iraq – though the agency says that the number would be much higher if unregistered refugees were included. Almost 6,000 from Yemen have registered with UNHCR, though this excludes the many thousands of Somalis or Ethiopians, who have fled back to their home countries to escape the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen in the last year. At least 2.4 million people are displaced inside the country .
Despite the dire need for resettlement of refugees from countries like Syria, Iraq and Yemen, where the U.S. has played a role in conflict, the U.S. resettlement program – administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and and the Department of Homeland Security – is coming up short.
“U.N. agencies’ budgets are strained. Refugee camp budgets are being cut dramatically all over the place,” said Stacie Blake, director of government and community relations for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
Exhaustive security vetting and the limited number of resettlement spaces made available by the national program mean that fewer refugees are getting in every year. “As an advocate I believe that we have the capacity to resettle many more people fleeing persecution [in the Middle East],” Blake said. “Circumstances show the need today of making more resettlement slots available.”
But this is unlikely, given the current attacks by politicians on U.S. resettlement plans for refugees, said Tarah Demant, director of the identity and discrimination unit at Amnesty International USA. The rhetoric coming from politicians and pundits during the presidential race, she said, is having a real impact on policy and attitudes toward refugees among the American public.
“The rhetoric is impacting how the bills put to the floor target Muslims. It also affects the communities that might welcome refugees, creating a fear of people who might worship differently, or speak another language.”
Speaking of Syria, Iraq and Yemen, Demant said, “These are all countries where the U.S. has had some kind of role in the conflict. What we at Amnesty are troubled by is how refugees are being used as a political football [game].”
Demant sees the hostile rhetoric toward refugees from the Middle East as no more than a cynical means for getting ahead politically.
“This is not to make the U.S. safer,” she said. “This is purely to score political points.”
Indeed, in November, after the horrific attacks on Paris, France, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called Syrian refugees coming to the U.S. “one of the great Trojan horses,” saying that terrorists would sneak into the U.S. among them. Days later, Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz introduced a bill to the senate to block Middle Eastern refugees from entering the U.S. for three years. Governors in 30 states also asked for resettlement of Syrian refugees to stop, some issuing executive orders for state agencies to impede their resettlement.
Despite the anti-refugee rhetoric, the United States has historically been the largest resettlement country for refugees per volume of any country in the world, resettling some 70,000 people in fiscal year 2015.
According to Bill Frelick, the director of Human Rights Watch’s refugee program, another problem in resettlement of refugees from the Middle East is the complex bureaucratic processes in the U.S. resettlement program.
“The [U.S. resettlement program] was very slow off the mark in rescuing people from the Iraq crisis between 2003 and 2007, taking in very few refugees, sometimes as few as 100 to 150” each year, Frelick said.
The program, he added, “is not bringing people out of the fire when they need to get out. It leaves a large pool of people waiting because of security vetting and other statute procedures to resettlement … It’s becoming a very onerous, very slow process for particular nationalities.”
Frelick pointed out that there is scant international legal obligation that requires the U.S. to take in and resettle any refugees from overseas. He said that Human Rights Watch can often confidently point its finger at institutions or governments guilty of violations of human rights enshrined in law. But in this situation, it is nearly impossible to leverage legal responsibilities on the American government to take more concentrated action on refugees from particular regions and countries.
Regarding the number of refugees from specific countries allowed to resettle, he said, “these become political choices that are not human rights obligations. Usually [Human Rights Watch] is on very solid legal ground. But in this case, [refugee resettlement] is not actually a right.”
Yet Frelick, like Demant, conceded that part of the hostile legal atmosphere for resettlement of Middle Eastern refugees comes from lawmakers and politicians eager to capitalize on contentious social issues.
“Refugees and immigrants are an easy mark for demagogues. They play on the fear of different cultures and religions and add in fear of terrorism. Most refugees are not voters, so it’s easy to wage a popular campaign against them.”
He noted that the anti-refugee sentiment, particularly toward those from the Middle East, has materialized in the form of legislation like bill H.R. 4038, which would have required the heads of Homeland Security, FBI and National Intelligence to confirm that every Syrian or Iraqi refugee was not a security threat before they could be allowed into the U.S. The bill was passed by the House in November and made it to the Senate floor in January before being voted down by a narrow margin.
Further, Frelick says that the limited resettlement policy on the part of the U.S. for refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East is having a negative impact on the resettlement policy of states bordering the area of conflict.
“There’s a very strong negative impact on the other side of the world,” he said. Pointing out the case of displaced Syrians, he said that American unwillingness, or inability, to admit large numbers of Syrians only encourages border states to refuse Syrians further entry, or drive them to move elsewhere for resettlement.
“I would say the immediate impact is on Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. It gives them a bright green light to shut borders and keep Syrians from leaving.”
While advocacy groups urge the U.S. not to send the wrong message to other host countries, it is worth revisiting historical instances when the nation led by example. There have been times when the U.S. actually took responsibility for those whose lives were disrupted and sometimes destroyed due to its unilateral military interventions. In the 1970s, as Americans finally wound down involvement in the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands of refugees spilled out of South Vietnam.
Recognizing its duty toward those fleeing, the U.S. resettled more than 175,000 refugees from South Vietnam in the first two years following the fall of Saigon. The next two decades saw 400,000 more Vietnamese resettled in the U.S., many of them “boat people” fleeing political repression. More than 1 million Vietnamese became American citizens with a visible and relatively accepted presence in mainstream society.