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The Obama Legacy on Refugees

The top U.S. refugee official, Anne Richard, talks to Refugees Deeply about President Obama’s legacy on forced migration, threats to asylum seekers’ rights in Pakistan and Kenya, and a shocking end to bipartisan support for resettlement.

Written by Daniel Howden Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
President Barack Obama walks to the podium to speak during the Leaders Summit on Refugees.AP/Carolyn Kaster

The Obama administration’s legacy on the global refugee crisis remains in the balance as it enters its final months in office. While the president’s Leaders’ Summit on Refugees in New York on September 20 delivered a raft of international pledges from new funding to refugee resettlement, top officials concede that there is no follow-up mechanism in place.

“The Obama administration is not in the driving seat on follow-up because we’re leaving in January,” said Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard, the administration’s lead on refugees and migration. Keeping track of commitments would fall to countries such as Germany or the U.N. refugee agency, she said, neither of whom have so far volunteered.

“It would be nice if one of the countries that cosponsored held some kind of check in the coming year, but nobody volunteered to do that at the summit,” said Richard.

In an interview with Refugees Deeply, the head of the Population, Refugees and Migration Bureau admitted the scorecard was “uneven” on the centerpiece of Obama’s efforts to make a lasting impact on the refugee crisis.

Anne Richard, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration sits with Syrian refugee students in a classroom of a Lebanese public school in Beirut. (AP)

Anne Richard, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration sits with Syrian refugee students in a classroom of a Lebanese public school in Beirut. (AP)

More than 50 countries turned up for a summit credited with doubling the number of resettlement places for refugees worldwide and adding $4.5 billion to humanitarian budgets over 2015 levels.

The scale of the global displacement crisis persuaded Obama to use his “stature and influence” to push for a more concerted international response, said Richard. But a combination of anti-immigrant sentiment in wealthier nations and fatigue in poorer countries, already hosting 90 percent of refugees, meant the going had been tough.

“You’re having a conversation with governments that at the outset may not want to do what you’re asking them to do but over time you convince them … or you wear them down,” said Richard.

The summit, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, was the culmination of intense U.S. lobbying, and participating countries had to commit to concrete action to earn an invitation.

What it took was “an action-forcing event” to break the inertia and create momentum for progress, she said.

“You see that the time is ripe for changes now, so people who’ve been thinking about things for years are trying to get things done because there’s a lot of attention on the issue. So the test is, are these real commitments or are they just to keep American diplomats from bothering them so much. Will they follow through now?”

Richard said she would not pretend the outgoing administration could monitor outcomes and said she hoped that Germany, a cosponsor of the leaders’ summit, or the UNHCR would take up that role.

“The president’s summit was a big exercise where we spoke to lots of governments and tried to get them to make tangible commitments,” said Richard. “I think the scorecard on that is probably uneven.”

She pointed to a mix of more cash commitments and resettlement places from developed countries, and more nuanced commitments on the legal status of refugees – the right to work and documentation – among the poorer nations already hosting the bulk of refugees. This incremental progress was, she argued, nonetheless progress.

“I detect changes, but they’re not changes like ‘the refugee crisis is solved,’ they’re more improvements in how we organize ourselves, more attention, more high-level involvement, more pushing from the U.S. in lots of different directions.”

Despite progress in some directions, Richard pointed to serious challenges to the principle of non-refoulement – the practice of not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they are likely to face persecution.

Human rights groups complain that large numbers of forced returns are under way in Kenya with Somali refugees and in Pakistan with Afghans, who have been given repeated deadlines to go home.

“The concern we have is people may not be electing to go to Afghanistan,” said Richard. “It may be that they feel they’re no longer comfortable in Pakistan and it’s something that we’re paying close attention to.”

In the case of Kenya, a U.S. ally in counterterrorism in the Horn of Africa, Richard said a middle way existed between mass returns of Somalis and permanent sprawling refugee camps.

“Do I want to close the camp and send everyone who is living there to Somalia? No. Do I want Somalis to be able to return to Somalia one day? Yes, of course. In between those two extremes are there ways we can start to – without doing anything radical like closing a camp and pushing everyone back.”

Richard said that Dadaab, the sprawling refugee complex on Kenya’s northern border with Somalia, was being shrunk by a mix of returns, resettlement of refugees and filtering out of Kenyan citizens who had wrongly settled there.

She insisted the U.S. continued to support the right to asylum and the principle of non-refoulement but elected not to criticize authorities in either Pakistan or Kenya. Similarly, she refused to criticize the role of the UNHCR in facilitating returns from either country.

“It’s important that entire populations of refugees from a country or society are not ruled out, but that they get a chance to make their case,” Richard said.

The end of the Obama era coincides with the emergence of deeply polarized views in the U.S. on the country’s leading role in resettling refugees.

The Obama administration has faced strong domestic opposition to increasing the number of refugees it resettles each year from from 85,000 in the fiscal year of 2016 to 110,000 in 2017. Republican lawmakers, most notably in Texas, have sought to block federal resettlement programs for Syrian refugees. The son of Republican nominee Donald Trump recently compared Syrian refugees to poisoned Skittles on social media.

Richard said she had been “shocked” by the U.S. national conversation this year. “We’ve had pushback on refugees. There has always been an ugly element that believes that the latest wave of newcomers are not to be trusted.”

She said that there had traditionally been bipartisan support for the U.S. giving refuge to the most persecuted people in the world, as “that is who we are,” but that this is now under threat: “What’s most alarming about the current discourse in American politics is that it’s a departure at the leadership level from defending that.”

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