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How the US is failing refugees, in one chart

Since 1980, the number of refugees admitted into the US has generally declined, even though the need for resettlement has skyrocketed.

A person in a headscarf carries a small child past a soldier wearing camouflage.
Evacuees who fled Afghanistan walk through the terminal at Dulles International Airport in 2021.
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

For the first time on record, the global number of people forced to flee their homes has crossed the staggering milestone of 100 million, according to recent data from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

That 100 million includes refugees, asylum seekers, and those displaced inside their borders by conflict. If they were a single country, it would be the 14th most-populous nation in the world.

“It’s a record that should never have been set,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in a press statement. “This must serve as a wake-up call.”

It should especially serve as a wake-up call for rich countries like the United States that have fallen short of their moral and political responsibilities to the displaced.

“We very much have a national mythos around being a safe haven and being a nation of immigrants,” said Elizabeth Foydel, ​​the private sponsorship program director at the nonprofit International Refugee Assistance Project. “And for a long time, the US was the top country in terms of resettlement. But I think it’s definitely fair to say that we’ve been falling short over the past several years. You see a pretty significant decline overall.”

Just look at this chart. From a high in 1980, when the US Refugee Act was signed into law, the number of admitted refugees has generally declined.

You’ll notice some fluctuations, which correspond to historic crises around the world. There’s a spike in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, for example, and another spike in 2016 after the Syrian refugee crisis picked up steam. But overall, the past few decades are marked by a clear downward trend — even as the number of people being forced to flee their homes is climbing upward.

US resettlement is falling far short of global needs. Why?

The US has the capacity, resources, and room to be a safe haven for many, many people. Yet the current reality is that other countries around the world — often countries that have far less capacity and fewer resources — are hosting far greater numbers of displaced people relative to their population than the US is. In fact, at least until the war in Ukraine, developing countries were hosting 85 percent of the world’s refugees.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, these five countries were hosting the most refugees as of mid-2021:

  • Turkey: 3.7 million
  • Colombia: 1.7 million
  • Uganda: 1.5 million
  • Pakistan: 1.4 million
  • Germany: 1.2 million

To be clear, for a country to host a refugee does not necessarily mean it’s going to permanently resettle that refugee. And to a degree, it’s not surprising to find a lot of refugees in the countries neighboring their countries of origin. Some people may want to stay close to home in the hope that they can return, and getting from, say, Syria to Turkey is easier than getting all the way to the US.

Still, “many of these low- and middle-income countries don’t have the resources to be able to care for their own population, let alone millions of newcomers,” said Helen Dempster, an assistant director at the Center for Global Development. Yet developing countries have had to sustain millions of refugees for years because of insufficient resettlement from richer countries around the world, including the US. That, Dempster said, “leaves refugees with few options but to stay close to home.”

Foydel agrees. “The distribution of displaced people might look different if we actually had more robust resettlement by the US and other countries,” she said.

So, why has refugee resettlement been declining in the US?

If you look back 40 years ago or so, you can see that refugee resettlement used to be a bipartisan issue. There are comparable numbers in a George W. Bush year and in a Barack Obama year, for example. But over the past couple decades, we’ve seen pretty extreme politicization of what’s supposed to be a core part of the American narrative.

The 9/11 attacks were a major inflection point, Foydel explained. After that, it became more common to view refugees — especially those from the Middle East — as possible security threats. The resulting security vetting process became so incredibly rigorous as to function as a bottleneck.

Then came the rise in nativist discourse during the Trump presidency. The Trump administration slashed refugee admissions, and since the funding of refugee agencies is tied to the refugee cap, agencies were forced to lay off staff and shutter offices. Canada — which has little more than a 10th of the US population — overtook America as the global leader in resettlement.

Under Biden, the US is still trying to rebuild the resettlement infrastructure, though arguably too slowly. And the pandemic hasn’t helped matters. Although it’s understandable that Covid-19 shutdowns and travel restrictions hindered resettlement earlier in the pandemic, refugee advocates say that’s no longer an excuse.

What can the US do to fix this?

Part of the work of rebuilding the US resettlement program is undoing the damage that was done under previous administrations. That means staffing up the government agencies that do resettlement and streamlining the security vetting process.

The Biden administration is also working on getting a private sponsorship program up and running by the end of this year, one that would allow Americans to sponsor not only Afghan refugees, as I’ve previously written about, but refugees from any country.

The private sponsorship program will have two streams. One is identification: If a group of sponsors has someone particular in mind, they can nominate that person for resettlement. The other is matching: If a group doesn’t have a particular person in mind, the group will be matched with someone who is already being processed, helping that person to get out of a very lengthy pipeline.

For anyone interested in becoming a sponsor through this program, it’s a good idea to start preparing now, since it will likely require a fair amount of money. Canada’s highly successful private sponsorship program, for example, requires a sponsor to raise nearly $23,000 USD to bring over a family of four refugees. The US equivalent of that program could easily require money on a similar scale.

But it would be well worth it, since it would provide an immigration pathway so more vulnerable people can enter the US. Importantly, the State Department has signaled that any refugees who come to the US via private sponsorship will be in addition to the number of traditional, government-assisted resettlement cases.

“It’s very much our hope that that’ll significantly increase capacity,” Foydel told me. “What’s exciting about the private sponsorship program is that it can be a permanent sustainable mechanism for Americans to respond to emerging humanitarian crises.”

Hopefully Americans will make good use of it.

A version of this story was initially published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!

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