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The Trump administration doesn’t believe in the global refugee crisis

Ever since the Holocaust, the US has been a global leader in welcoming refugees. Now, it’s withdrawing from the global community on the issue entirely.

Syrian refugee Jamila Al-Mustafa wipes her eyes as her husband tells their story to a group protesting US President Donald Trump's revised travel ban outside the US Court of Appeals in Seattle, Washington on May 15, 2017.
Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty

Since World War II, the United States has been the world’s leader in resettling refugees. Most refugees never got the chance to come to a new country and start a new life, but if they did, there was a substantial chance — even a 50 percent chance — that the country that welcomed them was the United States.

After less than a year in office, Donald Trump has not only officially drawn the era of global refugee leadership to a close. He’s withdrawn the US from the global community for refugee protection.

Domestically, the Trump administration has declared that it will allow no more than 45,000 refugees into the US during the current fiscal year (which began on October 1 and continues through September 30, 2018). That number is less than half the total of the last years of the Obama administration, when the government set its refugee “ceiling” to at least 100,000 refugees in the last two years. The Trump administration’s newly announced levels are, in fact, the most restrictive limit the United States has set in the 70-year history of refugee resettlement.

And internationally, the US announced over the weekend that it’s officially pulling out from the United Nations’ Global Compact on Migration — which is meeting for three days in Mexico this week, as countries keep trying to hammer out a framework for settling the 60 million-plus displaced people around the world. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, claimed a “global approach” to the crisis is “simply not compatible with U.S. sovereignty.”

This should come as no surprise. The Trump administration has been trying to slash refugee levels since it arrived in office, and is now implementing a refugee policy that is grounded in suspicion that the US really needs refugees, or that refugees need the US. The rationale that Trump and company use is that the United States no longer believes it has an obligation to open the doors to the world’s most vulnerable.

The US is rejecting the very idea of a “global refugee crisis” — instead taking it for granted that countries have a responsibility for the lives of their citizens, and that if those countries have failed, people who are similar to the displaced citizens ought to step up to help.

The Trump administration isn’t just walking away from helping those people who would have been resettled under the Obama administration. It’s walking away from the idea that any country ought to take moral leadership for refugees — and, indeed, it’s not at all clear that any other country will.

Trump has fought hard to rebuff the US’s humanitarian commitments on immigration

Almost a year into the Trump administration, there are few issues on which the federal government has both talked the talk and walked the walk. The wall with Mexico looks very different from the one promised on the campaign trail. But when it comes to refugees, the Trump administration has acted loudly and decisively since its arrival.

The administration has worked both to send the world a message — that the US is putting its own sovereignty ahead of international humanitarian commitments — and to assert that sovereignty early and often in the face of individual refugees.

As part of its January 27 executive order — the administration’s first attempt at a “travel ban” — President Trump attempted to lower the existing refugee ceiling from 110,000 to 50,000 in the middle of the year, as well as suspending all refugee screening and admissions for 90 days. Those policies were put on hold by the courts, revised, put on hold again, and ultimately allowed to go into effect in a modified form by the Supreme Court at the end of June.

As a result, since the first week of July, the United States hasn’t resettled any refugees who don’t have an existing “bona fide relationship” to the US — including refugees whom US-based nonprofits have already agreed to help integrate. Even before that, the administration’s changes to refugee policy and the ongoing court battle meant that the pace of refugee admissions was slow and variable — and put would-be refugees on what one resettlement worker described as an “emotional roller coaster” from one week to the next.

The refugee “ceiling,” which is set by the US Department of State each year, is a maximum. Because the process for selecting refugees and bringing them to the United States is so slow and onerous — and because it can take the State Department some time to bulk up its refugee operations in regions hit by crisis — it’s rarely reached in practice, even when the president is trying to reach it. The Obama administration only resettled 85,000 refugees the year it was trying to resettle 100,000. The Trump administration ultimately took in 53,500 this past year. And in 2018, the first year it will have full control over the resettlement process, it wants to allow in fewer still.

The Trump administration rejects the 70-year-old moral framework behind resettling refugees in the US

When the US and other nations were confronted with the tragic consequences of their refusals to take European Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, they turned the sentiment of “never again” into a bedrock humanitarian principle: Individual nations have a moral obligation to the world’s most vulnerable — no matter where those vulnerable people are from.

Refugees won’t always be the easiest people to integrate into a new country — they’re often not as educated as other immigrants, they are often less likely to speak English, they don’t always have a family or community here who can help them succeed. They need help finding jobs and housing, and they need government funds to provide that help.

That assistance is justified as a matter of urgency: The imminent danger that people face when they are persecuted creates an obligation toward them that goes beyond the obligation a country might have to its own citizens who are suffering less.

A Thanksgiving dinner in Oakland, California, welcoming refugees in 2015.
Steve Jennings/Getty Images for

This is not how Donald Trump, his advisers, or his administration sees things. In their eyes, spending money to help new people come to and succeed in America all but picks the pockets of those who are already here and aren’t succeeding as well as they’d like. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump’s immigration proposal promised to “Use the monies saved on expensive refugee programs to help place American children without parents in safer homes and communities, and to improve community safety in high crime neighborhoods in the United States.”

Evaluating refugee policy this way is a form of rigged accounting, in which refugees are bound to lose. The entire point of refugee resettlement, as it’s traditionally existed, is that people are allowed to immigrate based on how much they’ve suffered (or are at risk of suffering). Such people don’t necessarily have the tools they need to succeed immediately in the American economy — they may not have professional skills or be fluent in English (though there’s some evidence that, ironically, Syrian refugees are unusually high-skilled). Unlike most immigrants, they’re eligible for federal safety net services like food stamps — and often, they need them.

At the same time, though, it’s not that the administration is soberly tallying up monetary costs and benefits of refugee resettlement and clucking its tongue because the balance ends up in the negative. It’s rejected evidence produced by the Department of Health and Human Services showing a net benefit to the economy from resettling refugees. And no one in the Trump administration has acknowledged that the stop-and-start refugee resettlement of the past several months has caused several nonprofit organizations to have to lay off American workers — and that cutting the refugee program so drastically in 2018 will likely cause many more Americans at resettlement organizations to lose their jobs.

That’s because when the Trump administration thinks about the costs to Americans imposed by refugees, it’s thinking about culture too. The discomfort felt by native-born citizens (implicitly white native-born citizens) who interact with, or even simply see, people of visibly different cultures — speaking another language or wearing distinctive clothing like the hijab — in their communities is a cost that the administration takes very seriously.

For a substantial portion of Americans, whether immigrants are “desirable” depends much less on legal status or economic qualifications than on whether they are judged culturally similar to Americans already — Christians, Europeans, English speakers — or able to assimilate easily, e.g., by being highly educated.

Trump probably isn’t familiar with the academic research behind this finding, but he grasps it intuitively. He always has. He distinguished himself from the rest of the Republican presidential primary field by being willing to talk openly about the cultural differences between Americans and “undesirable” immigrants from Mexico or Syria. He’s expressed anxiety about Muslim Americans whose families have lived in the US for generations: “Assimilation has been very hard. It’s almost, I won’t say nonexistent, but it gets to be pretty close. And I’m talking about second and third generation.”

As president, Trump has expressed this anxiety as part of his campaign against MS-13. In a speech in Long Island in July, he claimed that the US had naively opened its doors to gang members who snuck in as asylum seekers, then brought their brand of chaos and violence to previously peaceful American communities:

You say what happened to the old days where people came into this country, they worked and they worked and they worked and they had families and they paid taxes and they did all sorts of things, and their families got stronger and they were closely knit. We don't see that. Failure to enforce our immigration laws had predictable results. Drugs, gangs, and violence.

So when, in the report the Trump administration sent to Congress last week officially announcing the ceiling of 45,000, it promised that the State Department and DHS “will work closely with UNHCR to ensure that, in addition to referrals of refugees with compelling protection needs, referrals may also take into account certain criteria that enhance a refugee’s likelihood of successful assimilation and contribution to the United States,” it seemed consistent. But it’s also, potentially, shocking.

While America certainly favors certain refugees based on their existing ties to the US, the idea of selecting refugees based on what they can offer America is a fundamental rejection of selecting refugees based on what they need. And in practice, judging “assimilability” is likely to veer into outright racial, cultural, or religious discrimination.

What’s changed since World War II hasn’t been the nature of refugees in the United States, but the easy (often Islamophobic) association between refugee policy in the US and integration issues facing Europe’s Muslims. Whenever a terror attack happens in a European country — before the attacker’s identity is known, and often regardless of whether the attacker was a native-born European — President Trump treats it as evidence in favor of restricting immigration to the US from countries “compromised by terror.”

The backlash against Syrian asylum seekers flowing into Europe has affected not just countries that resettled many Syrians (like Germany) or those through which asylum seekers often flowed (like Hungary), but countries like the US and UK whose involvement with the “flood” of asylum seekers was largely what they saw happening to other countries in the news media.

In other words, the countries that have historically been in the best position to offer assistance to refugees — the most affluent, most secure countries — became anxious that they could lose something by keeping their doors open. They could retreat, and they did.

At one point in 2016, refugees were stranded at the Greece-Macedonia border.
Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP via Getty

The Trump administration prefers to claim there’s no global refugee crisis at all

In front of an international audience, Trump isn’t quite as dismissive of the US’s obligation to do something for refugees as he is when talking to Americans. Instead, he claims that he’s the true humanitarian, because he wants to help refugees stay close to their home countries rather than having to resettle in faraway places like the United States. As he said in his first speech to the UN General Assembly in September:

[W]e especially thank Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon for their role in hosting refugees from the Syrian conflict. The United States is a compassionate nation and has spent billions and billions of dollars in helping to support this effort. We seek an approach to refugee resettlement that is designed to help these horribly treated people and which enables their eventual return to their home countries to be part of the rebuilding process. For the cost of resettling one refugee in the United States, we can assist more than 10 in their home region.

Out of the goodness of our hearts, we offer financial assistance to hosting countries in the region and we support recent agreements of the G20 nations that will seek to host refugees as close to their home countries as possible.

What this outlook implies is that, really, there is no “global” refugee crisis — there’s no crisis that the world is obligated to respond to as one. Instead, there are several concurrent regional refugee crises, which countries and their neighbors are obligated to respond to: a Syrian refugee crisis that extends no further north than Turkey and a Rohingya refugee crisis that implicates only the Southeast Asian countries to which Rohingya are fleeing, for example.

The Trump administration’s view of refugee crises as a “regional” issue isn’t really based on geography. It’s based on the assumption that refugees ought to stay in their “home regions” because that’s where they will be best able to assimilate — because countries nearer to theirs are also more “like” them culturally — and, therefore, that it’s going to be politically easier for the government of Lebanon to integrate hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees than it would be for the government of the US to integrate a few dozen thousand.

There’s one simple problem: This is exactly backward.

A camp in Turkey housed 35,000 Syrian refugees in 2015.
Carl Court/Getty

Most countries hosting refugees — Lebanon and Turkey, Kenya (home, until recently, of the world’s largest refugee camps), Bangladesh (which hosts many of the Rohingya, an ethnic and religious minority with roots in Myanmar) — are hardly in a position to support tens or hundreds of thousands of some other country’s citizens.

Furthermore, mass refugee influxes tend to create political backlashes — Trump may assume that cultural similarities will spur countries in a refugee’s “home region” to feel responsibility for her, but in practice, the difference between refugees and a country’s own citizens is almost always thrown into relief.

In a best-case scenario for refugees, the government welcomes them first and addresses the political backlash by shutting the door behind them later. That’s what Angela Merkel did in Germany — her government took in hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in 2015, then spent the next two years tightening the pressure on them to assimilate and promising German voters over and over that nothing like that would ever happen again. Merkel has managed not to be unseated by the anti-refugee right largely because she’s made it clear to her citizens that Germany’s 2015 actions weren’t the expression of a continuing moral obligation — that Germany is not going to succeed the US as the world’s foremost champion of refugees.

The point here isn’t that the US is hypocritical — it’s that it’s actually easier, politically, to take in refugees from far away as individuals and give them the resources to integrate than it is to address masses of refugees surging into the country from next door. The Australian refugee “swap” that President Trump tried to torpedo shortly after arriving in office was actually a product of this — the Obama administration had agreed to accept asylum seekers (predominantly from Southeast Asia) that the Australian government was unwilling to accept, while Australia agreed to take some Central Americans.

National leadership is needed to solve the global refugee crisis

It might seem like a particularly inconvenient time for the United States to abandon its role as the global leader in refugee resettlement. After all, there are more refugees than at any time since World War II, and people are staying refugees for longer than ever before — years, decades, sometimes entire generations.

The international community agrees, universally, that something needs to be done about what’s usually called the global refugee crisis. Global leaders who don’t have an obligation to particular national governments have been the most outspoken: from nongovernmental organization leaders like David Miliband of the International Rescue Committee to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres (the former head of UNHCR) to Pope Francis.

Resettling refugees in third countries has never been the solution to the problem of stateless people. At most, 1 percent of the world’s refugees are resettled in third countries. And given the scope of the current refugee crisis, it’s clear that more innovative solutions — solutions that can help the other 99 percent of refugees — are needed.

But those solutions will also require some form of buy-in from national governments — some willingness to allow people who are fleeing humanitarian oppression to settle in their countries and make new lives.

Even the best-intentioned humanitarian efforts can founder if the national government isn’t willing to house refugees. During the 2015 asylum crisis in Europe, aid organizations were prohibited from pitching tents they had brought to shelter asylum seekers on the Croatian-Serbian border because police didn’t want to create even a temporary refugee camp in which people might be tempted to stay.

And because taking in refugees isn’t something that national governments often assume will be in their national interest, it’s something they often have to be inspired — or shamed — into doing by their peers. Countries explicitly look to each other to compare and adjust their own refugee admissions.

Canada, which attracted a lot of praise for accepting tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in 2015 and 2016, reduced its refugee admissions drastically for 2017. Its current goal is to represent 10 to 12 percent of all global refugee resettlements — in other words, how many refugees Canada aims to resettle in the coming years depends primarily on how many refugees other governments agree to resettle.

Rhetorically, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has become the national leader who most forthrightly champions refugees. But in practice, his government is less interested in stepping in to provide the moral leadership that might inspire other countries to increase their own refugee intakes in the name of continuing to pitch in.

President Trump might not see this as a problem. After all, if there are only regional crises and regional solutions, it’s Turkey’s job — not the US’s — to help educate Syrian refugee children; it’s not Canada’s job to keep Kenya from closing the Dadaab refugee camp and expelling the 260,000 people living there.

But Kenya and Turkey aren’t being inspired to do these things on their own. And if those with the most to give, and the least to lose, are telling the rest of the world that helping refugees is not their problem, who, exactly, is going to take on that burden?