President-elect Joe Biden has promised a return to normalcy. However, for refugees and asylum seekers, merely reversing the policies of President Trump will not be sufficient. Since entering office in January 2017, President Trump has engaged in an undeclared war on refugees. With the added stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is essential that the Biden administration adopt new policies that will support the most vulnerable populations around the world.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are approximately 26 million refugees globally and more than 50 million displaced persons and asylum seekers. More than two-thirds of the world’s refugees are from Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar. In addition, there are more than 5.6 million Palestinian refugees registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The vast majority of refugees are concentrated in the nations bordering their countries of origin. These are often developing countries with weak infrastructure, poor governance, and a reliance on international aid.
Trump’s unprecedented four years in office
President Trump’s response to this global humanitarian crisis was to restrict the entry of refugees to the United States. Furthermore, he violated international law by imposing restrictions on asylum seekers. In January 2017, Trump signed an executive order suspending the U.S.’s refugee admission program for 120 days and imposed an entry ban on Syrian refugees. The executive order also prohibited the entry of citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries. Although two initial versions of the travel ban were rejected by U.S. federal courts, the third executive order was ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Trump’s third order banned visitors from Syria, Iran, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, North Korea, and Venezuela.
Over the next three years, the Trump administration only escalated its policies against refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers. During this period, the number of refugees resettled in the United States was reduced to unprecedented levels. For fiscal year 2020, the administration announced that only 18,000 refugees would be admitted to the United States. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, admissions under the already reduced allotment were halted, and only 10,800 refugees were resettled this year.
During the 2020 Presidential campaign, President Trump’s opinions on the humanitarian crisis showed no signs of changing. He used the refugee issue to frighten voters. While speaking in Minnesota, he warned that Biden would turn the state “into a refugee camp.” In a tweet on election day, Trump warned that Biden would “increase refugees from terrorist nations by 700%,” which would “overwhelm” Midwestern communities.
Prior to the election, the Trump administration announced that only 15,000 refugees would be accepted in Fiscal Year 2021. Of the 15,000 slots, 5,000 are for refugees fearing religious persecution and 4,000 for Iraqis that assisted U.S. forces in Iraq.
These numbers represent a significant reduction from previous administrations. The U.S. began the refugee resettlement program in 1980. Over 207,000 refugees were admitted that year. Even though the number of refugees around the world increased dramatically, the number of refugees accepted over the next four decades decreased. In President Barack Obama’s last year in office, the United States accepted 84,988 refugees.
Trump’s global reach
Trump’s policies on refugees were not limited to restrictions on resettlement in the United States. For the past two years he has targeted UNRWA, the agency responsible for Palestinian refugees. In 2018, Trump halted the U.S.’s $365 million annual contribution to UNRWA as part of a larger effort to pressure the Palestinian leadership to make concessions in negotiations with Israel. Representing 30 percent of the agency’s budget, the loss of U.S. support has had a dramatic impact on UNRWA’s ability to provide services to refugees in the occupied West Bank and Gaza as well as Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. The cuts have persisted even as the COVID-19 pandemic has surged across the Middle East.
Earlier this month, Philippe Lazzarini, the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, announced that the agency does not have sufficient funding to pay its 28,000 employees. Nor is the agency able to continue providing education and health services to Palestinian refugees due to the pandemic.
While funding to UNRWA was cut, the Trump administration maintained or raised contributions to UNHCR. The United States has been the largest contributor to UNHCR and remains so today. In 2016, it gave over $1.551 billion to the organization. Last year, the U.S.’s contribution was $1.706 billion.
Hope for a Biden administration
President-elect Joe Biden has already announced that he will raise the annual ceiling for refugees to enter the United States to 125,000 and maintain a minimum 95,000 refugees admitted per year.This proposed ceiling would be the highest since the early 1990s. In addition, the annual minimum would see a significant increase from the policies of the Obama administration. Biden also committed to lifting the ban on asylum seekers and repealing the “Muslim ban.” However, he did not explicitly state that he would restore UNRWA’s funding. Nor did he commit to maintain or increase UNHCR’s funding.
Biden’s announcements are important first steps, and they will provide much needed hope to refugees and asylum seekers attempting to resettle in the United States. This includes a number of individuals whose plans to reunite with their families have been on hold due to the Trump administration’s policies. However, as Biden plans to surpass the Obama administration in refugee admissions, he should also recommit the United States to adequately funding the UN agencies that provide essential services to refugees. The dangers posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the continuing refugee crisis, require bold initiatives and moral leadership. For millions of refugees around the world, this has been sorely lacking for far too long. The hope is that Biden will rise to the challenge.
Dalal Yassine is the Executive Director of Middle East Voices, a lawyer and advocate for gender and human rights for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and a Non-resident Scholar at MEI. The views expressed in this piece are her own.
Photo by ALI MUKARREM GARIP/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images