For the first time in history, the global number of people forced to flee their homes has reached the stunning milestone of 100 millionaccording to recent data from UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency.
That 100 million includes refugees, asylum seekers and people displaced within their borders by conflict. If they were one country, it would be the 14th most populous nation in the world.
“It is a record that should never have been set”, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in a press statement. “This should serve as a wake-up call.”
Above all, it should serve as a wake-up call for rich countries like the United States that have failed to fulfill their moral and political responsibilities to the displaced.
“We have a national myth about being a safe haven and being a nation of immigrants,” said Elizabeth Foydel, the director of the private sponsorship program at the nonprofit. International Refugee Aid Project† “And for a long time, the US was the top resettlement country. But I think it’s certainly fair to say that we’ve fallen short in recent years. Overall, you’re seeing a pretty significant drop.”
Just look at this chart. From a peak in 1980, when the US Refugee Act was signed, the number of refugees admitted has generally decreased.
You will notice some fluctuations, which correspond to historical crises around the world. For example, there is a peak in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a new peak in 2016 after the Syrian refugee crisis picked up steam. Overall, however, recent decades have been marked by a clear downward trend, even as the number of people forced to flee their homes is on the rise.
US resettlement is nowhere near meeting global needs. Why?
The US has the capacity, resources and space to be a safe haven for a lot of people. But the current reality is that other countries around the world – often countries with far less capacity and resources – are hosting far more IDPs than the US. In fact, developing countries, at least until the war in Ukraine, hosted 85 percent of the refugees of the world.
According to the UN Refugee Agency these five countries received the most refugees from 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, if a country receives a refugee, it does not necessarily mean that it will permanently resettle that refugee. And to some extent, it is not surprising that there are many 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 it’s easier to get from, say, Syria to Turkey than all the way to the US.
Yet “many of these low- and middle-income countries lack the resources to provide for their own populations, let alone millions of newcomers,” said Helen Dempster, deputy director of the Center for Global Development. Yet developing countries have had to host millions of refugees for years due to insufficient resettlement from wealthier countries around the world, including the US. That, said Dempster, “leaves refugees with few options” but to stay close to home.”
Foydel agrees. “The distribution of IDPs could look different if we actually had more robust resettlement through the US and other countries,” she said.
So, why has refugee resettlement in the US declined?
If you look back about 40 years ago, you can see that refugee resettlement used to be a two-pronged issue. For example, there are comparable numbers in a George W. Bush year and in a Barack Obama year. But in recent decades, we’ve seen some pretty extreme politicization of what should be a core part of the American narrative.
The 9/11 attacks were a major turning point, Foydel explained. After that, it became more common to see refugees – especially those from the Middle East – as potential security threats. The resulting security vetting process became so incredibly rigorous that it acted as a bottleneck.
Then came the rise nativist discourse during the Trump presidency. The Trump administration has cut refugee admissions, and since funding for refugee agencies is tied to the refugee ceiling, agencies have been forced to lay off staff and close offices. Canada – which has just over a tenth of the US population – has overtaken America as a world leader in resettlement.
Under Biden, the US is still trying to rebuild resettlement infrastructure, albeit arguably too slowly. And the pandemic didn’t help things† While it’s understandable that Covid-19 closures and travel restrictions hindered resettlement earlier in the pandemic, refugee lawyers say this is no longer an excuse.
What can the US do to fix this?
Part of the rebuilding work of the US resettlement program is to undo the damage done under previous administrations. That means staffing the government agencies dealing with resettlement and streamline the security research process†
The Biden administration is also working to set up a private sponsorship program by the end of this year, a program that will allow Americans to sponsor not just Afghan refugees, as I wrote before, but refugees from any country.
The private sponsorship program will have two streams. One is identification: If a group of sponsors have someone specific 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 processing, which can take that person out of a very long pipeline.
For anyone wishing to become a sponsor through this program, it would be a good idea to prepare now as it will likely require a significant amount of money. For example, Canada’s highly successful private sponsorship program requires a sponsor to fundraise almost $23,000 USD to bring over a family of four refugees. The US equivalent of that program could easily need money on a similar scale.
But it would be worth it, as it would provide an immigration route so that more vulnerable people can enter the US. Importantly, the State Department has indicated that any refugees coming to the US through private sponsorship will complement the number of traditional government-supported resettlement cases.
“We very much hope that this will significantly increase capacity,” Foydel told me. “The exciting thing about the private sponsorship program is that it can provide an on-going sustainable mechanism for Americans to respond to emerging humanitarian crises.”
Hopefully the Americans will make good use of it.
A version of this story initially appeared in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!