The Trump administration has paused the U.S. refugee-resettlement program for 120 days for assessment. That is a good thing. It is time the United States reconsidered not its humanitarian efforts to help refugees but the manner and means by which it provides this help while keeping Americans as safe as possible. The new administration has the opportunity to reform a broken refugee system by resettling those who cannot stay put, assisting them better and longer, and helping millions of refugees in their own regions more efficiently.
The administration should not simply pick a lucky few out of millions who are undergoing common hardships. Choosing to offer some a better life in the U.S. and leaving behind others who are in similar circumstances is akin to playing God. This huge responsibility should not be in the hands of a few and should always be guided by nothing less than urgency and necessity. Resettlement should be applied as it was initially intended under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR): as a protection available solely to the most vulnerable refugees who are not able to remain in the country to which they fled. Contrary to officials’ claims under the Obama administration, the U.S. has not been prioritizing these urgent cases. The recent pause in the program can help ensure that we’re offering resettlement to those who are in real danger in their countries of refuge — including people who urgently need medical care that’s unavailable where they are, or persecuted religious minorities such as Christians in the Middle East or Muslims in Burma.
The United States should reconsider its total reliance on UNHCR. Currently, the refugees chosen for resettlement in the U.S. are selected solely on the basis of referrals from this U.N. agency, whose staff is entrusted with the entire selection and pre-screening process. U.S. officials do not know much about the men and women who are believed to possess the good judgment and expertise needed to make refugee determinations and resettlement referrals; they are hired by the United Nations and accountable only to it.
Moreover, this selection process is based on a “benefit of the doubt” policy and can be somewhat subjective. UNHCR’s 2011 guidelines for determining refugee status state: “It is hardly possible for a refugee to ‘prove’ every part of his case and, indeed, if this were a requirement, the majority of refugees would not be recognized. It is therefore frequently necessary to give the applicant the benefit of the doubt.” This is understandable, because UNHCR’s mission is to help as many refugees as possible. But United States government officials are not heading a humanitarian agency. To the extent that the U.S. takes UNHCR’s referrals, we should recognize the organization’s limitations and not follow it blindly.
Let us not forget that resettlement is one of UNHCR’s “durable solutions.” A resettlement card gives access to U.S. citizenship because resettled refugees are required by U.S. law to apply for a green card (permanent residence) one year after arrival. (Green-card holders can apply for American citizenship after five years; refugees may apply for citizenship four years after they receive their green card, because the five-year count starts on the day of arrival.) So UNHCR is not only deciding who can move to the United States; it is also choosing who ultimately gets a chance to become an American. Given such high stakes and existing safety hazards — terrorist attacks and attempts committed by groups such as ISIS, with ISIS agents infiltrating refugee flows into Europe — the Trump administration should reconsider its collaboration with UNHCR.
Vetting measures must be improved. Current ones, especially for refugees coming from countries that present national-security challenges, are flawed. The Obama administration argued that refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks, that the vetting process for refugees takes 18 to 24 months, and that the program is safe because families, women, and children are being resettled here.
But these talking points are not valid. In reality, refugees are not rigorously screened, despite the insistence of Obama-administration officials that they are. For the most part, there is simply no information to check against. By the admission of Kelly Gauger, a State Department official under President Obama, the resettlement system is overwhelmed and “not the fastest program in the world.” Gauger explained: “We are not spending 18 months doing security checks.” In other words, this time frame is more about waiting than vetting.
Speeding up the system is not the answer, either. It’s not reassuring that the State Department conducted what it called a “surge operation” to meet President Obama’s 2016 refugee target. For this, it interviewed more than 12,000 Syrian refugees in just three months.
As for family-oriented resettlement, it is also not a safeguard. The Somali refugee responsible for the terrorist attack in Ohio in November 2016 came to the United States as a teenager with his mother and six siblings. In a desire to reassure the American public, State Department officials often stress that the refugees admitted here are different from migrant flows that recently made it to Europe, which were disproportionately young, unmarried, unaccompanied, and male. But in the case of the recent Ohio attack, terror came from one of the seven children. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but terrorists have families, too.
Vetting is essential and should remain a top priority. But no matter how extreme it is, it can give only a glimpse of the past and the present; it does not secure the future. Even if refugees themselves pose no threat, the risk could come down the road, because terrorist groups prey on vulnerable communities and recruit people who feel estranged in their host country. The initial screening of the Somali family mentioned above was not necessarily flawed; if U.S. officials found nothing, it might well have been because there was nothing to find. The son’s radicalization might have come later.
Successful integration and shared values are the best shields against radicalization of resettled refugees. But the current debate about refugees often revolves around admissions numbers while largely ignoring the issue of integration. This is where the Trump administration can make a difference. Currently, refugees are assisted for the first eight months by “voluntary agencies” partly funded by the government that help with (among other things) housing, English lessons, cash, job searches, applications for Social Security cards, school registration for children, arranging medical appointments, and connecting refugees with social services. But refugees, especially the most vulnerable, are not likely to integrate (economically, socially, culturally) into the United States in just a few months. For traumatized people who have suffered a lot, integration is especially tough. They need assistance for longer than eight months. It’s important to ensure that they are socializing, for instance, and are happy at their workplace. Follow-up help by social workers might be helpful in that context.
The notion that all refugees can easily integrate into Western societies and live happily ever after is an illusion. And refugees are not interchangeable; some are better equipped to integrate, and others need ongoing assistance. Economic achievements, for instance, vary by nationality. For three groups of refugees — Iraqis, Somalis, and Cubans — longer U.S. residence does not equate with higher income, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute.
It is important that resettled refugees be provided with every tool possible for successful integration. The Trump administration can intervene to ensure that every refugee admitted receives the appropriate, personalized help necessary to build a successful life in the United States, even if that means admitting fewer refugees and focusing on better and longer-term care for each one.
While some Trump critics are shocked by the order to temporarily halt the resettlement program — the arrival of thousands into the United States could be postponed — they do not seem equally outraged by the terrible conditions millions of refugees face in their own regions. Refugees don’t want handouts; they want jobs, as attested by refugee scholars, activists, U.N. officials such as UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi, and refugees themselves. Above all, most refugees state clearly that they want to return home as soon as possible. A new refugee strategy is in order for today’s refugees, who are “overwhelmingly fleeing mass disorder rather than state persecution,” according to Oxford economist Paul Collier, who recommends that refugees live in a “haven that is proximate, so that it is easy to reach and from which it is easy to return once a conflict ends.”
A development-based policy (rather than a resettlement-based one) could give millions autonomy and opportunity and render them better equipped to rebuild their post-war countries. UNHCR is a humanitarian agency rather than an organization with economic competence, and it is not equipped to meet the true needs of refugees. That would explain why 90 percent of refugees “ignore it,” according to Collier, and choose not to stay in camps. Refugees’ “top priority is not food and shelter,” Collier said in a recent interview. “If you’re going to be a refugee for some years, your top priority is the ability to earn a living.” Economic agencies such as the World Bank, various NGOs, and businesses — which are far better equipped to provide training and job opportunities — should step in.
The United States is the world’s biggest donor to the UNHCR. The new administration can encourage development-based initiatives that empower refugees close to their homes and redirect some (if not most) of the U.S. funding for that purpose. Current refugee programs often fail the very people they were meant to protect. A better refugee system would put more emphasis on helping refugees where they are while working to end conflicts and eventually secure the refugees’ safe return to their homelands — though this may require years of effort. It could also provide better and longer-term help to those who have no choice but to be resettled here, making sure that they integrate successfully into American culture and that their wounds (mental and physical) are largely healed.
Bottom line: Stop using the refugee-resettlement program as a political tool, a fund-raiser, or a conscience alleviator. Choosing to resettle just a few out of millions of refugees in similar circumstances is not praiseworthy. Helping refugees help themselves, whether here or there, is the right thing to do.
– Nayla Rush is a senior researcher at the Center for Immigration Studies.