June 20 is World Refugee Day. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 42,500 people are forced to flee their homes every day and there are 59.5 million forcibly displaced individuals worldwide, 19.5 million of whom meet the definition of “refugee”. Though the epicenter of this crisis is overseas, the US sees its fair share of displaced populations seeking refuge; both those resettled from countries of first asylum and those migrants who arrive on our shores and at our borders in search of protection.
This year on World Refugee Day, the UNHCR is asking that individuals sign a #WithRefugee petition enumerating three basic rights governments must provide for refugees: “Ensure every refugee child gets an education; Ensure every refugee family has somewhere safe to live; and, Ensure every refugee can work or learn new skills to make a positive contribution to their community.” Though recent and ongoing refugee crises are never far from the global news cycle, this day and this mandate create an opportunity to pause and reflect upon US policies towards refugees and displaced populations.
The US is the top refugee resettlement country in the world, and the country contributes a great deal of money to refugee assistance worldwide. Furthermore, US policy makes good on all three of the above listed rights of refugees resettled in the country. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) provides for basic housing and medical needs and work training for refugees, focusing on getting refugees economically secure and self-sufficient as quickly as possible. All children in the US, regardless of legal status, are guaranteed access to education. A 2015 report by the Migration Policy Institute found refugees were at least as likely to work as their US-born counterparts and that reliance on public assistance declines with time in the US, arriving at the conclusion that “refugees in the main are meeting the US refugee program’s goal of promoting refugees’ self-sufficiency.”
So where does the US fall short? In recent years, the US has resettled approximately 70,000 refugees per year, a number that was raised to 85,000 for FY2016 and could rise in future years. However, the process of admitting refugees into the country is long and slow, estimated to take an average 18 months.
For what is arguably the most urgent current refugee crisis, Syria, our response has been particularly weak. Prior to this fiscal year, the US had only resettled about 2,000 refugees since the 2011 beginning of the Syrian unrest and, while the US proposed to resettle another 10,000 this year, we have only successfully resettled 2,800 in the first 9 months of FY2016 according to Department of State data from the end of May. That would be, then, 0.1% of the 4.8 million Syrians who have fled their country as refugees since the beginning of the war in 2011. As a point of comparison, Canada has 1/10 the population of the US and has resettled more than 25,000 Syrian refugees since November 2015.
Though not to blame for the US’s lackluster resettlement of Syrian refugees (that is due to strict US security screening processes, among other things), the country’s global reputation has suffered a substantial hit recently as political rhetoric demonstrates an apparent resurgence of anti-immigrant xenophobia. This can be seen in the rise of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy and proposed harsh policies aimed at refugees and other immigrant populations as well as the request made by 30 US governors to stop Syrian resettlement in their states after the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015, among other things.
The other avenue through which the US admits displaced populations into the US is asylum policy. Asylees meet the same definition of “refugee,” the key distinction being that they arrive on US shores and apply for asylum once in the country (with the exception of a few special programs that allow for international asylum application processing). The US approves approximately 25,000 asylum applications per year. Though asylees are awarded the same protections as refugees once they are granted status, the asylum application process is long and difficult and US policies towards and treatment of asylum seekers have been spotty at best over the years.
Many asylum seekers are subject to detention in prison-like conditions while they go through their asylum application process, which can take years, or are subject to bonds with minimum of $1500. Asylum is difficult to win, especially without an immigration lawyer (which is very costly), and a recent AP study showed that asylum is granted unevenly across the country (AP).
The global displaced population is growing and refugee crises are not going away anytime soon. Though US policy by and large measures up well against international standards and other nations, the next few months and especially the results of the upcoming presidential election will be hugely important in determining our future track record on this issue.
Elsa Augustine is an MPP candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy. This summer, she is working for Partnerships for Trauma Recovery, a nonprofit working to address the psychosocial impacts of trauma among international survivors of human rights abuses through culturally aware, trauma-informed, and contextually adapted mental health care, clinical training, and policy advocacy.
This article was originally posted on PolicyMatters Journal.