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US Cuts Refugee Admissions, Creating Doubt for Tens of Thousands of Applicants

By Aline Barros
Saturday November 7, 2020
Faith leaders and members of human rights groups protest outside of the U.S. Capitol during a demonstration calling congress…

An activist holds up a pro-refugee image during a demonstration outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Oct. 15, 2019.

The United States will admit a maximum of 15,000 refugees for fiscal 2021, an all-time low, according to a notice the Trump administration published Friday in the Federal Register.

The administration also suspended entry of most refugees from Syria, Somalia and Yemen, citing terrorism risks.

The notice states that the cap “is justified by humanitarian concerns” and “incorporates more than 6,000 unused places from the FY 2020 refugee admissions ceiling that might have been used if not for the COVID-19 pandemic."

The new ceiling, down from 18,000 the previous fiscal year and far lower than the 84,000 refugees admitted in 2016, will remain in effect at least until January and possibly beyond, even if there is a transition at the White House.

Humanitarian organizations told VOA the number of Syrian, Somali and Yemeni refugees already referred for resettlement in the U.S. was almost double the number established by the cap.

As of October 27, nonprofit groups confirmed that 27,023 individuals were in the “pipeline” for resettlement in the United States, pending security checks.

The breakdown among the countries was 12,924 from Somalia, 14,084 from Syria and 15 people from Yemen, according to two humanitarian organizations.

Jennifer Quigley, refugee advocacy director at Human Rights First, noted the refugee resettlement process is slow and laborious and that refugees referred by the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) are in the pipeline for over a year.

Quigley added that demand for resettlement is overwhelming, as less than 1 percent of refugees worldwide succeed in getting referred.

“Refugee status entitles you to protections where you are. But it doesn't entitle you to resettlement, so there's upwards of 27 million refugees in the world right now,” she said.

State’s response

Contacted by VOA, a State Department spokesman declined to comment on whether refugees from Somalia, Yemen and Syria already in the resettlement process would be rejected based on their nationality or the lowered refugee cap.

Friday’s notice specifies that exceptions can be made for refugees of the three restricted nations “who have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of religion” or were referred by a U.S. embassy.

It is unclear how many refugees out of the 27,023 individuals might fall into exempted categories.

Political uncertainty

The duration of the notice could depend on who occupies the White House in January.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden vowed during the campaign to raise the refugee admissions ceiling to 125,000.

Sarah Seniuk, advocacy and communications manager at the Refugee Council USA, said Biden could “immediately raise the refugee admissions goal for the coming year. In preparing to leave office, [President Barack] Obama had set for [fiscal] 2017 at 110,000, and upon his inauguration, [President Donald] Trump lowered the number down to 45,000.”

Even if a new, higher number were to be set, refugee experts say it would take time to dramatically expand the program after years of seeing it shrink.

Under Trump’s 2021 plan for refugees, there are 5,000 slots allocated for refugees facing religious persecution, 4,000 for refugees from Iraq who assisted the United States, and 1,000 for refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, leaving 5,000 for others.


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