Editor’s Note: David Miliband is president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian relief organization. He is a former Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Before the start of the new fiscal year on October 1, President Donald Trump was legally bound to decide how many of the world’s 26 million refugees will be offered one of the prized and rare places in America’s refugee resettlement program. For refugees admitted, the program is their chance to begin their lives anew. And for America it is an opportunity to live out its commitment to be a beacon to the world’s most vulnerable and persecuted.
US decisions in this area have led the world – for better and for worse – and there is no shortage of deserving cases of people fleeing persecution, from Syria to Hong Kong to El Salvador. However, last Wednesday’s White House submission to Congress proposed a refugee cap of an all-time low of 15,000. President Trump has yet to sign this new Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions into law.
With the largest refugee crisis in history underway, refugee admissions to the US have been slashed by the Trump administration over the last four years by 80%. The historic average for refugee admissions under both Republican and Democratic presidents since 1980 is 95,000 refugees per year. The Trump administration set the admissions goal last year at a historic low of 18,000 and has admitted just over 11,000. A cap of just 15,000 for fiscal year 2021 can only mean a further decline in US leadership.
Last year, the administration took the controversial step of doing away with priorities based on regions with the greatest need and created four new categories for refugee admissions: refugees fleeing religious persecution; Iraqis whose lives are in danger because they supported US missions abroad; refugees from Northern Central America, and refugees meeting various criteria under an umbrella “Other” category. Since then the administration has made additional commitments to provide safety to those fleeing political persecution in Hong Kong.
The administration has largely abdicated these commitments. Though 5,000 slots were allotted for those fleeing religious persecution last year, these people have been left out in the cold on a global scale. World Relief found that the admission of Christian refugees from Iran, Iraq, and Myanmar—countries where Christians often face severe persecution on the basis of their faith—is on track to decline 97%, 95% and 94%, respectively, between 2015 and the end of this fiscal year.
Further, the category for refugees from Northern Central America sits at just 42% of the 1,500 allocation. look to be even more restrictive, leaving refugees especially from some of the worst crises in Africa shut out, with thousands awaiting admission. This year’s categories look to be even more restrictive, leaving refugees especially from some of the worst crises in Africa shut out, with thousands awaiting admission.
Despite 4,000 slots reserved for Iraqis persecuted due to their wartime service alongside US troops last year, the New York Times reported that just 153 of these allies were admitted in 2019, and 123 in 2020. This meager showing of commitment to the estimated 110,000 Iraqis awaiting approval threatens US credibility with partners and potentially undermines military and intelligence operations abroad.
Meanwhile, with the ongoing slashing of admissions and new categorization, the door has been shut on refugees fleeing from some of the most harrowing crises worldwide. With the Syrian crisis in its tenth year, its refugees account for an overwhelming 41% of all people in need of resettlement globally. Yet admissions of Syrians have plummeted by 96% under the Trump administration.
Among a total 30,000 people resettled in fiscal year 2019, there were just 563 Syrians, and a mere 442 in fiscal year 2020. With a record-breaking 80 million refugees and displaced people announced this year, the administration must return to admitting refugees based on regions of global need.
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Although the administration has set a lower number, it can still do right by accelerating the pace of arrivals, with the President signing a determination immediately, and arrivals resuming imminently with any administrative hurdles removed. Last year, President Trump delayed signing this decision by a full month. As a result, there were almost 8,000 travel-ready refugees left in precarious and uncertain limbo. With more than 500 flights repeatedly canceled and rebooked – some four times over – US taxpayers also bore the cost. With their lives on the line, these people cannot afford such a cavalier approach.