Pressure builds on Joe Biden to take immediate action to reinstate U.S. refugee resettlement program after leading rights group on track to welcome the fewest refugees this year of any American president in history.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) said in a recent report that only 2,050 refugees had been resettled in the United States by mid-fiscal 2021, despite Biden’s stated goal of bringing 62,500 refugees by the end. September and up to 125,000 refugees in 2022.
“If the president does not take immediate action to implement his revised refugee policy, approximately 5,000 refugees will be admitted during this fiscal year … that would be the lowest number of any US president in history “, the group mentionned.
Refugee advocates have praised Biden’s refugee resettlement plan, saying it marks a significant departure from the policies of his predecessor, Donald Trump, which restricted resettlement criteria, downgraded the package historically low refugee admission ceiling, and travel bans imposed on people from more than one country, including some predominantly Muslim countries.
White House officials say Biden remains committed to his proposal, and on April 9, the administration submitted a request to Congress for discretionary funding including $ 4.3 billion for the Office of Refugee Resettlement to rebuild the system and support the resettlement of 125,000 refugees next year.
But rights groups say refugees and their families remain in limbo because Biden has yet to sign a presidential decision that would allow the resettlement process to take hold.
“It’s a signature we need that separates all of these people from security,” said Erol Kekic, director of the immigration and refugee program at Church World Service, one of the nine national refugee resettlement agencies. in the USA.
“It’s really not clear why – after candidate Biden made all of these promises, after President Biden signed the executive orders, and after holding legally required consultations with Congress – they still haven’t signed the decision. presidential, ”Kekic told Al Jazeera.
The refugee resettlement system in the United States is set up under the Refugee Act of 1980.
Under the statute, the U.S. administration is required to report to Congress on its refugee resettlement plan each year and initiate a discussion with U.S. lawmakers. The president then takes those returns into consideration and signs an order called a presidential ruling that puts it into effect, said JC Hendrickson, senior director of refugee and asylum policy at the IRC.
At the beginning of February, Biden ad plans to increase refugee admissions to 125,000 in his administration’s first full fiscal year – from October 1, 2021 to the end of September 2022 – and to reverse Trump’s policies “which limited the resettlement of refugees and required excessive control of applicants ”.
That same month, Biden sent the required report to Congress detailing a amended target of 62,500 refugee admissions for fiscal year 2021, which ends September 30. The figure “is justified by serious humanitarian concerns and is in the national interest,” said the administration, after a record low of just 11,814 refugees resettled in the last fiscal year.
“This process was started so loud… then having a delay at this point in the process is confusing, but the longer that delay gets the more worrying it becomes,” Hendrickson told Al Jazeera.
Failure to sign the order, said Hendrickson, sends the wrong signal to countries around the world at a time when refugee resettlement is on the decline. “It is just very difficult to lead when we ourselves admit so few refugees,” he said.
Of the roughly 1.4 million refugees requiring resettlement in 2019, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) mentionned just under 64,000 – about 4.5 percent – have been resettled in 29 countries with agency assistance.
In one report in June last year, UNHCR predicted that more than 1.44 million refugees would need resettlement in 2021 – a slight increase from the previous year – with almost half (617,000) coming from Africa.
Until Biden signs off on presidential resolve, the United States continues to operate under the Trump administration’s resettlement system, which Hendrickson says has been most damaging to black and brown refugees.
“The Trump administration created these arbitrary categories, which had a discriminatory effect … Africa has been the region with the highest resettlement needs in the world in recent years and only 682 refugees from Africa have been admitted to the United States for tax purposes. [year 2021],” he said.
“All we need is a stroke of the President’s pen to fix this, and without that stroke of the pen, we are operating under Trump’s discriminatory admissions policies.
It will also be important to ensure that U.S. refugee resettlement agencies, after years of restrictions under Trump, are able to strengthen their capacity to meet the needs of refugees if and when Biden’s presidential resolve takes effect.
Kekic said the network of faith groups the Church World Service works with is set to restart, but will need to coordinate with the US State Department, which administers the relocation program.
Knowing which refugee groups will be eligible for resettlement is critical to this planning, he explained, as it will help agencies decide where in the United States these refugees can be placed – based on the needs of the family, existing community composition, language capacity and other factors.
“Now the question of how quickly people can be put back on planes is another question,” Kekic added.
“ Full of anxiety ”
Meanwhile, refugees abroad and their relatives in the United States are in limbo, said Tsehaye Teferra, CEO of the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC), another US national resettlement agency that helps refugees from all over the world.
Teferra said the organization receives phone calls almost daily from families asking for the delay in reuniting with loved ones. The psychological burden of not knowing if – and when – someone will arrive is a burden on families, as well as on agency employees, he told Al Jazeera.
“We speak [about] family separation, we are talking about displaced people… Some of these people have already learned that they will be resettled in the United States. Some have already organized their trip. They gave their belongings to other refugees, ”he said.
Teferra said the nine national resettlement agencies expected around 715 refugees to arrive in the United States last month, but because the presidential proclamation was not signed, their flights had to be canceled.
“For a refugee who has been waiting for so many months,” he said, “another day, another month, it’s a delay full of anxiety.