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Challenging Injustice, Advancing Human Rights

Part 1: Understanding the World’s Refugee Crisis

Section Contents

The Global Picture
A Profile of Refugees in the United States
Refugees from Central America
Syria and the Current Refugee Crisis
The Role of the United States

The Global Picture

The current global migration crisis is the largest and most rapid escalation ever in the number of people displaced around the world. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees’ (UNHCR) latest figures, there are currently 65.3 million people who have been forced from home, among them 21.3 million refugees.

UNHCR reports that the top five countries people are fleeing are Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan. The largest single source of refugees worldwide is Syria, with some 4.9 million individuals have been forced to leave the country. Over half of Syrian refugees are children, and nearly 90% of Syrian refugees are living in neighboring countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. In FY16, ending in September 2016, the United States admitted 84,995 refugees.

The Obama administration set a goal of 110,000 resettlement placements in FY17, which would have been the highest number since 1994. However, since President Trump took office his immigration policies, ostensibly based on national security measures, have shown his animosity towards immigrants and refugees. Many of his policies and executive orders have prompted a series of successful legal challenges based on due process and equal protection violations. These policies are unenforceable as their constitutionality is determined.

Trump announced that he would put a three-month moratorium on refugee resettlement and limit total resettlement placements for FY17 to 50,000—less than half of the previous goal. However, because his policies have been tied up in the courts, over 41,000 refugees resettled in the United States between October 2016 and April 2017, and resettlement continues.

The political landscape is constantly changing, so this toolkit does not include information about specific bills or executive orders that would quickly become outdated. You can find out about the latest federal action by visiting the briefing room of the White House.

A Profile of Refugees in the United States

According to the U.S. State Department, the three leading countries of origin for refugees resettling in the United States in 2016 were Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, and Burma. The remaining countries in the top ten are Somalia, Bhutan, Iran, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Eritrea and Sudan. Over the last 40 years, the largest groups of refugees have come from the former Soviet Union, Vietnam, and the former Yugoslavia, but these immigrants often fall off our social radar today because of how extensively they have integrated into U.S. society.

Refugees in the United States range from university professors and doctors to people who never had access to a formal education. Refugees are women, men, children, and the elderly. People who come to the United States as refugees had full lives in their homelands, and will have full lives here. Being a “refugee” is not an identity in itself – it is a result of forced displacement, usually related to political violence. Although their lives have been drastically disrupted, refugees in the United States bring a wide range of strengths, skills, and contributions to our society and the economy.

Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind “Humans of New York,”traveled to Jordan and Turkey in 2015 to talk to Syrian refugee families approved for resettlement, getting ready to move to the United States. View the photos and read their stories.

The U.S. Refugee Resettlement Process

Refugees who come to the United States go through a long and rigorous process that typically takes a minimum of 18 months but can also drag out for years. They are first screened and selected by the UNHCR, then referred to the United States. Next, they go through a second screening with the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS). Once they’ve completed interviews with both the United Nations and USCIS, they will need to pass a series of background checks, undergo a medical exam, and receive cultural orientation. This process happens before they land on U.S. soil.

Refugees whose applications for U.S. resettlement receive approval from USCIS are matched with a local resettlement organization that facilitates their orientation to the United States. They receive 90 days of such as food, housing, and employment help, and may be eligible for benefits for a longer period of time. Typically, refugees are expected to quickly become self-sufficient contributors to U.S. society and economy (working and paying taxes) as well as learning English and attending school. This four-minute video released by the White House provides a deeper look at the refugee screening process.

The latest developments from the Trump administration aim to suspend temporarily the U.S. Refugee Admission Program (USRAP), ban travel from six Muslim-majority countries, and impose a cap of 50,000 refugees in FY2017 once the program resumes. Trump wants to review USRAP protocols and procedures with the intention of increasing the vetting process, but have not offered clear proposals for what that would entail. Due to the pending litigation, these actions have been temporarily halted while the courts review.

Refugees from Central America

Tens of thousands of families and unaccompanied minors have come to the United States from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, seeking safety at our southern border. While the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) continues to refer to them as “illegal aliens,” the truth is that they have every legal right to request asylum under U.S. and international law. However, the situation of families fleeing from violence in Central America once they reach the United States is very different from the circumstances of resettled refugees.

Central American families that enter the United States first and request permanent protection from persecution in their home country once they are on U.S. soil are technically “asylum-seekers” rather than refugees because they were not first screened and approved before entering the country. While in most cases Central American families will face the same risks as resettled refugees if forced to return to their country, they are treated very differently.

This treatment includes being held for weeks or even months in family detention centers as they pursue their asylum claims. They must go through adversarial court proceedings to prove their case, and if they are released from detention, they are not eligible to apply for employment authorization until six months after they filed for asylum. Central American asylum-seekers often lack access to the basic support services resettlement agencies provide. In addition, it is difficult to find representation for what is an extremely complicated legal process, unless they can find pro-bono (volunteer) legal aid or are able to afford a private attorney.

The situation is even more dire since the new administration is intent on ramping up deportations of Central American refugees. The White House has closed down remaining avenues for protection leading to the indefinite detention of families seeking asylum. Recent actions also threaten to restrict further the use of humanitarian parole for asylum-seekers, redefine “unaccompanied minors” so as to deny legal protections to children who cross the border alone but reunite with parents in the United States later, push people in removal proceedings back across the border while they are being processed, and pursue “human trafficking” charges against parents if they hire a smuggler to take their children to the United States. These policies constitutes an assault on family reunification on two fronts – criminalizing parents for helping their children reach safety, while also penalizing children if they reunite with their family members.

Latinx asylum-seeking families in the United States deserve the same community support as resettled refugees, and that is why UUSC has taken care to include Central American asylum-seekers in our refugee toolkit.

Syria and the Current Refugee Crisis

2017 marks six years since the start of the Syrian Civil War, which has since been fueled by the involvement of several nations, including the United States. In addition to the 5 million refugees who have fled the country, an estimated 6.3 million have been internally displaced inside Syria. As the world scrambles to respond, with the most significant impacts felt in Turkey, the Middle East, and Europe, we must remember that the real “refugee crisis” is that millions of people’s homes have been destroyed and they are not safe in their country, not the impact on industrialized nations.

Although the media has labeled current events as the “Syrian refugee crisis,” the reality is that only about half of refugees arriving in Europe are from Syria. Refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Eritrea make up another 40%. It is also often forgotten that Syria was previously a major host country for refugees: 1.3 million refugees, primarily Iraqi and Palestinian, made their homes in Syria before the war. They have now been displaced for the second time, and face additional barriers at European borders.

Nine out of every ten refugees from Syria are currently living in neighboring countries, like Turkey (2.7 million), Lebanon (1 million), and Jordan (0.6 million). The Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, founded in 2012 on what used to be a barren desert, has a population of nearly 80,000. Refugee camps were intended to be a temporary crisis response, but they are increasingly becoming long-term shelters in place of permanent solutions for resettlement or a safe return home.

The majority of Syrian refugees in neighboring countries live outside of camps. Some have family members or friends who have offered them a place to stay while others have been able to find work in the informal sector allowing them to pay rent for housing in urban areas. Refugees are often pushed into the informal economy because countries, including nearby Jordan and Lebanon, do not allow then to have work permits. In places where there are no official camps, many families have set up makeshift settlements lacking clean water and sanitation.

In January 2017, the United Nations appealed for $4.63 billion to help Syrians needing to flee the country as well as to support better the countries hosting them. It warned that if these funds are not promptly secured, they “will have to scale back life-saving assistance, not only for Syrians but also for refugees and host communities, with catastrophic consequences.”

Over 1 million refugees sought to reach Europe during 2015, and even though the number of refugees who arrived in 2016 decreased to 364,000, those who died trying to cross the Mediterranean rose nearly by 35% (from 3,784 in 2015 to 5,098 in 2016) plus those unknown and unreported. In 2014, the European Union suspended full-scale maritime rescue operations due to concerns that they encouraged more people to risk the trip. This assumption proved to be dangerously wrong as refugee journeys by sea have steadily increased. In May 2015 the European Union reinstated rescue operations.

As media attention increased awareness of the treacherous, often fatal journeys being taken by so many, refugees arriving in Europe encountered an outpouring of compassion and generosity from the public, though not nearly enough to meet their basic needs. Refugees simultaneously face increased xenophobia and fear from most governments and some segments of the population. German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed refugees with open arms at first, but eventually even Germany restricted the arrival of new refugees, saying that the rest of the European Union needed to do their part as well. By early 2016, the Balkan route being used by Middle Eastern and Afghan refugees to reach northern Europe had been effectively sealed off by a series of border crackdowns in Croatia, Serbia, Hungary, and Macedonia. This has left tens of thousands of people stuck in Turkey, Greece, and other key points along the route where they are vulnerable to violent attacks and lack sufficient access to shelter, food, water, medical facilities, psychosocial supports, and legal assistance.

The disproportionate burden faced by some countries, particularly Greece, Italy, and Hungary, made tensions arise in the European Union. In March 2016 two major developments were announced:

  • A plan to accept asylum-seekers under a quota system from front-line Mediterranean countries (commitment: to relocate 160,000 people in need of international protection by September 2017. To date only 5% of asylum-seekers in Italy and Greece have been moved).
  • An EU.-Turkey agreement in which Turkey committed to returning all asylum-seekers who traveled through its country in exchange for billions of euros in aid, visa liberalization for Turkish citizens, and revived negotiations for Turkish accession to the European Union.

In February 2017, E.U. leaders reached an agreement to try to stop the flow of migrants across the central Mediterranean route. The plan earmarked 200 million euros for Libya to deal with migrations and seeks to replicate the deal with Turkey that largely halted migrant crossings of the Eastern Mediterranean on the Western Balkan route to Greece.

As long as home is not a livable option, people will continue to seek routes to escape to safety. This applies just as much to asylum-seekers who come to the United States through the southern border as it does to Syrians and other Middle Eastern refugees entering Europe. A comprehensive response requires accepting more refugees in the West and increased aid for Syria’s neighboring countries where 90% of refugees remain. It must also address the root causes of forced displacement and include a committed effort to establish peace and diplomacy, including addressing the role the United States and other countries have played in destabilizing the Middle East and Central America.

The Role of the United States

Increasing the refugee cap in the United States and our financial commitment to global humanitarian aid for refugees isn’t just the right thing to do – it is also a way to take responsibility for the role we have played in destabilizing the regions from which people are escaping, and which contributes to the rise of the refugee crisis. The humanitarian challenges facing millions of people across the globe compels us to understand better, oppose, and educate others about the impact of U.S. foreign policies that have ultimately forced so many to flee their homes.

Many refugees currently seeking shelter in Europe are escaping the lasting effects of U.S. wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the continued conflict in Syria. In June 2015, the UNHCR reported that these two wars combined have caused more than 13 million people to become displaced within these countries or to seek safety in other nations. It has been widely documented that the United States’ 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq created conditions that gave rise to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known increasingly as Daesh), which is now escalating violence in Iraq, Syria, and beyond. In the first half of 2016, the United States government spent $68,000 an hour ($1.6 million a day) on warplanes targeting ISIS, including bombings in Syria, as part of its war against terrorism. At the same time, Russia has been bombing rebels in Syria who are fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime.

Phyllis Bennis, senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, explains: “The Syrian conflict is simultaneously a civil war — pitting a brutal government against a multitude of political and military opposition forces — and a proxy war in which a host of outside powers are fighting for various regional and global hegemonies. And all of those overlapping wars are being fought to the last Syrian.”

The consequences of U.S. foreign and economic policies in Latin America have also led many to escape violence closer to home. For decades U.S. intervention has fueled war and violent conflict in Central America. For example, in the 1950s the United States engineered the overthrow of democratically elected Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz to protect U.S. corporate interests. In the 1980s the so-called U.S. drug war intensified conflicts between police, soldiers, and drug cartels, with a growing number of everyday citizens caught in the crossfire.

After a 2009 military coup against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, the United States applied international pressure to recognize the new government even while it used the military to quell uprisings. Violence has risen in Honduras, and in 2013 the country achieved infamy as the “murder capital of the world” with over 80 murders per 100,000 citizens for four years. In 2016 the title passed to neighboring El Salvador who in 2015 had 104 murders per 100,000 citizens. Fearing the exodus of refugees escaping from this violence in Central America, the United States has contracted Mexico to carry out immigration enforcement on its behalf by providing over $100 million a year for Mexico to strengthen its southern border and detain Central Americans in transit to the United States.

In light of the Trump administration’s tone on immigration, it is essential not only to change the narrative that refugees pose a threat to the country but also to understand that the United States has played a role in the destabilization and violence that created these migration patterns. As a country, we can acknowledge our mistakes, take concrete steps to address their consequences, and support efforts for peace, diplomacy, and security in these regions while providing a haven to as many people as we can who have already been impacted.

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