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World Refugee Day Dawns on a Globe in Crisis

Annual UN commemoration calls on governments to do better by the world’s displaced.

By Josh Leach on June 18, 2020

June 20 marks World Refugee Day, a commemoration set aside by the United Nations to honor people forcibly ejected from their homes. As we approach this important symbolic date once again, however, justice for the displaced is hard to find. Indeed, refugees around the globe are facing some of the worst conditions they have endured in recent memory.

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic began, humanity was already confronting the largest refugee crisis on record. By the end of 2019, more than 70 million people were displaced from their homes. Reasons for the exodus vary from war, persecution, and genocide, to climate change and economic policies. Yet all are preventable human-made catastrophes.

Now, a global public health crisis has arrived among these displaced populations, many of whom were already living in crowded conditions in refugee camps where it is impossible to socially distance. Governments that failed to provide adequate protection in the first place have left them at the mercy of another humanitarian crisis they did nothing to create.

This situation demands unprecedented global solidarity and coordination; yet the U.S. government is moving in the opposite direction. Far from fulfilling its moral and legal obligations to people escaping persecution, the Trump administration is divesting itself of responsibility, violating long-standing human rights norms in the process.

Forty years ago, Congress passed the historic U.S. Refugee Act, pledging this nation to abide by and uphold international laws guaranteeing protection for refugees. Since then, this commitment has largely taken two forms: resettlement of refugees currently living in third countries; and asylum for displaced people who arrive at the U.S. border seeking safety.

Both methods of refugee protection have been shredded in the last few years. In 2018, the Trump administration achieved the dishonorable distinction of welcoming the fewest third-country refugees in any year since the resettlement program began. Meanwhile, the administration has utterly discarded the asylum system that Congress created in 1980.

This dismantling of asylum has proceeded for years, through a drumbeat of brazen policies, many of which have rightly been entangled in litigation. Since the COVID-19 crisis began, however, the government has gone even further than before, turning away practically all asylum-seekers, including unaccompanied children, without screening.

So far, more than 20,000 asylum-seekers have been summarily expelled under this policy, including hundreds of children. While originally proposed as a 30-day measure, the administration subsequently extended the order, so that it can effectively be applied indefinitely. The result is the total collapse of humanitarian protection in the United States.

Even as these outrageous, but allegedly “temporary,” restrictions are being challenged in court, meanwhile, the administration has proposed a new regulation that would permanently gut asylum. Among other harmful changes, this rule would bar asylum to many people facing persecution by non-state actors, such as organized crime and intimate partners.

This policy change creates a new barrier to protection for women escaping domestic violence, LGBTQ+ people attacked by non-governmental actors, and countless others for whom deportation from the United States may constitute a death sentence. Sadly, this regulation is not the first time the administration has tried to impose similar unlawful measures.

Such policies are grounded in the institutions of white supremacy and patriarchy that wreak so much violence around the world. As the United States faces a reckoning with its history of institutional racism following protests against police murders, the government also continues to disproportionately criminalize and endanger Black asylum-seekers, including by deporting Haitian families in ways that expose them to COVID-19.

For more than three years now, UUSC has charted the proliferation of these anti-asylum measures, many of which are rancid with racism, sexism, and Islamophobia. Despite years of effort, we have to acknowledge that justice for displaced people seems in many ways further off than ever. World Refugee Day may be dawning, but it is night for the world’s refugees.

It will be a long and difficult road ahead, but it is one that refugees have trod. Displaced people continue to brave overwhelming odds in order to survive and protect their loved ones. The world’s governments—and all people—must do our part to honor this strength, this struggle, and this sacrifice.

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About UUSC: Guided by the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, UUSC advances human rights globally by partnering with affected communities who are confronting injustice, mobilizing to challenge oppressive systems, and inspiring and sustaining spiritually grounded activism for justice. We invite you to join us in this journey toward realizing a better future!

Photo Credit: iStock – Andrii Kalenskyi

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