Reflecting on World Refugee Day: The Trends and Consequences of US Refugee Policy

June 20, 2018

Sitting here in Washington, DC, it’s hard to be optimistic this World Refugee Day. The Trump administration has reduced refugee resettlement to record lows, nominated an individual to lead the State Department’s population, refugees, and migration bureau who has spread prejudicial misinformation about immigrants in the United States, and instituted a “zero tolerance” immigration policy that translated to separating families—including those seeking asylum—at the US-Mexico border. (Though under a new executive order signed today, families will be detained together.)

All of this is taking place at a particularly distressing time. UNHCR recently announced that the number of people forcibly displaced from their homes increased by 2.9 million in 2017—bringing the total number to 68.5 million: 25.4 million refugees, 40 million internally displaced people, and 3.1 million asylum-seekers.

To better understand the trends and consequences of US policy against the backdrop of increasing need, we convened a panel as part of the launch of CGD’s migration, displacement and humanitarian policy program. One of us (Cindy Huang) moderated a discussion—with former White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough; Nazanin Ash, the Vice President of Global Policy and Advocacy at the International Rescue Committee (IRC); and Michael Gerson, a Washington Post columnist and former speechwriter for George W. Bush—on trends in US refugee policies and the humanitarian and strategic challenges these policies pose. This blog highlights some of the key themes and facts from the discussion (you can view the entire discussion here, at the 1:34:00 mark in the video), including a final note of optimism on potential ways forward.

Discouraging trends in US refugee policy

2016 marked a landmark in new commitments to resettling refugees, with a record 37 countries participating in resettlement. At the Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis, a group of developed countries—including the United States—agreed to double their number of resettlement spots and increase financing for refugee-hosting developing countries by 30 percent. Developing countries agreed to increase refugees’ access to work and education.

Mr. McDonough highlighted that many of the commitments made by countries other than the United States remain in place. But, as Ms. Ash described, the United States has taken a drastic turn away from supporting refugee resettlement.

Figure 1 below shows how US policy towards refugee admissions has changed under the Trump administration. Depicting the number of refugee admissions to the United States annually and total numbers of refugees worldwide, it shows that, based on the first eight months of the 2018 fiscal year, refugee admissions are projected to fall sharply, from a recent high of 84,994 in FY 2016 to a projected 21,292 for FY 2018—the lowest level since 1977.

Furthermore, the current ceiling for refugee admissions of 45,000, is the lowest for the history of the current US resettlement program. Coming at a time when global numbers of displaced people are reaching record highs, the ratio of refugees admitted to the United States to the number of refugees worldwide has never been lower. For the first time, the trend in US admissions is moving decisively against the trend of the total number of refugees worldwide.

Historically, refugee admissions have not been a partisan issue, as figure 1 shows. Rising and falling levels of refugee admissions have been observed during both Democratic and Republican administrations, and some of the largest admission numbers occurred during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Rather than being tied to a certain party, changes in admission numbers have mostly been driven by major events, such as 9/11 and the end of the Cold War, and followed trends in overall refugee numbers. As Mr. Gerson observed during the event, US support for refugees has traditionally been “a nonpartisan issue.” In the past, the United States has had the world’s largest resettlement program. Now, the United States is retreating from supporting refugees at a time when its leadership is most needed.

Sources: Admissions data are from the U.S. Refugee Processing Center’s Historical Arrivals Broken Down by Region (1975 – Present) dataset, and total refugee numbers are from the UNHCR Population Statistics time series data for refugees and people in refugee-like situations for all origins and countries of asylum.

Notes: The x-axis refers to calendar years for the global refugee numbers and fiscal years for the U.S. refugee admissions. The 2018 admissions projection extrapolates based on the first eight months of the fiscal year. The global refugee numbers are only available through 2017, and they do not include Palestinian refugees. With Palestinian refugees the numbers would be substantially higher: there were 5.4 million Palestinian refugees under UNRWA mandate in 2017.

The United States has retreated in particular from admitting Syrian refugees. In the first eight months of the 2018 fiscal year, the United States accepted only 46 Syrian refugeesa 99 percent drop compared to the same time period in FY 2017. This is illustrative of a broader trend on the acceptance of Muslim refugees, which fell by over 82 percent over the same period. (For a breakdown of other trends in refugee admissions, see this article from IRC.)

Figure 2 shows that, although the United States has never accepted very large numbers of Syrian refugees, it had been accepting them at a growing rate throughout the duration of the Syrian Civil War—until acceptance rates cratered in 2018, even as the number of Syrian refugees rose to over six million.

Sources: Admissions data is from the U.S. Refugee Processing Center, and data on Syrian refugees is from the UNHCR Population Statistics time series data for refugees and people in refugee-like situations for all countries of asylum and the Syria Regional Refugee Response portal.

Notes: The x-axis refers to calendar years. The 2018 figure for refugee admissions is the number of refugees accepted through May. The total numbers of Syrian refugees/people in refugee-like situations according to the UNHCR Population Statistics are presented through 2017. For 2018, the new numbers of registered refugees through May of 2018 according to the Syria Response portal is added to the 2017 number.

Meanwhile, as Ms. Ash pointed out, low- and middle-income countries, with far fewer resources and their own development challenges, hosted 85 percent of the world’s refugees at the end of 2016. In Jordan, where refugees account for over 7 percent of the population, an estimated 25 percent of the government’s annual revenues go to hosting refugees. Recently, Bangladesh received more refugees over the course of three weeks than mainland Europe received from across the Mediterranean in all of 2016—and Bangladesh has less than 2 percent of the EU’s GDP. In Lebanon, one in six residents is a refugee. (We calculated the refugee population proportions using the 2017 UNHCR Population Statistics for refugee and refugee-like populations, which does not include Palestinian refugees, and the World Bank’s World Development Indicators for total population.)

Figure 3 illustrates how relative responsibilities differ across income levels for major refugee hosting countries. Among the 23 countries hosting at least 200,000 refugees, only four are high income—and only one of the countries with the top 10 largest refugee populations is high income. Of the eleven countries where refugees account for at least 1 percent of the population, only two are high income (refugees account for 0.09 percent of the US population). And, of course, high-income countries have more resources to host refugees and to implement policies and programs that help them become positive economic contributors.

Sources: Total refugee numbers are for 2017 from the UNHCR Population Statistics time series data for refugees and people in refugee-like situations for all origins, and population data are from the World Bank’s WDI’s for 2016.

Notes: Numbers for refugee populations do not include Palestinian refugees. All countries with at least 200,000 refugees and people in refugee-like situations under UNHCR mandate are included.

The consequences of US withdrawal

America’s retreat from support for refugee resettlement has far-reaching humanitarian, strategic, and economic consequences.

By withdrawing from refugee resettlement, the United States is encouraging others to do so the same. As Ms. Ash argued, the current practice of branding refugees as “undeserving, economically burdensome, and unsafe” is contributing to a global “decline in commitments and obligations to refugee protection.” And, by doing less than its fair share, the United States is forcing developing countries to reconsider their outsized responsibilities, encouraging overall trends toward “closed borders, forced or encouraged returns, and increasing restrictions on refugees in host countries.”

From a humanitarian perspective, this means that many of the 1.5 million refugees identified as in need of resettlement—these refugees are the most vulnerable or have been separated from their families—will be denied safe havens or their right to family reunification. Many will be forced to return to unsafe conditions in their home countries, and even more will continue living in environments with restricted rights and opportunities.

From a strategic perspective, Mr. Gerson argued that when the United States leads, it catalyzes positive action from other countries. When it withdraws, it creates gaps that “get filled by chaos,” not by other good actors. Currently, the US withdrawal from the refugee crisis is straining its allies and creating “food insecurity, the risk of radicalization, [and] the destabilization of European politics.” And with rising levels of displacement on the horizon, more problems will emerge if the United States remains inactive. With the World Wars and 9/11 as examples, history shows that we cannot “ignore problems until they arrive on our doorstep” because regional disorder can cause “massive chaos” around the world.

From an economic perspective, the United States is missing an opportunity by rejecting refugees. To provide just one example of how refugees can contribute economically, after 20 years in the United States, the average refugee has paid $21,000 more in taxes than they have received in benefits.

Moving forward: fighting the dehumanization of refugees

The current rhetoric and action against refugees is largely driven by tactics that involve dehumanizing refugees. According to Mr. Gerson, it has been a consistent strategy of the Trump administration to “feed fear of the other,” including refugees. And the best way to counter dehumanization is to use arguments that humanize refugees.

So how does one humanize refugees in a way that resonates with Americans?

Mr. Gerson suggested telling stories that “reveal the nature of the people we are talking about.” This could include pointing out that many refugees are women and children, facing challenges ranging from a lack of access to education to struggling to avoid early marriage.

Mr. McDonough recommended pointing to the fact that “people that participate in the [refugee resettlement] program overwhelmingly succeed,” and helping people to connect with a more accurate depiction of refugees, who are typically successful and entrepreneurial individuals.

Ms. Ash noted that IRC has seen a 100 percent increase in volunteer applications since January of 2017 and that in communities that host refugees, there is a “tremendous amount of support” for refugees. Tapping into these communities and mobilizing these supporters as advocates may be a powerful means of mobilizing broader public support for refugees.

While the panel focused on trends in the United States, anti-refugee and immigrant forces are on the rise elsewhere. These ideas, especially the combination of compelling human stories with facts and evidence, are important for advancing any cause—but perhaps none so important today as fighting dehumanization and standing up for our common humanity and dignity.

Many thanks to the event’s panelists—Denis McDonough, Nazanin Ash, and Michael Gerson—for providing the insights on which this blog is based, and to Anastasia Moran at the International Rescue Committee for providing us with excellent sources and data


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.