For decades the United States has been the world’s leading safe-haven destination for refugees.
In 1980, the refugee cap was set as high as 231,000 people. Every year since 2000, the average annual figure was 70,000-80,000. At the height of humanitarian disasters in Syria and Myanmar, former President Barack Obama’s administration set the 2017 cap at 110,000.
This year, however, is expected to see the fewest applications granted – 30,000 – since the United States’ refugee program began in 1980.
In September, the White House announced plans to admit 18,000 people under the program in 2020. (Initially, it wanted to admit zero refugees in the coming year but walked that back amid bipartisan outcry.)
Approximately 4,000 of those places will be taken by Iraqis who helped or otherwise worked with the U.S. military, 5,000 for people fleeing religious persecution and 1,500 for at-risk Central American migrants.
Refugees have long been an easy scapegoat.
“The current burdens on the U.S. immigration system must be alleviated before it is again possible to resettle large numbers of refugees,” the State Department claimed in September.
Let’s put the global threats facing persecuted people in context: There are around 2.5 million people in Syria’s Idlib province, where Syrian government and Russian bombardments from the air are a harrowing aspect of everyday life.
Yet, this year, just 563 Syrian refugees are to be resettled in the United States. This is happening at a time when the number of refugees globally is at an all-time high of around 26 million people, half of whom are children.
Refugees, of course, have long been an easy scapegoat for right-wing politicians and nativists who claim that immigrants take jobs and profits out of the hands and mouths of “real Americans.”
However, it’s long been established that refugees and immigrants, in general, do exactly the opposite – they create jobs, revive blighted neighborhoods and fuel local economies.
The fallout will be felt keenly on the global stage. U.S. generals and leaders in the Department of Defense have long viewed the refugee program as a means to strengthen the United States’ political and diplomatic standing around the world.
For example, if the United States agrees to unburden the cash-strapped Lebanese government of thousands of Syrian refugees, it gives Americans an “in” concerning Lebanese political affairs. Accepting refugees doesn’t just help desperate civilians but also has a weighty political dimension.
Desperate refugees don’t end their quest for a safe haven just because the U.S. shuts its doors. That means Canada and European countries are better placed to reap the economic benefits of refugees and command influence and better political ties, especially with Middle Eastern countries.
The big question for Arab countries will amount to: “Does America even matter anymore?”