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US, Australia Hit New Lows on Refugee Resettlement

Declining Numbers Leave Most Vulnerable at Risk

Abdisellam Hassen Ahmed, a Somali refugee who had been stuck in limbo after President Donald Trump temporarily banned refugee entries, walks with his wife Nimo Hashi, and his 2-year-old daughter, Taslim, who he met for the first time after arriving at Salt Lake City International Airport, February 10, 2017. © 2017 AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File

Two countries that historically have led the world in refugee resettlement, the United States and Australia, have dramatically lowered their annual admissions ceilings at a time when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has identified 1,445,383 of the world’s 26 million refugees as being in need of resettlement.  

The 11,814 refugees admitted to the US in fiscal year 2020, between October 1, 2019 and September 30, is the lowest annual admissions number on record and an 86 percent drop from the nearly 85,000 admitted in FY 2016. In Australia, the government’s 2020-21 budget shows a 5,000-place cut in refugee admissions.

The two countries have also taken inhumane measures to block the entry of people seeking asylum. Cutting resettlement places may compel desperate people to seek riskier migration alternatives.

Refugee resettlement is a tool of protection for refugees who can’t find safety in their region, including those at risk of being forcibly returned to their home countries. It provides solutions for refugees unable to repatriate or integrate locally, such as members of marginalized groups who are discriminated against and abused in both host country and country of origin. Resettlement is also an instrument for international responsibility sharing and solidarity that provides support to countries on the front lines of conflict that host the overwhelming majority of the world’s refugees.

UNHCR has identified nearly 600,000 Syrians needing to be resettled, more than 40 percent of the worldwide total. Yet in the fiscal year just ended, the US admitted just 481 Syrians, a 96 percent drop from FY 2016.

Recently, I talked with “Farid,” a Syrian refugee from Idlib who has been living in Lebanon. Too afraid to return to war-torn Idlib, and with an increasingly intolerable situation in Lebanon, Farid saw no safe and legal paths for refuge, so boarded an inflatable boat to seek asylum in Cyprus. His boat ran out of fuel and he drifted at sea for six days, near death. Farid was finally spotted by a fishing boat and rescued by the Lebanese navy. He told me he would get on another boat and try again as soon as he could.  

UNHCR should be able to help resettle Farid and others like him. But with resettlement offers as low as they are in countries like the US and Australia, that option is virtually closed. Resettlement will never be the solution for the majority of the world’s refugees, but it should at least be available as a life-saving tool for those most vulnerable.

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