Among the flurry of executive orders marking the debut of the administration of US President Joe Biden was an order on February 4 to overhaul the United States refugee resettlement program and begin to grapple with growing climate-induced migration.
The order addresses flaws that have bedeviled the program for years and details what is needed to fix it, but it also demonstrates refreshing humanitarian purpose.
While acknowledging that refugee admissions are discretionary, the order directs officials not to discriminate based on race, religion, national origin, or other grounds, and instead identify refugees for resettlement “who are more vulnerable to persecution, including women, children, and other individuals who are at risk of persecution related to their gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation.” It calls for exploring avenues of humanitarian protection for vulnerable people who may not qualify as refugees.
For too long, vulnerability has been relegated as a secondary consideration in identifying refugees for admission under a program that has shrunk from 85,000 annual admissions in the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency to a 15,000 ceiling this fiscal year, during which just under 1,000 were admitted in the first quarter.
In 2018, Human Rights Watch analyzed US refugee admissions data over a five-year period and found that the plunge in admissions during the administration of President Donald Trump largely spared a handful of white-majority European countries, reflecting Trump’s stated preference for taking immigrants from places like Norway. While admissions were down from the five-year average by 67 percent from Africa, and about 80 percent from the Middle East/South Asia, East Asia, and Latin America/Caribbean — and admissions from countries covered by the president’s travel ban, such as Syria (1.8 percent) and Iran (2.2 percent), had virtually ceased — admissions from Ukraine were up 109 percent and from Russia, up 134 percent. This pattern reflected discrimination based on religion as well as race, as Christian admissions increased and Muslim admissions fell.
Biden also ordered a report on options for protecting and resettling people displaced directly or indirectly by the effects of climate change. Another order issued earlier in the week laid out a “root causes strategy” for addressing the drivers of migration from Central America, including corruption, crime, sexual and gender-based violence, and economic insecurity and inequality, while also expanding legal migration pathways for labor migrants as well as asylum seekers.
If meaningfully implemented, this could lead to a much-needed recalibration of the moral compass of the US refugee program, now grounded in addressing the root causes of forced displacement and prioritizing the most vulnerable for protection.