People hold up signs before marching to Trump Tower during a protest organized by the New York Immigration Coalition against then President-elect Donald Trump, December 18, 2016.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Friday, US President Donald Trump signed an executive order suspending the US refugee admissions program for 120 days. He also singled out Syrian refuge-seekers, suspending their admittance indefinitely and seeking to cut down the number who might be allowed to enter the US.
“I hereby proclaim that the entry of more than 50,000 refugees in fiscal year 2017 [which began on October 1, 2016] would be detrimental to the interests of the United States,” the executive order read.
Trump’s plan is designed to protect “the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States.” It is also designed to roll back programs put in place by his predecessor, Barack Obama. The Obama administration sought to increase the number of asylum-seekers entering the US, expanding total numbers from 70,000 in 2015 to 80,000 in 2016 and 100,000 in 2017, according to the Migration Policy Institute. This was a substantial change from 2013, when only 25,199 people received asylum.
Other countries receive far more applicants. In a world where there are more than 60 million internally displaced persons, including several million Syrian refugees, EU states granted refugee status to 229,000 in 2015 out of 1.3 million applicants. Syrians made up 363,000 of those applicants, according to a European Commission report. There were slightly more forecasted than 100,000 applicants from Iraq.
Over the years the number of refugees entering the US from the countries targeted by Trump have been relatively small compared to those seeking residency in the EU or other countries. In 2015, there were 12,000 from Iraq, 8,000 Somalis, 3,100 Iranians, 1,682 Syrians and 1,500 Sudanese. According to the Pew Research Center, the US admitted 12,500 Syrian refugees in 2016 and 9,800 from Iraq.
The US program to admit Syrian refugees was part of a recognition that the EU could not absorb millions of Syrians who might be trying to make their way there via Turkey. However, less than a year after German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome refugees, the EU had already worked out a plan with Turkey to stem their flow.
The US decision to stop admittances affects only around 1% of the Syrian refuge-seekers, because so few were actively seeking resettlement in the US. This is because Syrians who sought resettlement in the US had to apply while abroad, whereas most asylum-seekers in Europe arrive in the EU illegally.
The bulk of US aid for Syrian refugees has come in the form of financial assistance. According to a statement by the US Embassy in Jordan in September 2016, the US had provided $5.9 billion since the beginning of the civil war in Syria in 2011 and was giving $364 million in 2016. Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and other states received this money, which went to local NGOs and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Hameed Khalid Darweesh, an Iraqi refugee arriving in New York City as U.S. President Donald Trump's refugee and immigration ban went into effect, was detained and released January 28th. (Reuters)
According to another State Department document from September 2016, the US was sending $181m. to assist internally displaced persons in Iraq, most of whom fled Islamic State, part of more than $1b. spent since 2014.
This is the real heart of US funding for refugees in the region – not admitting refugees from Syria and Iraq, but local support. This is part of a policy that seeks regional solutions. For instance, Israel agreed recently to take in 100 children on humanitarian grounds. “The situation in Syria is very harsh. Civilians have been slaughtered for years only a few dozen kilometer from Israel,” said Minister Arye Deri in a statement put out by the Government Press Office.
Local people in Iraq and refugees from Syria have reacted with dismay to the new US policy. A Kurdish man in Erbil said the US Consulate had told those holding Iraqi passports with a US visa to postpone trips to the US until April, when the 90-day moratorium expires. “Regrettably, the Trump ban includes citizens from Iraqi Kurdistan, the closest ally to the US in fighting terrorism.”
Other Kurds who have been fighting ISIS felt the same, wondering why they should be punished for having an Iraqi passport when it is others who are extremists. Throughout the Middle East, those from the affected countries – many of them non-refugees, but people with visas and even Green Cards, who were seeking to study in the US or who had been planning to travel to visit friends and relatives – are left wondering what is next.