Today, more than 70 million humans don’t know when or if they will ever return home. On this World Refugee Day, we know that the number of forcibly displaced persons grew by 13.6 million in 2018 alone, due to global conflict or persecution. That astounding figure includes 3.5 million asylum-seekers. Many have fled religious persecution in their own countries.
There is a subtle but important distinction between refugee status and asylum seeker. Under the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), a refugee is any alien outside the U.S. who has experienced past persecution or has a well-founded fear of persecution based on:
- Membership in a particular social group
- Political opinion
If that same alien is already in the United States, that status changes to asylum seeker. Nearly 40 years ago, the U.S. established the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) to assist refugees, particularly asylum seekers, in their desperate quest for protection from persecution. USRAP has made it possible for more than 3 million refugees to resettle in the U.S. These individuals have become citizens. Their presence as civic leaders, entrepreneurs and active participants is part of the national fabric.
For four decades, the average annual ceiling for refugee admissions to the U.S. has hovered at 95,000. By presidential directive, that number in 2019 has been capped at just 30,000. This, despite an all-time record high level of refugees seeking protection, many for religious purposes. At its current level of processing, the U.S. likely will not meet even this lower level of admissions for the year.
Today, in recognition of World Refugee Day, a coalition of religious leaders sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In it, they urge the Department of State and other agencies to strengthen the U.S. refugee admissions program. Specifically, they call for an assurance that the full 30,000 quota will be met in the current fiscal year. In 2020, they seek a return to historic levels of admission.
Coalition members write: “By significantly reducing the annual refugee ceiling and the total number of refugee arrivals, while also putting in place stringent vetting requirements of certain nationalities who are coming from countries in which there are high levels of religious persecution, we have ongoing concerns that the refugee resettlement program is being jeopardized precisely at the time when it should be a robust, humanitarian tool helping victims of religious persecution abroad.”
In a statement also released today, Secretary Pompeo noted that the U.S. remains the largest single donor of humanitarian assistance worldwide. The strategy of the U.S. has been to assist displaced people — $8 billion worth in 2018 — as close to their homes as possible until they can safely and voluntarily return home.
Secretary Pompeo stated, “the best way to help most people is to work to end conflicts that drive displacement in the first place, to target the application of foreign aid in a smarter way, and to promote burden-sharing with partners and allies.”
The administration is mindful that persecution of religious minorities remains a key driver of the global refugee crisis. As such, it continues to prioritize the promotion of international religious freedom as a core foreign policy goal. Next month, the State Department will convene the second annual International Religious Freedom Ministerial. A part of that agenda must be a conversation around the preservation of a robust refugee resettlement program — a life-saving humanitarian tool consistent with a commitment to protecting and promoting international religious freedom.
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