SALT LAKE CITY — In 2017, the United States resettled fewer refugees than the rest of the world for the first time since the adoption of the U.S. Refugee Act in 1980. The number of refugees resettled in the United States also decreased more than any other country that year.
“It’s a watershed figure,” says Ryan Allen, associate professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. “It marks a change in terms of how America interacts with the world and it speaks to the Trump administration’s perspective on how America sees itself and its presence in the global society.”
The U.S. has historically led the world in refugee resettlement, taking in more than 3 million of the total 4 million refugees accepted across the globe in the past 30 years. And the U.S. still resettled more refugees than any other one country in 2017. But the sharp decline marks a sea change for the nation as it's the first time since 1980 it has not resettled more refugees than the rest of the world combined.
“The U.S. has been a leader both in numbers and in humanitarian principle,” says Jessica Darrow, a refugee studies lecturer at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration.
But in 2017, the U.S. resettled just 33,000 refugees, the lowest total since the years following the 9/11 terror attacks. It was also a dramatic drop from 2016, when the United States resettled 97,000 refugees. Non-U.S. countries resettled 69,000 in 2017, more than twice the number of refugees accepted by the United States.
To explain the sharp decline, Darrow and Allen point to what they call the Trump administration's hostility to refugee resettlement, which was a cornerstone of President Donald Trump's presidential campaign and has remained a central theme of his time in office. The administration has slashed the refugee ceiling for fiscal 2018 to 45,000 people — the lowest in five decades — and has banned travel to the U.S. from five countries with majority Muslim populations.
“These policies send the message that people who are fleeing for their very lives are not welcome here,” says Darrow. “The data provides evidence of the administration’s efforts to limit the welcome we offer to the world’s most vulnerable populations.”
The decline in refugee resettlement comes at a time when the global refugee population reached a “peak” in 2017 at 19.9 million, according to Phillip Connor, Pew senior researcher and one of the authors of the study.
Practically speaking, says Allen, the decline will have very little effect on individual refugees seeking a new home.
That’s because less than 1 percent of the total number of displaced people in the world will ever be resettled, and the U.S. resettles only a small fraction of that 1 percent. Out of a total of nearly 20 million refugees worldwide in 2017, just 103,000 were resettled, according to Pew.
“The United States taking a step back isn’t going to have a dramatic effect on refugees worldwide because such a small percentage of refugees are resettled anyway,” Allen says, comparing the chances of being resettled to "winning a lottery ticket.”
But he says the symbolic value of America’s actions carries more weight.
“We were once seen as a country that honored freedom and fought for those who were persecuted,” says Allen. At a time when a record number of refugees are in need of safe homes, “it’s notable that instead of ramping up our efforts, we are actually retrenching. It speaks to a larger positioning of America as one of shirking from leadership on this issue rather than embracing it.”
Darrow says the effect of the Trump administration’s policies on refugee resettlement could have far reaching consequences, not only for refugees fleeing persecution but for the resettlement agencies that support newly arriving refugees. A resulting lack of funding may force some agencies to lay off staff or shut down.
Erol Kekic, senior vice president of the Immigration and Refugee Program of the Church World Service, explains the number of refugees resettled in America will continue to decline this year.
He says that while Trump capped the number of refugees at 45,000 for fiscal year 2018, political and bureaucratic issues will cap the number of refugees resettled in the United States at a projected just 20,000 to 25,000 refugees resettled.
“If and when we do not reach the target of 45,000, that means we have failed to save over 20,000 lives this year alone, and we chose to do that,” he says. “That’s a hard fact to swallow for me.”
Fear of the stranger
The United States is not alone in its declining numbers of resettled refugees.
Overall, nations resettled 103,000 refugees in 2017, down from 189,000 in 2016. The decline included decreases in other leading countries in refugee resettlement, such as Canada and Australia, which experienced more modest drops than those in the United States.
A move toward more restrictive policies aimed at immigration and refugee resettlement is not unique to the United States, says Shailja Sharma, director of the Refugee and Forced Migration Studies program at DePaul University.
She says the rhetoric around tightening borders is part of a larger global trend, in which authoritarian leaders are coming to power across the world, in part by using refugees and immigrants as a wedge issue to whip up support.
“The fear of the unknown, of the stranger, is an easy way to get people’s passions involved in the political sphere,” says Sharma.
Sharma points out that historically, refugee resettlement has not been a divisive political issue in the United States.
“In the past, mainstream politicians on both sides of the aisle have agreed that we are a nation of immigrants and as such we have an obligation to accept refugees,” she says.
And apparently the general public feels the same way.
A recent nationwide Pew survey of more than 2,000 adults found that support among Americans for increasing the level of legal immigration — a category which includes refugees — has risen 22 percentage points, while the share saying legal immigration should decrease has fallen 29 percentage points, since 2001.
Kekic says he believes most Americans are not opposed to accepting refugees. Part of that, he says, is deeply rooted in the nation’s historical identity, as a country known for being a beacon of hope and freedom to those outside its borders. He says that same mission inspires the work of the Church World Service.
“We are a faith-based organization and a Christian organization that believes in the biblical mandate to help the neighbor and the stranger,” he says. “When that is taken away, when our country is intentionally excluding entire religions, ethnic groups and cultures from being admitted to the United States, then we must ask the question: Why? And with what authority?”