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How the Biden Administration Can Reset America’s Approach to Refugees, Asylum Seekers and International Migration

The United States has a long history of supporting refugees and asylum seekers. Until the Trump administration took office, the United States was the single largest country for refugee resettlement in the world. In most years prior to 2017, about half of all refugees who were resettled to a developed country came to the United States.

Soon after taking office, however, the Trump administration began an unprecedented rollback of US support for global refugees. By comparison, in the last year of the Obama administration the White House authorized the resettlement of over 100,000 refugees in the US. In the last year of the Trump administration that number was not to exceed 15,000.

Beyond refugee issues, the Trump administration has enacted policies the Southern US border that also upended decades of US policy on granting asylum to people fleeing persecution.

With Trump leaving office, the incoming administration has an opportunity to reset America’s approach to refugees, asylum seekers and international migration more broadly.

On the line with me to discuss some of the concrete steps the incoming Biden-Harris administration may take on these issues is Nazanin Ash, vice president for global policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee  We kick off discussing the ways in which refugee and asylum policy have historically enjoyed bi-partisan consensus before discussing the ways in which the incoming Biden-Harris administration can re-assert US leadership on these issues, including through some key multi-lateral platforms.

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Today’s episode is produced in partnership with the Better World Campaign as part of a series  examining the opportunities for strengthening multilateral engagement by the new Biden-Harris administration and the incoming 117th Congress. To learn more and access additional episodes in this series, please visit http://getusback.org/


Nazanin Ash [00:03:37] So just to take refugee admissions as an example. The program has a 40 year history of bipartisan consensus on humanitarian protection and admitting high levels of refugees for admission to the United States. The average across both Republican and Democratic administrations over the 40 year history of the program that preceded the Trump administration, was ninety five thousand a year. Some of the highest levels of refugee admission happening under Republican presidents. So we definitely see the Trump administration’s reversal of decades of consensus as the exception, not the rule.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:04:27] Beyond numbers of refugees resettled to the United States, another aspect of this approach to refugees and asylum seekers is a policy on the southern US border: the “Remain in Mexico” policy. Which again, seems like something that was not contemplated by previous administrations, but was enacted by this one. Again, an aberration to historic US policies on these issues.

Nazanin Ash [00:04:55] So the Trump administration has introduced an incredible array of harmful asylum policies that has served to vastly exacerbate the vulnerability of the most vulnerable populations. They’ve denied long standing criteria under which vulnerable populations could seek asylum, including gang violence and gender based violence. They have introduced policies that contradict domestic and international law, and returning asylum seekers to unsafe circumstances and unsafe territory to await adjudication of their claims. They’ve introduced a series of policies with deterrence at their focus that have only served to from the depths of inhumanity. I’m thinking especially about family separation, policy of family detention, the prolonged and expanded use of detention, and practices that have continued and again exacerbated vulnerabilities for most vulnerable populations. Especially in a time of COVID-19 where they have demonstrated a complete inability to ensure the safety of asylum seekers in detention in the midst of a pandemic.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:06:25] Immigration in the US has long been a hot button political issue, but refugee admissions and asylum policies unlike, say in Europe, here in the United States, it hasn’t been a huge political issue until now. Do you think that the Trump administration has perhaps forever changed the nature of what used to be a bipartisan consensus on refugee admissions? Is refugee policy in the United States now suddenly like an animating political issue?

Nazanin Ash [00:06:58] I think what’s most interesting about your question is that as hard as Trump has tried to make it so, to make refugees and asylum seekers a hot button, toxic political issue that presents risks for political leaders who and articulate their support for those populations; as hard as he’s tried to make it so, he’s really failed. The challenge he gave to the American public was to plant their flag and by and large, they’ve planted their flag with refugees and asylum seekers (and I can give you a number of examples). I think the sea change that’s really happening across our domestic politics is obscured by what happens at the federal level, where the Trump administration has incredible executive authority to implement harmful refugees and asylum policies. So the decline in what’s called the Presidential Determination for Refugee Admissions, annually has gotten a lot of coverage. Of course, Trump has aggressively used his bully pulpit to denigrate refugees, but what we see reflected across state and local governments and indeed across the American public, is a really different story.

Nazanin Ash [00:08:32] For example, in 2019, the Trump administration issued an executive order that asked state and local government’ spolitical leaders to affirmatively and publicly provide their consent before refugees could be resettled in their states and localities. Before a judge issued an injunction on the executive order 43 governors, including 19 Republicans, publicly declared their support and consent for admitting refugees. That’s a sea change from 2015 and 2016 when 31 governors across the United States, including Republicans and Democrats, were seeking to restrict refugee admission. Similarly, in 2015 and 2016, we saw hundreds of pieces of negative, anti-refugee legislation promulgated at the state and local level. But last year, pro-refugee legislation outpaced negative refugee legislation by 2-to-1.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:09:44] That’s fascinating. So it’s basically a reaction against the harsh policies and rhetoric of the Trump administration.

Nazanin Ash [00:09:51] Yes, he asked the American public to plant their flag and they planted their flag with refugees. I’ll give you one last example, which is reflected in Pew polling, where we see the highest levels of support for refugees and asylum seekers. By and large, by a majority, the American public believes that the US should be a place of refuge for those fleeing violence and persecution. The increase was driven by an 18 percentage point increase among Republicans.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:10:22] I’m glad to be speaking with you from the International Rescue Committee because, correct me if I’m wrong, but you are the largest secular refugee resettlement agency in the US, right?

Nazanin Ash [00:10:37] That’s right and uniquely, we serve vulnerable populations across the arc of crisis. We are an international humanitarian organization. We work in 40 countries overseas directly in the midst of conflict; in places like Yemen and Syria. Also in this country, we resettle refugees in 25 cities across the United States.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:11:04] So this to me, gives you a broad perspective on how to articulate what a more forward looking agenda for refugee issues might look like, both here in the United States and as the United States supports refugee issues around the world. So I have to imagine now, as an advocacy and policy officer with this organization you have kind of a wish list of the incoming administration. Would you maybe of go through what are some of your top priorities for the incoming administration, both in terms of domestic policy, but also internationally?

Nazanin Ash [00:11:43] That’s a great question and we are so excited to work with an incoming Biden-Harris administration that has already articulated a very robust commitment to refugees and asylum seekers. You may have seen President elect Biden announce a commitment on World Refugee Day to restore the refugee admissions level to 125,000 refugees annually in the first year of his administration and increasing it every year afterwards. That is what we would identify as one of the most critical priorities for an incoming Biden-Harris administration. To restore U.S. humanitarian leadership at home by rebuilding, reimaginating, reinvigorating the refugee admissions program. By reversing harmful Trump administration asylum policies and indeed, building back better an asylum system that had tremendous weaknesses preceding the Trump administration. Then, leveraging that humanitarian leadership at home to rebuild global resettlement commitments. What we’ve seen during the Trump administration has been the ability of the US to lead a race to the bottom. Globally, refugee resettlement slots have dropped by over 50 percent. There were 37 countries that were committed to refugee resettlement at the end of the Obama administration. Today, we have just twenty five countries that are resettling refugees. So reinvigorating global commitments to resettlement and put alongside rebuilding our commitment at home.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:14:01] So the idea is that should the Biden administration once again significantly raise the refugee cap (the number of refugees the US will admit in any given fiscal year). Simultaneous to that, the Biden administration, in your view, should work with other countries to increase their caps and expand the number of countries that are willing to accept refugees to be resettled. I mean, is there existing multilateral platform on which to to do this? Does this mean working more closely, say, with the UN refugee agency? What opportunities exist for that to take place?

Nazanin Ash [00:14:40] You’re exactly right Mark and there are those platforms. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. is not a signatory to the Global Refugee Compact. So we see a great opportunity for the incoming administration to join that compact, to join the Global Compact for Migration, and to once again engage in those multilateral platforms productively, to leverage their own commitments to encourage countries to do more.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:15:16] Can I just also have you explain briefly what the Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Compact for Migration are for those who are unfamiliar?

Nazanin Ash [00:15:25] Sure, the Global Compact on Refugees really seeks to reinvigorate global commitments to refugee response along several dimensions. One, ensuring that wealthy nations provide support in assistance and aid to low and middle income countries who support the vast majority of refugees, so increasing their financial commitments. Second, ensuring that wealthy nations do their part in sharing in global responsibility for refugees by increasing their resettlement commitments. Third, working with host nations and supporting them to extend rights and access for refugees to be able to rebuild their lives and their communities of first refuge. So, as noted almost 90 percent of refugees are hosted in low and middle income countries. Last year, and really over the last decade, on average only about 3 percent of them have been able to return home.

Nazanin Ash [00:16:38] So for the vast majority of refugees, having the opportunity to rebuild their lives in their new host communities is the future of refugee response. That host countries who are so generously supporting refugees, need the financial support of the international community to be able to extend social services, rights to work, and opportunities for regular access to education and health to those refugee populations. The Global Compact on Refugees really calls on the international community to reinvigorate their attention to the root causes. The IRC this week released its 2020 Watchlist. What our watchlist really reveals is that there are 20 countries in the world accounting for just 10 percent of the global population, but representing 85 percent of the world’s population in need of humanitarian assistance, representing almost 90 percent of those who are internally displaced, and representing 84 percent of the world’s refugees. So reinvigorating global attention to resolving these longstanding, prolonged conflicts now being exacerbated by climate change and by COVID-19, is a place where we hope to see US leadership and diplomacy on a range of tools and assets that the US can bring to the table, deployed into conflict resolution.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:18:29] San you also briefly discuss and explain what the Global Compact for Migration is? Because that’s sort of the other half of the refugee compact, is the compact on migration.

Nazanin Ash [00:18:43] This is a real breakthrough compact, a first of its kind, international agreement on safe and orderly migration and the protection of vulnerable populations and migrants. It recognizes that globally there are over 240 million people on the move. Grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we need an international system that helps create the protocols and guidelines that ensures migrants are protected enroute, that they have opportunities to migrate in a safe and orderly fashion, and that they’re not subject to violations of their human rights on their journeys, in countries where they are often detained, and enroute to final destination.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:19:54] So on your wish list, is the Biden administration to sign and enter the US into both the refugee and the migrant compact. What else are you looking towards in the coming administration in terms of resetting US policies on refugee issues around the world?

Nazanin Ash [00:20:13] There are two additional things added to the list of what we’ve covered. One, strong diplomacy and international cooperation in pursuit of refugee rights and access to work and education in countries of first refuge. If you think about the model of the leaders summit the Obama administration led in 2016, that was really about wealthy nations doing their part to increase aid, increase resettlement, and to work with host countries to leverage those commitments for increased opportunities for refugee self-reliance. And it was a really successful model. Anchored by US commitments, we saw a 30 percent increase in humanitarian aid, we saw a commitment to double in the first year and triple in the second global resettlement slots, and a host of low and middle income countries (hosting the vast majority of refugees) made a commitment to allow one million refugees access to work and a million refugee children access to school.

Nazanin Ash [00:21:32] Again, in the context of a few refugees are able to return home and only a small proportion of the most vulnerable have access to resettlement, seeing strengthened diplomacy on behalf of those additional humanitarian outcomes that allow refugees to rebuild their lives, is another priority for an incoming Biden-Harris administration.

[00:21:57] The idea is that, just to to be clear, when refugees cross a border or flee to a safer country, they’re often not permitted legal access or work permits. So the idea here is that the Obama administration in that summit helped and encouraged some of those countries to expand access to formal work permits and education opportunities for refugees.

[00:22:24] That’s right, very few countries allow refugees unfettered right to work. Few countries allow refugees freedom of movement to go where there are work opportunities. Few countries, less than 50 percent, offer refugee children opportunities for regular education. When you have prolonged refugee crises, and refugee crises now on average last 10 years or more, you’re talking about multiple generations denied the opportunity for education or work.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:23:13] Finally, I think there is one more item on your on your punch list.

Nazanin Ash [00:23:19] One more item, it’s an ambitious agenda. At the International Rescue Committee, we’ve been leaders in the humanitarian sector in calling for real reform of the way in which we support vulnerable populations and real reform of the humanitarian sector. We have outmoded tools, outmoded financing structures that have not kept up with trends in protracted displacement, and have not kept up with trends in recognizing that we need to move from a model of emergency response to refugees, to a model that incorporates development opportunities for refugees to be integrated into their host communities. So we’d love to see the incoming Biden-Harris administration re-engaging productively with the multilateral system that has done a tremendous job of responding to ever increasing populations in need of assistance at a time when the world has been engaged in a global retreat from their humanitarian obligations. As we call on incoming Biden-Harris administration to lead a global race to the top in leading humanitarian obligations, there’s also a need to help support and reform the international organizations and multilateral system to be more resilient and more responsive to this long term plans.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:25:12] Finally, are you confident (or how confident are you) that the Biden administration will actually do those things that you just suggested, will sign the refugee and migration compacts, and engage on the kind of reform agenda that you just articulated?

Nazanin Ash [00:25:33] I have a great degree of confidence in the incoming Biden-Harris administration to take on these global challenges. I say that because there’s both a moral obligation to do so, a call from the American public to do so, but also a strategic imperative. Humanitarian crises left unattended and have a terrible history of fomenting ongoing regional instability and further crises. That’s really the story that’s told by the statistics I shared from our 2021 watchlist analysis. Without appropriately addressing the humanitarian need and the needs of vulnerable populations, without rolling up your sleeves and seeking to stem these ever proliferating conflicts that are driving record numbers of global displacement; what we see is increasing currents of instability and conflict. When people turn away from their humanitarian obligations (again that has militarian impact, but also strategic impact), of the 15 largest returns of refugees that have happened since the 1990s, a third of them have resulted in the resumption of conflict.

Nazanin Ash [00:27:17] The turning back of asylum seekers at the U.S. southern border has created an emergency and humanitarian crisis, that is creating a crisis on the US southern border and exacerbating crises for our ally in Mexico. So it’s both a moral imperative and a strategic imperative to be responsive to humanitarian need.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:27:51] Well, thank you, thank you so much for your time.

Nazanin Ash [00:27:53] Thank you so much Mark.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:27:55] All right, thank you all for listening. Thank you to Nazanin Ash, that was very helpful. Thank you also to the Better World campaign for this partnership. Again, please do visit getusback.org to learn more about the opportunities for multilateral engagement for the new Biden-Harris administration and the incoming 117th Congress. I will see you next time, bye!