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Refugee crisis: While some follow US as it disengages, others lead

Why We Wrote This

For years, the US set an example as the largest resettler of refugees and largest donor of funds to meet the needs of the displaced. Its withdrawal from that humanitarian enterprise has consequences.

Austrian police run protection drills at the border with Slovenia in Spielfeld, Austria, June 26.
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The United States under President Trump is sitting out talks among United Nations member states on an area of international policy where it long took the helm: refugees. As the world’s most powerful country, the US once cajoled others to follow its lead and adopt its humanitarian values. Its withdrawal from global migration talks is raising concerns about the worsening crisis. While some countries, like Canada, are stepping up to fill the leadership void, others, like Hungary, are taking a cue from Mr. Trump’s America and stepping back themselves. Craig Mokhiber, of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, says he’s seeing not just countries but refugee organizations, faith-based groups, the private sector, and municipalities come together to hammer out an accord. But he adds that he’s concerned, “because when a very powerful country and traditional leader bows in any way to disrespecting human rights, others can be tempted to say, ‘We can follow this powerful leader’s example and do the same.’ ” Adds Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International in Washington: “American leadership has always been a powerful catalyst … and now it’s not there.”

Around the world, the number of refugees and internally displaced people continues to rise – now estimated at more than 68 million people, with more than a third of them refugees forced by conflict across international borders.

In response, the United Nations’ member states are negotiating a new pact on migration that aims to improve the world’s response to the mounting crisis.

All of the UN’s 193 members, that is, save one: the United States.

The US under President Trump is sitting out the talks on an area of international policy where it long took the helm: It set an example as the largest resettler of refugees and largest donor of funds to meet the needs of the displaced, and as the world’s most powerful country it cajoled others to follow its lead and adopt its humanitarian values.

The Trump administration announced in December that concerns over potential infringements on national sovereignty and border security compelled it to pull out of the negotiations, which are set to deliver a new Global Compact for Migration by the end of the year.

The compact – like the Paris climate accord that the US under Mr. Trump withdrew from last year – includes no mandatory measures but seeks to offer guidelines and principles for orderly and safe migration and humane resettlement of refugees.

But now the US withdrawal from the global migration talks – especially in the wake of the 2017 numbers released for World Refugee Day last week showing a worsening crisis – is raising new concerns about the impact of the US turn on migration issues.

Are other countries stepping up to fill the void left by the US, or are countries taking a cue from Trump’s America and stepping back from the world’s refugees and displaced?

International migration experts say they’re seeing some of both – in a country like Canada welcoming more refugees than in past years, for example, or on the other hand, in a country like Hungary matching Trump’s anti-immigrant posture and imposing harsh new anti-migrant measures.

“If you looked at the world’s response to the migration crisis through the lens of the United States’ actions and policy prescriptions, you’d get a pretty distorted view of the broader context and mobilization,” says Craig Mokhiber, director of the New York office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

As chair of the migration task force within the compact negotiations, Mr. Mokhiber says he’s seeing not just countries but nongovernmental refugee organizations, faith-based groups, the private sector, and municipalities come together to hammer out an accord.

“So the US,” he says, “is very much an outlier.” But then he adds a caveat:

“On the other hand, it’s true that a few countries have rejected international law and humanitarian norms since the crisis began,” he says. “And that’s where the US response to all of this becomes very worrying,” he adds, “because when a very powerful country and traditional leader bows in any way to disrespecting human rights, others can be tempted to say, ‘We can follow this powerful leader’s example and do the same.’ ”

'The world does feel very different'

Others, too, say they see both trends happening. But they worry that the sheer weight and influence of the US in an international issue like refugee resettlement and migration policy could have a dire impact over time.

“It is difficult to overestimate the impact that the rhetoric and policies of the Trump administration are having on so many levels around the world on efforts of international organizations and humanitarians to address the challenges of this ongoing crisis,” says Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International in Washington.

The crisis of migration and rising numbers of refugees is not that different from just two years ago, Mr. Schwartz says, when all UN members (including the US) signed a “New York Declaration” on migration launching the current “compact” negotiations. At the time, then-President Barack Obama assembled world leaders to unveil a US pledge to resettle more refugees (110,000 in 2017) and to implore others to follow the American example.

Most of the world’s refugees come from the same countries in conflict as a few years ago, with Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, and Somalia accounting for about two-thirds of refugees in 2017.

Spanish rescue members carry babies, part of a group intercepted aboard dinghies off the coast in the Mediterranean Sea, upon arrival at the port of Motril, southern Spain, June 26, 2018.
Pepe Marin/Reuters
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“But the world does feel very different – and to my mind that is attributable almost exclusively to the rhetoric and policies coming out of Washington,” says Schwartz, a former assistant secretary of State for population, refugees, and migration. “American leadership has always been a powerful catalyst on all these issues,” he adds, “and now it’s not there.”

There are also signs that the “different feel” extends to publics, including in the US. Polls show a majority of Americans still support receiving refugees and immigration generally, but in falling numbers. And in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has seen her support wither as she has championed immigrant assimilation in the wake of the large refugee influx of recent years.

If anything, Schwartz says the Trump administration’s rhetoric and actions – from the Muslim travel ban that the Supreme Court upheld Tuesday and a steep reduction in the number of refugees to be resettled in the US to presidential warnings of an “infestation” of immigrants – are enabling the world’s worst actors, from Hungary to Myanmar.

“Can you imagine a George W. Bush being complicit in the nationalist, antidemocratic, and anti-migrant rhetoric coming out of Europe right now?” Schwartz says.

Conservative discord

Even some quarters generally supportive of the Trump administration and its initiatives are balking at the tough stand on refugees. The Heritage Foundation in Washington last year issued a paper calling for a strengthening of the US refugee admissions program, even as the Trump administration was drastically reducing resettlements.

“We are certainly concerned about security, and we understand the need for thorough vetting [of refugee resettlement applicants], but we also believe there is a clear US national security interest to continue to resettle refugees,” says Olivia Enos, a specialist in migration and human rights issues at Heritage and one of the authors of last year’s report.

The slow pace of resettlement that could result in fewer than 20,000 refugees gaining approval to enter the US this year is an “area of disappointment,” says Ms. Enos. The average intake of refugees in previous years – falling generally between 40,000 and 60,000 – made the US the global leader on refugee issues and allowed it to “promote our core values, including assisting the world’s most threatened and neediest,” she says.

Noting that the Heritage team has taken its report and its concerns over the refugee program to the White House national security staff and to some congressional offices, Enos says, “We’re hopeful that with some reform and strengthening of the program, the administration can in coming years get closer to the more typical numbers for refugee resettlement.”

SOURCE: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Whether or not that happens, other experts say the key to addressing the rising rejectionist mood toward refugees and migrants globally will be vigorous campaigns to debunk the many myths that have taken root concerning refugees – from the dangers they pose to the jobs they take and the public resources they drain.

“What we’re up against are these proliferating distortions and propaganda around immigrants, so to counter that we are advocating a global effort based on the two pillars of evidence and values and built on the framework of international law that we’ve been building since World War II,” says the UN’s Mokhiber.

The “myths” include the terrorism risks and economic hardships that refugees pose, he says, “when we know from data that all of this is misinformation and false.” No refugee in the US has committed a deadly terrorist act at least since the 9/11 attacks, which did not involve refugees.

Refugees International’s Schwartz says his organization and others in the migrant advocacy community are anxious to work with the Trump administration “whenever we can.” He cites Trump’s supportive comments for the government of Bangladesh’s resource-stretching accommodation of more than 600,000 Rohingya refugees, and says, “We’re going to encourage this president and work with him when the opportunity arises.”

Canada provides a model

But in the absence of traditional US leadership on the migrant issue, Schwartz and others say that other countries and organizations are stepping up.

Heritage’s Enos says Canada is providing a model for the US and others ­– not just by accepting more refugees, but through a resettlement program that encourages private-sector and even individual-citizen sponsorship of refugees and emphasizes the role of assimilation in successful resettlement.

Around the world and in the US in particular, Mokhiber says, one salutary effect of the US leadership retreat has been a “massive mobilization” of other actors, from migrant advocacy organizations and faith-based groups, to local governments and mayors and large and small businesses.

One example: the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an association of Catholic sisters that lamented the Trump administration’s “misguided” decision to pull out of the refugees and migrants compact negotiations. In response, it has redoubled its longtime advocacy of immigrant and refugee communities.

“All of these groups and individuals have stepped forward to pick up the slack where national governments have come up short,” Mokhiber says. “The challenge they face is that in a growing number of places they are in a struggle for the soul of public policy.”

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