A former senior government official who oversaw refugee resettlement under Barack Obama warned that the Trump administration’s decision to slash the refugee admissions cap to a record low could have fatal consequences.
Bob Carey, the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) under the Obama administration from 2015 to 2017, told the Guardian the new limit of 30,000 refugees per year and the Trump administration’s justification for the cap was “a new low in our history”.
“People will be harmed,” Carey said. “People will die.”
Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, announced on Monday that in the fiscal year that begins 1 October, the US will only allow up to 30,000 refugees – a sliver of 1% of the more than 68 million people forcibly displaced across the globe.
Carey and other refugee advocates said the new limit is part of a systematic effort by the US government to dismantle humanitarian protections for people fleeing violence, religious persecution and armed conflict. And they are concerned other countries will follow the US in dismantling refugee programs.
Pompeo’s announcement followed a six-month period where the US forcibly separatedmore than 2,600 migrant children from their parents, ended its commitment to funding the United Nations’ program for Palestinian refugees and was scrutinized by its own military officials for denying entry to Iraqis who assisted US troops.
Carey left his posting at ORR, an office in the health department, when Trump took office in January 2017. He said the refugee program – which is overseen by the health department, department of homeland security and state department – is being “managed to fail”.
“It’s really disturbing and tragic,” said Carey, who is now a fellow at the Open Society Foundations. “I think it will ultimately make the world less secure.”
Resettlement is what happens after people flee to one county and are then given a chance to start new lives in a third country. Resettlement is not what happens to most refugees: there were 19.9 million people who had fled their home country at the end of 2017, but less than 1% were resettled that year, according to the UN refugee agency.
An additional 40 million people are internally displaced and 3.1 million are seeking asylum, according to UNHCR.
With two weeks to go in the 2018 fiscal year, the US has admitted 20,918 refugees for resettlement – 46% of the current 45,000 refugee cap.
To justify the lower cap, Pompeo cited a backlog of outstanding asylum cases for draining resources. In doing so, he linked two groups that are processed differently – refugees and asylum seekers – and overstated how many asylum cases are in the backlog.
“Some will characterize the refugee ceiling as the sole barometer of America’s commitment to vulnerable people around the world,” Pompeo said. “This would be wrong.”
But humanitarian groups allege that targeting a population that is vetted more than any other immigrant group is a key indicator of the US’s humanitarian priorities under Trump.
“There is no question that from the very beginning this administration had a goal to shut down or extremely limit the refugee program,” said Michelle Brané, director of the migrant rights and justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission.
Brané said low refugee admissions, coupled with the Trump administration’s slate of policies and directives that limit legal and illegal immigration, has created a “pressure cooker” in the most unstable regions in the world.
“You lock people in, you don’t let them out,” Brané said. “You don’t provide them an avenue to safety. What does that mean in the end? It feels like we’re leading to a bigger crisis.”
People in the refugee resettlement community are worried that the rapid, dramatic dismantling of the program means it will be difficult to rebuild if the cap is raised in the future.
This is because with fewer refugees coming in, there is less need for refugee resettlement agencies who work as nonprofits contracted by the US government to manage the resettlement process by finding refugees housing, jobs and schools. This year, at least 20 were set to close and 40 others have cut operations, according to Reuters.
Paedia Mixon is CEO of New American Pathways, an Atlanta resettlement agency that provides assistance to all types of immigrants. “Our fears are in a short period of time you can destroy something that’s worked really well,” Mixon said.
Mixon said New American Pathways has lost more than $1m in revenue since Trump took office and had to let go seven of its staff members.
“We always felt like we did this work in partnership with the US government, that we were providing a service to our country, doing humanitarian work on behalf of the United States,” Mixon said.
This was true even when admissions, but not the refugee cap, plummeted after 9/11.
Mixon and others who worked for the government and at resettlement agencies at that time said it appeared the government was interested in keeping the refugee program afloat, once it had made security adjustments to the vetting process.
Now, that no longer appears to be the case.
Mixon said: “It looks like they are trying to remove certain types of people from the country, which is what most of our refugees are trying to flee from – a government that would remove you based on who you are, what you look like, where you are from.”