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Which nation is 'most generous' to refugees? Certainly not the US

Aryeh Neier

Many countries that don’t have the luxury of rigorous admissions processes give refuge to vastly greater numbers of people

Justin Trudeau greets refugees fleeing from Syria, in Toronto on 11 December 2015. Photograph: Nathan Denette/AP

When secretary of state Mike Pompeo announced a few days ago that the Trump administration had set a ceiling of 30,000 refugees who could be resettled in the United States in the next year beginning 1 October, he ritually added: “We are and continue to be the most generous nation in the world.”

Not quite. Our neighbor to the north, Canada, has a population slightly more than one-tenth that of the United States – and an economy slightly less than one-tenth the size. Like the United States, Canada carefully screens applicants for admission as refugees and has had great success in integrating them into Canadian society. Canada is now taking in 27,000 refugees a year. To match Canada, the United States would have to accept about 250,000 refugees a year.

Many countries that are much closer to the places from which refugees are fleeing, and that do not have the luxury of having their consular services engage in rigorous, time consuming admissions processes, give refuge to vastly great numbers. Turkey has accommodated about 3.5 million Syrian refugees since 2011; and Lebanon and Jordan have taken in even larger numbers in proportion to their population.

Several Latin American countries are now taking in hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans fleeing repression and starvation. Impoverished Bangladesh is sheltering about 700,000 Rohingya who have fled genocidal violence in Myanmar during the past year. Though it has come at a high political cost for their governing coalitions, Sweden and Germany have led the way among western countries in recent years in demonstrating generosity to refugees.

Pompeo tried to bolster his case for American generosity by pointing out that the United States would also process some 280,000 asylum applications in the next year. He failed to mention, however, that the great majority of these would be denied. In recent years, the number of asylum applications in the United States that succeeded has been roughly between 20,000 and 25,000. That number is likely to go down.

Many asylum applicants are migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. These are countries with extremely high murder rates due to gang violence that is, in part, a legacy of the wars in Central America of a generation ago. The Trump administration has made it clear to immigration judges – who are administrative employees of the United States Department of Justice – that it does not believe that escaping the gangs amounts to fleeing “a well-founded fear of persecution,” the legal standard for granting asylum.

The claim that the United States is very generous also seems based on the amount of foreign aid that is distributed. Though this is larger in absolute terms than the aid given by others, as a percentage of GDP, it is much lower than that of several other western countries.

Since 1975, the United States has accepted more than 3.3 million refugees for permanent resettlement, or close to 80,000 a year on average. The Trump administration reduced the ceiling to 45,000 for the current year. Though the final numbers are not yet in hand, the United States is on track for about half that. That suggests that next year’s refugee admissions could also be a lot lower than the 30,000 that has been announced. This appears a victory for administration hard line ethnic nationalists who sought a far lower figure.

According to the International Rescue Committee, those admitted in the current year which ends 30 September include only 60 Syrian refugees. Though the Trump administration has said it gives priority to persecuted religious minorities, only five Yazidis were admitted. Another category that is supposedly favored includes Iraqis who gave assistance to US missions in that country and who may subsequently be in danger. Only 48 of them were admitted this year.

Like its predecessors, the Trump administration is concerned about the global reputation of the United States. Yet many of its actions are producing resentment in different parts of the world. These include its trade war with China; its unilateral abrogation of the treaty to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons; its cessation of humanitarian support for Palestinian refugees; its withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement; and its warm words for the leaders of authoritarian regimes that abuse human rights in such countries as Russia, Poland, Egypt, North Korea, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia.

In previous periods, the United States also did many things that alienated people in many parts of the world. These were often offset, however, by policies and practices that reflected a generous spirit in dealing with the victims of natural disasters and man-made disasters in different parts of the globe. Unfortunately for the United States, the Trump administration does not seem to recognize that the country is better off in the world if its “America first” policy is balanced by a willingness to accept a reasonable share of responsibility for alleviating the distress of those unfortunates who have had to become refugees.