The United Nations and other humanitarian organizations are struggling to figure out what happens now for all those who would have entered the U.S. refugee resettlement pipeline in the next four months.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the U.N. arm responsible for refugee issues, has expressed alarm at the situation in which thousands now find themselves: President Donald Trump signed an executive order Friday suspending the refugee resettlement program and stopping travel from seven Muslim-majority nations. Syrian refugees are banned indefinitely.
Over the 120-days suspension, UNHCR estimates that 20,000 people would have arrived had the ban not been enacted.
“Discussions are happening at all levels, all channels about alternative solutions, interim solutions for the people affected during the 120-day suspension,” UNHCR spokesperson Chris Boian said. “They’re going to need places to stay.”
Trump said the U.S. program will be suspended until the government can enact stricter security procedures he refers to as “extreme vetting.” Refugees currently undergo the most stringent security checks of any class of traveler to the U.S., including multiple in-person interviews and health screenings.
The United States takes in more refugees annually than any other country, and there have been no shortage of international squabbles in the past several years about whose responsibility it is to care for those fleeing violence and persecution. Europe, dealing with its own waves of populism and Islamophobia amid a string of terror attacks, has resisted resettling people fleeing the Middle East and Africa. Syria’s neighbors are at a bursting point with refugees fleeing that country’s civil war.
Boian said he’s not aware of any countries that have publicly announced a desire to pick up the slack when it comes to resettling refugees. Less than 1 percent of the world’s refugees will ever be resettled to a third country like the U.S., according to UNHCR.
“Our organization’s staff around the world are working flat out to make sure that the refugees that are affected by the change in regulations receive timely and fully comprehensive information: What their status is, what their options are and what may happen go forward,” Boian said.
He said UNHCR isn’t currently looking for other countries to which refugees slated for the U.S. can be permanently re-routed. Instead, the organization taking the Trump administration at its word that the ban will only last 120 days. Boian said his organization is happy to work with U.S. officials regarding security procedures for refugees, but that so far UNHCR is not in contact with the Trump administration regarding potential changes to the vetting process.
Were refugees in the U.S. resettlement pipeline in need of being redirected to other countries, they would likely have to start over at square one with regards to vetting because each country is responsible for its own methods and criteria for admitting refugees.
“We know of a number of cases of refugees who were in the very final stages of preparing to travel to the U.S. and now have no idea what’s going to happen to them, after spending years and years waiting and going through multiple interviews, answering questions, providing information, providing documentation,” said Noah Gottshalk, senior policy advisor for humanitarian response at Oxfam America. “Now they’re completely in limbo.”
Oxfam worries that even if the U.S. program does resume, people already in the pipeline will have to begin again anyway. The entire process usually takes 18 months to upwards of two years.
“If you are living in a chicken coop on a farm in a rural part of Lebanon … to find a way to get to the U.S. embassy in Beirut to make an appointment for a person who only comes into the country to do these interviews a few times a year means your check is almost certainly going to expire while you wait to get another appointment,” Gottshalk said.
Gottshalk said he hopes Congress will listen to constituents who are upset about the order — like the protesters made their voices heard at airports around the country over the weekend. But despite that very visible opposition to Trump’s order, a Reuters poll released Tuesday showed 49 percent of Americans support his move to restrict refugees and immigration. Forty-one percent of those polled opposed it, with responses largely falling along party lines.
Oxfam will also be focusing on legal means of defeating Trump’s order. The organization filed a lawsuit on Tuesday in conjunction with the Massachusetts attorney general against the refugee suspension and accompanying travel ban for people from the seven nations (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen).
And the uncertainty doesn’t just apply to the refugees themselves. The order has also left scrambling the staff of humanitarian organizations, many of whom must be available to travel at a moment’s notice to respond to a global emergency. In some cases inside countries on the travel ban list, it has restricted where staffers can safely go.
Holly Frew, emergency communications manager at CARE USA, said one staff member was set to travel this weekend to Nigeria. But because he’s a U.S. green card holder originally from one of the seven countries, the organization made the decision to postpone his travel. They feared that if he left the U.S., he may not be allowed back in.
“It’s not supposed to apply to green card holders anymore, but we’re still concerned,” Frew said of the travel ban. “The way the order’s been interpreted and implemented has not been consistent.”