Thursday, June 29, 2017

The US War on Resettlement?

Today, the US State Department issued its guidelines to comply with the Supreme Court's ruling on Trump's travel ban. The Court had ruled that immigrants from the 6 banned countries and all refugees must now prove a bona fide relationship with the United States to qualify for admission. It was up to the US State Department to define "bona fide" relationship, which they have now done in a communication to embassies. Apparently, only immigrants and refugees who are the close relatives of persons already admitted to the US will be allowed entry to the US. This will shut down all categories of resettlement apart from family reunification. Eventually, if the restrictions remain in place, this would shut the program down completely, as once all of a refugee's family members are settled in the US, there will be no way to bring over anyone else.

Even if the restrictions are only short term, they have completely eliminated human rights as a rationale for resettlement. Instead, UNHCR will now be able to select refugees for resettlement to the US, the world's largest resettlement country, only if they are the close family members presumably of US citizens and green card holders, (though this remains somewhat unclear.) There is also some possibility that refugees with urgent medical needs may be included, though this is also unclear.

The press coverage of the travel ban has drowned out another disturbing administration initiative, the potential transfer of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, the State Department entity responsible for resettlement, to the Department of Homeland Security. This represents a dangerous shift of the program's focus away from human rights and towards security. Taken together, these initiatives show a massive shift of the resettlement program away from its human rights focus. Refugee resettlement is now merely another immigration category for people lucky enough to have relatives in the US, it's purpose to assist US citizens and green card holders to be united with their families, rather than to protect the most vulnerable.

How can this be legal? Unfortunately, under the logic of international law, refugees to be resettled have already been given "international protection" in another country, so there is no obligation for a third country such as the US to accept them. The vulnerability of the resettlement program to politics has long been well known, now we are witnessing it being ruthlessly exploited by the richest country in the world.

There is yet hope that the US Supreme Court will strike down the travel ban, either for constitutional reasons or as an impermissible restriction on the right of asylum-seekers to gain entry in the US. Each year, for example, hundreds of Iranians flee to the US to claim asylum "in the first instance," meaning that they are coming directly from Iran. It is unclear if refusing to grant a visa to an entire class of asylum seekers qualifies as refoulement, but there are certainly strong arguments to be made that it does, not withstanding case law legalizing the turning back of boats of asylum seekers in international waters. This will be for the Court to decide, but in the meantime, the Trump administration has finally exploited the weakness of the resettlement program.