Amidst a series of controversial moves during his first week as president of the United States, Donald Trump signed an executive order on January 27, 2017 temporarily halting the country’s refugee resettlement program. The executive order, which resulted in the detention of up to 200 refugees and others from the seven banned Muslim-majority countries, has major implications for how the world views the refugee crisis. The executive order was stayed in federal court but the Trump administration issued a new order on March 6, 2017, that dropped Iraq from the list of Muslim-majority and no longer contains a blanket ban on Syrian refugees. However, that order was blocked by a federal judge in Hawaii on Wednesday, hours before it was meant to go into effect.
However, the new order still impacts refugees significantly by cutting the number of US refugee admissions in half and pausing US refugee admissions for 120 days, which means many refugees awaiting travel will need to go through medical and security screenings again, the latter of which can take years. The second refugee executive order takes effect on March 16, 2017, but it has already been challenged in court as constitutional overreach by a growing list of states, including California, Washington, Maryland, New York, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Minnesota.
Trump’s moves against refugees are not an isolated phenomenon; rather, they are part and parcel of a broader isolationist movement taking hold at a global level. Europe is a prime example. Since requests for asylum began to spike in 2014, countries with relatively open asylum policies, such as Sweden and Germany, have adopted more restrictive positions. These new measures have made it increasingly difficult for refugees to obtain legal and lasting immigration status in these countries. Australia, which accepted the third largest number of refugees through its resettlement program in 2015, has faced increasing domestic pressure to limit the number of refugees it accepts and began placing increasingly stringent restrictions on asylum in 2013.
The developed world is not alone in adopting restrictive policies toward refugees. A number of countries in the developing world, where 86 percent of the world’s refugees are hosted, are also creating more stringent measures. Without resources to support displaced populations, these countries have resorted to limiting the entry and rights of refugees.
A View from the Middle East
In four of the countries hosting the greatest number of Syrian refugees in the world—Lebanon (1 million), Jordan (650,000), Turkey (2.8 million), and Egypt (120,000)—restrictive policies towards refugees have been on the rise. These restrictions have resulted in a range of challenges for refugees, from an absence of legal protection to an inability to access basic services.
Like most other countries in the region, Lebanon effectively closed its borders to Syrians fleeing the civil war in early 2015, introducing stringent entry requirements that most Syrians are unable to meet. In a further effort to discourage Syrians from seeking asylum, the Lebanese government has stopped allowing Syrian refugees to register with the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, the body that provides the bulk of legal protections and material assistance to refugees in the region.
The result has been a confusing legal lacuna for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, in which a majority of the population is living in the country without legal status. This limbo has effectively barred Syrians from accessing financial aid and basic services, such as education and medical care. The situation is even worse for Palestinians from Syria who fled to Lebanon. Oxfam estimates that over 90 percent of these individuals are without legal documentation, leaving them vulnerable to deportation.
Like Lebanon, Jordan closed its borders to Syrians seeking asylum in mid-2016 and has no clear plans to re-open them. Since the beginning of the conflict, Jordan has closely managed the entry and exit of Palestinians from Syria, with Jordanian authorities reportedly deporting, detaining, and refusing entry to these refugees. In December 2015, the Jordanian government deported approximately 800 Sudanese refugees and asylum-seekers back to Sudan.
Both actions are clear violations of the principle of non-refoulement; that is, the forcible return of people fleeing violence and persecution to their country of origin. The muted international response to these deportations, as well as the UN Refugee Agency’s failure to protect these groups, underscores just how vulnerable refugees are to the governments that host them.
Turkey, which currently hosts the highest number of refugees in the world, also has limited the entry of Syrian refugees. Unlike other countries hosting large refugee populations, the Turkish government has created its own system of registration and refugee processing. Syrian refugees are theoretically able to access basic services through the Turkish public health and education systems, but reports suggest the situation on the ground is quite the opposite.
Significantly, in March 2016, Turkey signed an agreement with the European Union (EU) that allows the EU to return migrants who irregularly traveled to Europe back to Turkey. The deal prompted an outcry from refugee and human rights advocates, who view it as a major and illegal incursion on refugee rights. Elizabeth Collett of the Migration Policy Institute commented on the deal’s possible impact on refugee policy in other countries:
Hosting large populations is a fungible task: should governments face the prospect of domestic unpopularity, the obligation to protect becomes secondary. This, for overstretched countries such as Lebanon, is an important memo, and may bolster efforts in major host countries to make conditions untenable for their existing refugee populations, leaving refugees with fewer and fewer alternatives.
Egypt, which plays host to a number of refugees from East Africa and the Middle East, has adopted a similarly restrictive approach to Syrian refugees. Since summer 2013, Syrians have been obligated to obtain an entry permit, costing several thousand dollars per person and are, thus, effectively barred from entry. Also, since the summer of 2013, the Egyptian public, fueled by media accounts of Syrians participating in Egyptian politics, perceived this group as contributing to the political upheaval gripping the country. This created major physical and legal problems for Syrians living in the country.
In October 2016, Egypt’s President Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi signed a law ostensibly intended to prevent human smuggling along Egypt’s North Coast, which has been a major source of irregular migration into southern Europe. The new law is likely to criminalize asylum-seekers and refugees attempting to leave Egypt, making them vulnerable to arrest and even deportation. Reports also suggest Egypt might be pursuing a deal with the EU similar to the agreement with Turkey.
Rethinking Solutions for Refugees
In highlighting these measures, the point is not to disparage Middle Eastern countries. In fact, states bordering and in close proximity to Syria should be lauded for so generously hosting millions of refugees. Indeed, in some of these countries, positive, if somewhat incremental, moves have been made to encourage refugee integration, such as allowing them work permits.
Nevertheless, these countries are part of a broad and pervasive trend in restrictive asylum and refugee policies at a global level. This signals a need to rethink the way we conceptualize the frameworks used to handle the refugee crisis.
According to the current framework for dealing with displaced persons, refugees have three options for resolving their situation: going home, integrating into the country to which they have fled, or being resettled to a third country. In 2015, only 0.5 percent of refugees worldwide were resettled, leaving the remaining 95.5 percent to survive in host countries. As we have seen, integration into host countries is not a tenable option for most refugees, either. The only solution left is to make it possible for refugees to return home. This means ending the conditions of violence or persecution that forced refugees to leave their homes in the first place.
It is time for refugee advocates to capitalize on this moment to push the international community to address the causes of displacement—such as the fierce violence against civilians in Syria—in a meaningful way. What such interventions would look like remain to be seen. Given the international community’s failure to address the needs of refugees, however, it is clear that serious attempts to end the causes of forced displacement are desperately needed.