This is the second of a three-part series on refugees and immigration by Manji Law.
Headlines around the world have recently drawn attention to refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom seek to avoid the spotlight rather than garner press attention. However, in order to understand the roots of what has been labeled a ‘refugee crisis’, it is important to understand who refugees and asylum seekers are, and how they are protected worldwide.
Refugees are individuals who are fleeing their countries because of war, violence, or persecution. They may face persecution because of their race, nationality, religion, political affiliation, or social identity. While many refugees long to return home, they cannot or are afraid of what will happen if they do.
When refugees flee their countries and seek to find sanctuary, they must apply for asylum. Asylum seekers are those who have applied to have their status recognized by another country, and receive material assistance or legal protections. In order to receive asylum and refugee recognition, people must show that their fear of persecution at home is well-founded.
Photograph courtesy of UNHCR
While the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol lay out the framework for refugee protections, not all asylum-giving countries provide the same support. The treaty has been ratified by 145 different countries and commits those countries to its principles. One of the central principles of the Convention is non-refoulement, meaning that refugees should not be returned to a country where they face threats to their lives or liberties. The treaty was initially drafted in response to the massive numbers of European refugees caused by destruction from World War II, and was then limited to refugees created due to events in Europe prior to 1951. The 1967 amendment to the treaty universalized the rights and principles of the document, making them applicable to all refugees worldwide.
While the principle of non-refoulement is central to the treaty, there are a number of other significant rights recognized for refugees. These include the right to work, and access to housing, education, public relief, and assistance. It also includes freedom from punishment due to entering a country illegally to seek asylum.
Over the years, the U.S. has contributed significantly to resettling and receiving refugees. Generally, every year it has offered more refugees asylum than all other nations combined. However, policies advanced by the Trump administration are useating the U.S. from its role as a leader in refugee resettlement and protection.
The U.S. 1980 Refugee Act integrated the international definition of a refugee into domestic law. That same definition forms the basis for today’s U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Each year, the President in conjunction with Congress determines a ceiling for refugee admissions. In 2016, the last year of the Obama administration, that ceiling was set at 85,000. The Trump administration has set a ceiling of 45,000 for 2018.
In 2017, American refugee policy went through an abrupt overhaul. The Obama administration had set a ceiling of 110,000 refugee admissions for the fiscal year prior to the change of administrations. The Trump administration promptly sliced it to 50,000 amid pledges of a security overhaul, despite the fact that there was no indication of a security problem with the U.S. refugee admission system.
Photograph courtesy of Jeff J Mitchell for the Irish Times
Family reunification has been a cornerstone of American immigration policy. However, the Trump administration has, in addition to overall pledges to reduce immigration, supported a system more heavily weighted toward highly skilled or employable workers. Some other countries – such as Canada and Australia – already have such a system; however, Canada has also increased its refugee intake in recent years.
Other policies of the Trump administration have also showcased a harsh approach to refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants. The separation of parents from children in detention centers spawned widespread criticism, especially from those who see this policy at odds with a traditional U.S. approach to migration.
In Europe, children are rarely separated from their families and migrant detention is a less frequent policy overall. On the other hand, poorer nations like Bangladesh and Thailand have imposed extremely harsh conditions on refugees (Thailand is not a signatory of the Refugee Convention). Of course, the geographic proximity to war, as well as the economic realities of these countries vary greatly from that of the U.S.
Policies like Trump’s travel ban – often colloquially called the “Muslim ban” for its disproportionate effect on people from Muslim-majority countries – and the loudly promoted border wall illustrate the rise of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the United States. This comes in parallel with a similar rise of far-right parties in Europe with migration policy at the center of their advocacy. The promise of the United States for refugees and asylum seekers remains alive despite these changing laws and regulations, even as migrant justice advocates push back against further restrictions. This country has been deeply enriched by those refugees seeking freedom. With a bit of help, it can keep that vision of America relevant in today’s new era.
Jameel Manji is an immigration attorney in Atlanta, Georgia and founder of Manji Law, P.C. Manji Law was founded in 2016 with the goal of helping people navigate the complicated immigration system. As an immigration law firm, Manji Law helps clients with family immigration, removal defense (deportation), asylum/refugee waivers, business immigration, naturalization, and more.
If you’re interested in learning more about refugees, I invite you to view Invisible Victimisation: The Gendered Politics of the Refugee Crisis and Thoughts on the Guardian’s “Tourists Go Home, Refugees Welcome”. I also strongly encourage that you ready the first part of Manji Law’s refugee and immigration series, the Future of Immigration to the United States: Predictions from an Immigration Lawyer. The third part will be published in the following weeks.
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