The COVID-19 pandemic made an already dire situation worse for more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
Pressure is growing on Joe Biden to take immediate action to restore the United States refugee resettlement programme, after a leading rights group said Biden is on pace to bring in the fewest refugees this year of any US president in history.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) said in a recent report that only 2,050 refugees have been resettled in the US midway through the 2021 fiscal year, despite Biden’s stated goal of bringing in 62,500 refugees by the end of September and as many as 125,000 refugees in 2022.
“If the President does not take immediate action to implement his revised refugee policy, an estimated 5,000 refugees will be admitted this fiscal year… this would be the lowest number of any US president in history,” the group said.
Refugee advocates have welcomed Biden’s refugee resettlement plan, saying it marks an important departure from the policies of his predecessor, Donald Trump, who narrowed the criteria for resettlement, lowered the overall refugee admission cap to a historic low, and imposed travel bans on people from several countries, including some Muslim-majority nations.
White House officials say Biden remains committed to his proposal, and on April 9, the administration submitted a request to Congress for discretionary funding that included $4.3bn for the Office of Refugee Resettlement to rebuild the system and support the resettlement of 125,000 refugees next year.
But rights groups say refugees and their families remain in limbo because Biden has not yet signed a presidential determination that would allow the resettlement process to get moving again.
“It’s one signature that we need that separates all these people from safety,” said Erol Kekic, director of the immigration and refugee programme at Church World Service, one of nine national refugee resettlement agencies in the US.
“It’s really unclear as to why – after candidate Biden made all those promises, after President Biden signed executive orders, and after they held legally required consultation with Congress – they still have not signed the presidential determination,” Kekic told Al Jazeera.
The refugee resettlement system in the US is set up under the Refugee Act of 1980.
Under the statute, the US administration must present a report to Congress on its refugee resettlement plan annually, and engage in a discussion with US lawmakers. The president then takes that feedback into consideration and signs an order called a presidential determination that puts it into effect, explained JC Hendrickson, senior director of refugee and asylum policy at the IRC.
In early February, Biden announced plans to increase refugee admissions to as many as 125,000 in his administration’s first full fiscal year – October 1, 2021, to the end of September 2022 – and rescind Trump policies “that limited refugee resettlement and required excessive vetting of applicants”.
That same month, Biden sent the required report to Congress detailing a revised target of 62,500 refugee admissions for the 2021 fiscal year, which ends on September 30. The figure “is justified by grave humanitarian concerns and is in the national interest”, the administration said, after a record low of only 11,814 refugees were resettled in the last fiscal year.
“This process was started so strong… to then have a delay at this stage in the process is puzzling, but the longer that delay goes on, the more concerning it becomes,” Hendrickson told Al Jazeera.
Not signing the order, Hendrickson said, sends a bad signal to countries worldwide at a time when refugee resettlement is on the decline. “It is just very hard to lead when we’re admitting so few refugees ourselves,” he said.
Of the approximately 1.4 million refugees needing resettlement in 2019, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said just under 64,000 – about 4.5 percent – were resettled in 29 countries with the agency’s help.
In a report in June of last year, UNHCR projected that over 1.44 million refugees would be in need of resettlement in 2021 – a slight increase from the previous year – with nearly half (617,000) coming from Africa.
Until Biden signs the presidential determination, the US continues to operate under the Trump administration’s resettlement system, which Hendrickson said most harmed Black and brown refugees.
“The Trump administration created these arbitrary categories, which had a discriminatory effect… Africa has been the region with the highest resettlement needs in the world over the last few years and only 682 refugees from Africa were admitted to the US in fiscal [year 2021],” he said.
“All we need is the stroke of the president’s pen to remedy this, and without that stroke of the pen, we’re operating under Trump’s discriminatory admissions policies.”
It will also be important to ensure US refugee resettlement agencies, after years of restrictions under Trump, are able to ramp up their capacity to meet refugees’ needs if and when Biden’s presidential determination comes into effect.
Kekic said the network of faith-based groups that Church World Service works with is ready to get started again, but it will need to coordinate with the US State Department, which administers the resettlement programme.
Knowing what groups of refugees will be eligible for resettlement is critical to that planning, he explained, as it will help agencies decide where in the US those refugees can be placed – based on family needs, existing community make-up, language capacity, and other factors.
“Now, how quickly can people be put back on planes is a different question,” Kekic added.
‘Full of anxiety’
Meanwhile, refugees abroad and their relatives in the US are in a state of limbo, said Tsehaye Teferra, CEO of Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC), another national US resettlement agency that helps refugees from around the world.
Teferra said the organisation receives phone calls nearly every day from families asking about the delay in reuniting with their relatives. The psychological burden of not knowing if – and when – someone will arrive is taxing for the families, as well as on agency employees, he told Al Jazeera.
“We are talking [about] family separation, we are talking about displaced people… Some of these people have already been told that they will be resettled in the United States. Some have already made travel arrangements. They have given their belongings to other refugees,” he said.
Teferra said the nine national resettlement agencies were expecting about 715 refugees to arrive in the US last month, but because the presidential proclamation was not signed, their flights had to be cancelled.
“For a refugee that has already waited for so many months,” he said, “another day, another month, is a delay full of anxiety.”