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US refugee resettlement system reels from Trump ban

Utah governor Gary R. Herbert visits a refugee education centre Utah State Government
Utah governor Gary R. Herbert visits a refugee education centre in 2015

The non-profit network for refugee resettlement in the United States may take years to recover from changes announced by President Donald Trump, charity managers and advocates say. The 120-day pause to the programme, and a reduction from 110,000 to 50,000 arrivals in the 2016-2017 fiscal year, will have far-reaching effects. The resettlement system is “not a pipeline you can turn on and off like a tap”, according to refugee advocate Amy Slaughter, who added that the programme faces an “existential threat”.

The suspension affects 67,689 refugees who had been fully cleared by the Department of Homeland Security and were “travel-ready”. When the programme restarts, supposedly at the end of May, only about 20,000 can be admitted from then until the end of September under the new quota (30,000 of the 50,000 total arrived before Trump took office). The rest will be in limbo, according to Slaughter, chief strategy officer of US-based refugee agency RefugePoint. They include 13,928 Somalis, 10,680 Iraqis, 8,886 Syrians, 1,805 Sudanese, 983 Iranians, and 29 Yemenis. Many will likely have to repeat lengthy security and health clearances that expire after a relatively short time. The resettlement vetting process rarely takes less than two years. “They could take a couple more years to get in the country,” said Slaughter.

The absorption of 85,000 refugees by the US last year, and some 700,000 arrivals over the last decade, have relied on 300 centres across the US. These are run by a core group of nine non-profits, backed by volunteers from dozens of smaller charities, religious congregations, and civic groups, amounting to a network consisting of dozens of agencies. NGO managers estimate total staffing is in the thousands. Just one of the resettlement charities, the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) lists $31 million in sub-grants to 69 US organisations, including, for example, $103,000 for the Refugee Services of Texas and $76,388 for the YMCA of Greater Houston.

Bill Canny is the executive director of the US Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), one of those nine core non-profits. His group had drawn up an $80 million budget to resettle 25,000 refugees this fiscal year, the largest quota among the resettlement NGOs. He told IRIN he now expected to halve this plan. The cuts and suspension could destabilise the network’s “well-oiled machine”, Canny said, adding: “that will send the refugee resettlement network into a bit of a potential tailspin”.

Slaughter noted that any changes to the vetting process (as the White House appears to plan)  and the overall disruption to the system will take much longer than the 120-day suspension to recover. Getting all the paperwork lined up is no small feat: “it’s hard on a good day”, she said of the “incredibly complicated” security clearance process. Following the introduction of new procedures after the 9/11 attacks, she said it took eight years to get the refugee resettlement system back to previous arrival rates.

Reflecting anxiety among the agencies involved, Canny said: “We’re anxious to see how the US government will... maintain the integrity and the capacity of the network.“

Public-private partnership

Canny’s USCCB and the other non-profits use government funding and private charity to help refugees get established in their new homes; a mix the US government describes as a public-private partnership. The agencies are expected to mobilise significant cash and in-kind donations from non-governmental sources, to match and supplement taxpayer funds. These extra resources are quantified and tracked as part of government monitoring, according to Canny. Services for new arrivals include help with finding schools, housing, transport, language classes, and employment, as well as equipping families with food, clothes, and household goods.

The US government spends about $1 billion dollars on incoming refugees per year, according to the most recent multi-agency report to Congress. In fiscal year 2015-2016, about $609 million of the spending went on the resettlement phase of the process, a significant proportion of which is handled by the NGOs. IRIN has been unable to secure a detailed breakdown of resettlement spending from the State Department.

However, much of the State Department funding for resettlement is based on a per capita system, with NGOs receiving just over $2,000 per refugee. The Department of Health and Human Services and other federal and state bodies also contribute a range of additional funding.

Keeping hundreds of NGO staff on salary (or deciding when to give them notice) while the system is suspended is a “big problem”, said Canny, whose organisation works with 80 Catholic charities. “These are all non-profit agencies that don’t have vast cash reserves,” he told IRIN.

One of the better-known resettlement agencies is the International Rescue Committee, a giant NGO. More typical however are the other eight agencies, all with average annual revenues under $80 million. A review of their tax filings by IRIN shows that the group depend heavily on government funding. The Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services for example, in its latest tax filing, declared income of $51 million, 90 percent of which came from government sources. The USCRI collected 91 percent of income from government, while 96 percent of the  Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC)'s $18 million budget is from the taxpayer (see table below).  

What’s at stake?

The cost, security risk, and demographic impact of refugee resettlement have faced criticism from the conservative right, arguments which appear to resonate with the new US administration. But even those in favour of US engagement on refugee issues did not say the system was perfect. The way it is funded, the need for a private sponsorship system, and the lack of visas that allow refugees to work and study all need attention, some argue. But these policy “tweaks” have now been set aside. “It’s probably not the time to launch petty critiques… when we’re fighting for the existence of the programme,” Slaughter said. Tens of thousands of potential refugee arrivals have had their hopes dashed, hundreds of US jobs and dozens of small non-profits will feel the impact, and American influence and reputation abroad will take a hit, the resettlement agencies say.

Some three million people have arrived in the US since 1975 via the resettlement programme. “It’s a humanitarian programme, in the best interests of the United States,” said Eskinder Negash, senior vice president of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigration. USCRI helped some 11,000 refugees get settled in the US last year, with about $30 million in funding from the government. The agency was formed in 1911, and has a “diverse portfolio”, according to Negash, which protects it from a sudden drop in resettlement income.

Nevertheless, with about 200 employees, “there is going to be some adjustment we have to do,” Negash said, giving the example of a likely reduction in the number of translators hired.

Defending the programme, Mark Hetfield of HIAS, one of the nine NGOs, said in a TV interview: “The United States is a leader in refugee protection. What makes us a leader is not the number that we take; it’s the way that we treat refugees when they come here.”

Canny said he was “saddened” by the new policy and its impact on refugees. His church opposes the policy and its disproportionate impact on Muslims.

Far from being a “gravy train” as critics allege, the nine NGOs are “deeply invested in this mission”, and have to work hard to keep up their end of the bargain, Slaughter said. The extensive network of local offices and support capacity are hard for new entrants to replicate and would be difficult to rebuild, NGOs agree. The State Department’s insistence on parallel fundraising from private sources is also demanding. “If helping vulnerable populations is an ‘industry’, I don’t mind being out of business,” said Negash.

The programme costs hundreds of millions a year, but Trump’s executive order, which includes a temporary travel ban for citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries, appears to have sparked a groundswell of public support for refugees.

It also has unpredictable consequences on “the fabric of diplomatic relations”, said Slaughter: “you pull a thread here and it disrupts everything over there… this resettlement programme is part of that.”

“I think it buys us a lot more than we spend,” she added.


(TOP PHOTO: Utah Governor visits a refugee education centre, November 2015. Photo: Utah.gov)

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