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In the news: Trump ‘travel ban’ stirs more controversy

The president has expanded US entry restrictions to six new countries – all with substantial Muslim populations.

Robb Hohmann/USAID

President Donald Trump added six new African and Asian countries to his “travel ban” list on 31 January – nations whose citizens face stringent restrictions on entering the United States.

As he heads into what is expected to be a tough re-election campaign, Trump may well be hoping that a hardline stance on immigration will help to shore up his political base. In a poll last week, 73 percent of Republicans said they welcomed the expansion of the ban.

The affected countries – Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania – are described as having failed to meet minimum security and information-sharing requirements set by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). But they are all also countries with substantial Muslim populations.

A global assessment by DHS identified, among other issues, failures to: use modern electronic passports; report the loss or theft of passports to Interpol or the United States; and share information on known or suspected terrorists.

DHS said decisions hinged on whether the country poses an “elevated risk to the United States due to terrorist travel, crime or illegal migration”. The State Department said it stood ready to work with countries to help them rectify problems.

The proclamation by Trump comes into force on 22 February. It will ban immigrant visas, issued to those seeking to live in the United States, for citizens of Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, and Nigeria. Sudan and Tanzania – assessed as lesser offenders by DHS – will suffer the suspension of the diversity visa lottery, better known as the green card scheme.

The restictions are a particular blow for Nigeria, a US ally in the fight against jihadist violence, and Africa’s largest economy. Rather than a terror threat, the ban seems more aimed at Nigerian immigrants that overstay their visas, The New York Times reported.

In his infamous “shithole” country remarks in January 2018, Trump reportedly complained that Nigerians who entered the United States would never “go back to their huts”.

The reality is that Nigerians are among the most successful groups in America. “They're exactly the sort of immigrants who for the last three centuries have made America great,” a Newsweek opinion piece suggested on Sunday.

Myanmar’s inclusion on the list has caused some confusion. Nearly 5,000 Myanmar refugees relocated to the United States in the 2019 fiscal year. Now, those from Myanmar seeking asylum “may see America’s doors closed to them at a time of desperate need”, Krish O’Mara Vignarajah of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service argued.

Rights groups have urged the United States to impose tougher sanctions on Myanmar officials implicated in crimes against Rohingya Muslims. But, with this ban, “it’s an open question whether Myanmar’s consideration for inclusion means the Trump administration believes the Myanmar government’s assertions that its crackdown on the Rohingya is necessary to combat a terrorist threat”, suggested analyst Daniel O’Connor.

The enlarged list is also a setback for Sudan, where a new administration is seeking to turn the page on Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year dictatorship. The chance for improved “opportunities for cooperation in the future” had been dangled by Trump, at the same time as the country was still being sanctioned.

Since a transitional power-sharing deal between the military and civilians was agreed in August last year, Sudan has lobbied hard to be removed from Washington’s list of state sponsors of terrorism – a designation that blocks international financial support. The United States has now invited General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudan's governing body, to discuss bilateral ties.

Meanwhile, Eritrea and Kyrgyzstan have denounced their addition to the group. The six new countries announced by Washington join Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen on the “travel ban” list.

There have, however, been several iterations. Trump’s first Executive Order named Chad, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Amid widespread condemnation of what was described as a “Muslim ban”, subsequent executive orders removed Iraq and added Venezuela and North Korea. Chad, a key anti-jihadist ally in the Sahelian region, was delisted in 2018.

The “travel ban” was narrowly upheld by the Supreme Court in June 2018. However, an appeals court is set to hear arguments from civil rights groups aimed at keeping the challenges alive.


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