On second thoughts, you can keep your huddled masses

Global refugees deserve more than being caught in a high-stakes political game

Sally Tyler

Government and governance, International relations | Australia, Asia, The World

14 June 2017

Long-held US refugee policy is threatened with erosion by new Trump doctrine, articulated in less than 140 characters, Sally Tyler writes

On the evening of 6 June, vigils were held across the US to commemorate the anniversary of the day in 1939 when the MS St. Louis sailed back to Europe, its more than 900 German Jewish passengers having been turned away at the port of Miami, denied entry by officials of the Franklin Roosevelt administration who understood the stark reality of what awaited them across the ocean.

At one vigil steps from the US Capitol, participants lit yahrzeit candles in honour of deceased passengers of the St. Louis, and held aloft unlit candles in recognition of the millions of refugees worldwide who have not found permanent resettlement, yet who cannot return home.

A rabbi led the crowd in both a traditional prayer for the dead and in Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land. Two Democrat members of Congress told the group they would continue to push back against Trump’s anti-refugee views and would fight to return the annual ceiling for refugee acceptance to at least 75,000. Invoking the image of the St. Louis, attendees pledged the words, “Never again.”

Viewed through an historical lens, the St. Louis decision was a logical, if heartless, extension of the era’s isolationist policies; but the American public’s wider understanding of global realities following World War II brought about demands on the US government to create a more receptive position on refugees.

The mass exodus of Indochinese following the Vietnam War helped further refine US refugee policy, with Congress passing the Refugee Act of 1980. The law established permanent procedures for vetting, admitting and resettling refugees; increased the annual number of refugees allowed admittance, and granted presidential authority to admit additional refugees in emergencies. The act allowed admission of more than 200,000 refugees from Southeast Asia.

More on this: Photo essay: the forgotten refugees of Indonesia

Even though refugees from the Middle East have been the subject of most recent headlines, Asia has provided the steadiest stream of refugees into the US over the past decade. Myanmar accounted for the most refugees admitted to the US from 2006 to 2016, with Bhutan ranking third.

American refugee policy was thrown into chaos following Trump’s executive order halting immigration from six predominantly Muslim countries, along with an open-ended suspension of Syrian refugee admission.

Trump may have doomed his challenge of a legal injunction against the act, by tweeting that it is an intentional travel ban, pitting him squarely against the US constitution. Though he seems to regard this judicial check on his power as an inconvenient irritant, it has stopped his unilateral refugee ban for now.

But refugee supporters should not get complacent. In addition to Supreme Court appointment power, Trump now controls the appointments to fill the 131 federal court vacancies. Once the judicial system flips, there will be little backstop to guard against the discriminatory intent of his refugee policy.

His continued conflation of refugee crises with terrorist threats only confuses a public which may articulate support for helping the internationally displaced, but which also remains susceptible to exaggerated fears. The fact remains that no terrorist act has been perpetrated on US soil by anyone admitted as a refugee, yet Trump’s first response to attacks in Manchester and London was to beat the drum for his travel ban.

This anti-refugee rhetoric coupled with his increasingly volatile behaviour calls into question whether Trump’s administration can be counted upon to accept the 1,250 refugees, currently held on Nauru and Manus, called for in an agreement forged by Obama.

More on this: What lessons should we draw from the Turnbull-Trump phone call?

Immediately following what was characterised as a terse February call with Prime Minister Turnbull, Trump tweeted that the deal was “dumb.” Members of his inner circle may have rallied to persuade him that accepting the terms of the earlier deal would be preferable to alienating a close ally, as Vice President Pence publicly reaffirmed during his recent Asia tour that the new administration would uphold the agreement.

At its core, the deal appears to be a quid pro quo arrangement in exchange for Australia agreeing to accept Central American refugees held in US-funded facilities in Costa Rica. Diplomats took pains to avoid calling it a trade, but, philosophical underpinnings aside, the transaction underscores the extent to which refugees are sometimes treated like pawns to be moved around a global game board.

While Trump may have little regard for refugee policy, he and his family have shown robust support for immigration at the other end of the spectrum, particularly the EB-5 visa program. This so-called “golden visa” grants individuals a green card in exchange for an investment of at least $500,000 in a project which creates ten or more jobs.

Real estate tycoons, such as Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, have used the lure of the EB-5 to incentivise investment in their developments. A recent meeting with Chinese investors, in which Kushner’s sister-in-law touted both the visa program and her relationship with Kushner, has come under scrutiny of ethics investigators.

More on this: Why we need tradeable refugee quotas

While the response to refugees by the far right worldwide grows more horrific daily, legitimate concerns of host countries must be acknowledged. Host nations bordering conflict states frequently have scarce public resources, yet receive the lion’s share of initial refugee flow. If there is a perception, real or imagined, that refugees compete with locals for these resources, friction will result, and refugees will lose.

Consider the strain experienced by Lebanon, a nation of four million which is not even a party to the UN Convention on Refugees, which has taken in one million Syrian refugees, with no end in sight.

A rational system of international responsibility sharing for refugees should be established, and the sooner the better. If persons displaced by conflict seem a problem too complex for the world’s collective will, we had all better take a deep breath to steel ourselves for the migration predicted to be unleashed by climate change in the not-distant future. Tens of millions are projected to be made homeless by rising water levels. Their situation will be desperate, yet will not fit the narrow definition of refugee accepted by the UN and the US, and will require new thinking.

A global framework must be carefully considered, and painstakingly crafted to capture the interest of diverse nations, but the needs of refugees remain immediate. And for them, the stakes of a failed policy are extreme. Of the more than 900 German Jewish passengers forcibly returned to Europe on the St. Louis, 254 were killed during the war and the Holocaust, a reminder of the dire cost of turning away individuals who have nowhere else to go.

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