Refugees are an international population of people who have been forcibly removed from their home countries due to of war, persecutions (most commonly racial, religious, and political), and natural disaster.
The list continues, but all reasonings stem from the same motives: to flee a life of danger. To be a refugee is to be in the direst of circumstances.
The United States has been a leading nation for refugee admissions since the start of the National Refugee Resettlement program in 1980; an allegiance to the humanitarian responsibility that is deeply rooted in American politics and culture.
Each year, a maximum number of refugees that may be admitted to the US is defined by the current presidential administration. That number is the national ceiling.
In January 2017, the Trump Administration took office and slashed the 110,000 ceiling by more than half, recapping admissions at 50,000. The ceilings have been subsequently lowered, and not been fulfilled.
The 2019 ceiling was the lowest it has been since the program was established in 1980. Admissions were capped at 30,000, a nearly 75% cut from the quota that the Obama administration established in 2017.
The proposed quota for 2020 is 18,000.
The policies which engender these changes have severe repercussions within the United States and internationally. The US administers the largest refugee resettlement program in the world.
In 2018, Ohio was the third most refugee populated state in the US, behind Texas and Washington. Franklin County accounted for more of the resettled population than any other part of the state, about 48.4% as of 2015.
Franklin County is a major international refugee hub; its residents and workers bear the implications of these cuts.
Columbus operates and thrives off the diversity of its people and their backgrounds, but the city has been forced to adapt its economy and culture over the past few years.
“In 2018, we were almost at the point of closing the community center because we had no funding,” Bhutanese Community of Central Ohio Executive Director Sudarshan Pyakural said.
Central Ohio is home to the largest Bhutanese community living outside Bhutan, housing 30,000 of the 120,000 Bhutanese refugees worldwide.
Bhutan is a small country in Asia that suffered ethical and political persecution in the 1990s. Thousands of ethnic Nepalis living in Bhutan were faced with the choice of fleeing or being murdered. Pyakural was 10 when the political crisis started in 1990.
“All men were taken to jail or had to flee Bhutan for fear of persecution in the 1990s,” he said. “At one point in time, it was all women and children in my village. I was the oldest man at age 10. In those two years from 1990 to 1992, all men were either taken to jail or they would flee Bhutan. It became a ghost town. An army would come any time. We would hear stories all the time of women who were abducted by the army. We didn’t have any way we could stay in Bhutan, so we had to leave immediately. Whatever we could grab, we grabbed those things and left the rest behind. We went to a refugee camp in Nepal.”
The BCCO receives 90% of its funding from federal grants. In 2017, the entirely of that funding was lost.
The City of Columbus provided $45,000 to the organization to ensure the doors stayed open and that there was one employee to do basic case management work.
Pyakural is currently the only staff member in the office.
Since 2017, one of three refugee resettlement agencies in Columbus have shut their doors. The remaining two have borne financial pressures due to a lack of funding, and other organizations have been forced to extirpate critical services.
Community Refugee & Immigration Services works with newly arrived cases, either families or individuals, to acclimate them into their new lives in Columbus. CRIS is one of two remaining agencies in Columbus and has made significant cuts in staff and services over the past few years.
Employment records provided by CRIS indicate the drop from 51 full-time staff in 2016, to the current staff of 35 in 2019.
“Yes, we can look to volunteers,” CRIS Executive DirectorAngela K. Plummer said. “But there’s a certain amount of institutional knowledge that is lost when we face all these cuts.”
The infrastructure that was built to accommodate this population will shift dramatically to match the shrinking influx of its people and how they are dispersed across the country.
The number of refugees resettled in Columbus is shrinking.
The resources available to that population mirror that shrink; though the dwindling resources is not an accurate reflection of the demand for them.
Whatever city a refugee is officially resettled in through the government has no bearing on where they choose to resettle themselves. They will relocate to follow family, friends and opportunities.
“People will go wherever they’re going to go,” Plummer said. “Let’s say someone has family in Texas but Texas opts out. So, they’ll get plopped down in Oklahoma and just pick up and go to Texas. But then all of the resources that were supposed to help them in Oklahoma will be left in Oklahoma.”
If agencies close in places where major refugee communities already exist, it will only be the services that are lost, not the influx of refugees.
That reality is striking in the Bhutanese community.
“Originally only 3,000 people were resettled into Columbus and we ended up being 35,000,” Pyakural said. “So, think about the 32,000 other people who moved from somewhere else — the biggest reason is family support.”
These resources are imperative whether they are accessible or not.
They are imperative to the health and livelihoods of refugee’s post-arrival; and they are imperative to fostering cultural and economic assimilation which will allow them to prosper as United States residents and, in many cases, citizens.
Restricting resources, and at a larger scale, admissions quotas from people in crisis will require them will force them to fall back on alternatives: seeking refuge in other places.
Most refugees seek immediate asylum in a country bordering their own. It is often the default escape route, as many refugees do not have the freedom or financial opportunities to travel any way other than foot.
Living in a bordering country can also mitigate certain stresses of assimilating to a totally foreign life, as they likely share some similar customs.
Consequently, the majority of refugees are hosted by developing regions. In nations that do not have the capacity to support their own people, refugees can be a major strain on their resources.
Amnesty International indicates that 80% of all refugees are hosted in developing regions; and one third of refugees — 6.7 million people — are hosted by the world’s poorest countries.
According to Amnesty International, the top 10 refugee host countries in order are: Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Uganda, Germany, Iran, Ethiopia, Sudan, Bangladesh.
Many of these countries make it difficult for refugees to have any sustainable life: placing restrictions on refugee work authorizations and on children attending school. Refugees end up working under the table and surviving on basic necessities provided by the United Nations Refugee Agency.
UNHCR provides rations of food, blankets, and tents.
“It’s extremely basic, but it’s enough for people to, you know, survive,” Lydia Cleaver-Bartholomew, Community Engagement AmeriCorps VISTA at CRIS said.
Less opportunity for resettlement in the US means more people who will remain in conditions that are nothing more than survivable across borders.
Many refugees hope to return to their home country once conditions are permitting. They fled by necessity not desire.
Despite this, less than 3% of refugees returned to their country of origin last year.
Nirmala BK is a mother of two, and the wife of a Nepalese refugee who was resettled to the US with her family in 2013. They are a blind family, with the exception of their toddler daughter.
Their living arrangement and furnishings were rudimentary. A 50-pound bag of rice sat in their living room chair.
“I don’t want to stay home all day,” as translated from BK’s words spoken in Nepalese. “I have my daughter which helps kill my time, but I would love to go to training for disabled people and become independent. I wish I was able to go to class, but there are not any language services here in Columbus.”
Language services are among the most valuable for recently admitted refugees who often do not speak English. They are provided by the resettlement agencies and service as many dialects as they have resources.
Nirmala BK and her family rarely venture past the walls of their refugee community. They speak solely Nepalese and do not have access to English services. Their collective disabilities do not allow them access to jobs, and they live meagerly on government grants.
For their family, inadequate services mean seclusion and isolation.
Despite this family and so many others who are left resourceless and incapable of being engaged with society, refugees are a statistically prosperous population.
According to the Impact of Refugees on Central Ohio 2015 report, 13.6% of refugees age 16 or older are business owners. This is more than twice the overall rate of entrepreneurship in Franklin County which is 6.5%.
There are an estimated 873 refugee-owned businesses in the Columbus area, and the local refugee community supports just under 22,000 jobs.
Refugee agencies partner with local organizations to connect job opportunities.
“Employers come to us all the time,” Plummer said. “But now we don’t have enough labor.”
Closed agencies, overburdened employees, lost jobs and a labor deficit are all manifestations of the ceiling cuts for US natives.
Staff and services across the country will continue to dwindle, until there is no need for an agency to be open altogether.
For refugees, decreasing quotas manifest themselves in the form of mangled hope, imminent danger, family separation, and an absence of services.
The Trump administration is abolishing a global safe haven and dismantling a firmly established national infrastructure within the US.
“The current political climate is instilling fear among these people,” Jacqueline Kifuko, Refugee Organizer at CRIS said. “They feel like we don’t belong.”
Kifuko speaks to the community as “they” from the perspective of a CRIS staff member. She speaks about the community as “we” as a Ugandan refugee herself.
Refugees are the most thoroughly vetted group of people who are let into the United States, more than any other kind of visa.
The screening process takes between 18 to 24 months and involves fourteen rigorous checkpoints to ensure the security of those who are admitted.
Screening begins after a refugee’s application has been processed and accepted for resettlement, an indefinite number of years in itself.
Applications for family reunification follow the same procedures.
“Let’s say you were for some reason separated from your child in your application (we have a lot of cases like that),” Cleaver-Bartholomew said. “If the parent got to travel here and the child is still abroad, they’ll file to bring their child here. But they still have to go through that same process as any other refugee. So that is just years of waiting for a slot to open, essentially.”
A person whose refugee status is pending and not yet recognized by the UNHCR or a government is called an asylum seeker.
The United States has a daunting “800,000 individuals in pending asylum cases,” according to a statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, this deficit is, “largely due to processing delays and policies put in place to increase vetting of refugees.”
Filing a refugee application for a specific country is a quicker process than filing a general application. A person can wait in a refugee camp for 20 years, while admission into the United States could be granted within six months.
Here’s the catch: once a person applies for a country-specific resettlement, their application can’t be considered for resettlement by any other country.
So, there are people in the US pipeline who remain stagnant and helpless in their attempts to seek refuge because the ceilings are being drastically and unpredictably reduced. In the meantime, they can’t seek protection from any other country without withdrawing their current application.
“There are over 40,000 individuals who have already been processed, who have gone through health screenings, been approved by homeland security, but they’re only going to admit 18,000,” Plummer said. “And so, thousands of people’s medical exams will expire, and they’re not going to be able to come. It’s like a total waste of resources.”
Resettlement is the term used to define a misplaced person who has fled their country of origin, and is further relocated to a third, developed country. It is a remote option for those unable to return home or integrate into their country of refuge.
According to the UNHCR, there were 20.4 million refugees around the world in 2018. Less than one percent of those people were resettled.
The United States, Canada, Australia and Western Europe encompass all resettlement destinations designated by the UNHCR.
One of three agencies in Columbus at the time, World Relief Columbus closed its doors in 2017 after five years of operation. And they are not alone. Seven of the agency’s 25 resettlement offices closed following the new executive order due to a lack of clients and funding.
In the past year, Ohio has dropped in rankings from the third to sixth most populated refugee state, according to the U.S. State Department’s Refugee Processing Center.
There have been 205 arrivals to CRIS in 2019, the lowest number in 10 years.
Demographics among arrivals are also changing. The federal government breaks down the total ceiling by category, and targets specific nationalities and identities to allocate spots.
The United Nations identifies qualifying cases and resettlement countries establish refugee quotas, categorized by factors including place of origin and category of crises.
The proposed 2019 regional ceilings were named by region as dictated by the US Department of State. These regions were Africa, East Asia, Europe, Latin America/Caribbean, and Near East/South Asia. Admissions allocations were 11,000, 4,000, 3,000, 3,000, 9,000 respectively.
According to the Niskanen Research Center, a non-partisan Washington D.C.-based think tank, the ceilings have been disproportionately satisfied.
Africa, East Asia and Europe’s were more than 100% filled while Latin America/Caribbean and Near East/South Asia’s quotas were less than one third met.
So, the ceiling was fulfilled during the last week of the 2019 fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30. The regional ceilings, however, were not effectuated as they were intended.
If legislation is written and not administered, how can the people it serves legitimize its intention, or trust any future objectives?
The proposed 2020 ceilings will be broken down into four newly established designations. 7,500 will be open to refugees referred by a U.S. embassy, for family reunification, or those located in Australia, Nauru, or Papua New Guinea. 5,000 will be for refugees fleeing religious persecution. 4,000 for Iraqis who worked for the US military, and 1,500 for refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
In January 2018, the Trump administration imposed stricter security measures against 11 high-risk countries (MPI).
The countries were never officially named; though they are known by officials to be Egypt, Iran, Libya, South Sudan, Yemen, Sudan, Iraq, Mali, North Korea, Somalia and Syria.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, the number of refugees from those 11 countries shrunk from 43% to 3% between 2017 and 2018.
A significant portion of the refugee population in Columbus is from these 11 countries — hence the heightened implications of these cuts on the Columbus community.
“The biggest countries that are arriving right now are first Congolians and second Ukrainians,” Cleaver-Bartholomewsaid. “We have never resettled a Ukrainian, at least not in recent history.”
In the past 10 years, CRIS has resettled refugees from five off these “high-risk” countries: Somalia, Iraq, Sudan, Iran and Syria.
The difference in CRIS resettlement numbers by country from 2009 to 2019, respectively, is: 185 to eight, 65 to three, unchanged at three, nine to zero and zero to three.
Somali’s have been the largest refugee population in Columbus since CRIS was established — until the past two years.
In 2016, Columbus was the second most Somali refugee-populated city, behind Minneapolis, Minnesota.
It is common for refugees of the same nationality to be relocated to the same city, which is how populations become so significant and consolidated in certain cities. Community support from people who speak the same languages and have shared the same experiences is crucial to easing the transition from a foreign country.
If there is no existing relationship with a person of the refugee’s resettlement country — a common phenomenon — they will be relocated to a place where their nationality already has a significant population.These places are the most equipped with services to integrate refugees into the local communities.
“Agencies place refugees through a network of 268 local affiliates operating in about 170 communities throughout the country,” according to the Proposed Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2019 Report to Congress.
There are nine US private agencies which have an agreement with the State Department to resettle refugees in their 268 offices across the country. The agencies receive funding through the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and self-fund to provide services to their clients.
These agencies are: Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Ethiopian Community Development Council, HIAS — The Global Jewish Nonprofit, International Rescue Committee, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and World relief.
Six out of these nine agencies are religiously affiliated.
Each agency is equipped with resources catered to specific communities: interpreters and language services, employment services, initial housing, food and clothing, counseling and orientation.
When these services cease to exist, alternatives must be found.
“It’s much more difficult,” Plummer said. “Now instead of case managers speaking first language with the client, we have to get an interpreter involved. That’s more expensive and takes more time.”
There is a new executive order that will be enacted in December 2019, “Enhancing State and Local Involvement in Refugee Resettlement.” This will allow any state or municipality to opt out of accepting refugees; a sharp contrast to the federal law that has been employed since the advent of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
“We’re pretty confident that Governor DeWine will be supportive,” Plummer said. “As will the city of Columbus.”
State and local governments will be opted out by default, and those which consent to resettlement in their communities must submit a consent form to the Secretary of Health and Human Services by December.
The infrastructure which was constructed for refugee resettlement in the US was designed around the federally mandated program; state jurisdiction is unprecedented.
These policy changes are an infringement on the natural migration patterns that have allowed the national resettlement agencies to thrive for decades.
“It’s been a bipartisan program since the inception,” Plummer said. “It’s never been a party issue that you should help refugees. I still don’t think it’s a party issue; I think it’s a Trump supporter platform. He’s turned it into an issue — something to rally the base — which is extremely sad. Because what it turns into on the ground is that mothers can’t be reunited with their children.”
The United States maintains the status of a leading nation regardless of how current administration chooses to lead. Political policies continue to govern the fate of hundreds of thousands.
“Is there a short-term solution? No,” Plummer said. “Because the executive branch has all the power. But could congress enact some legislation and change that? Yes.”