UN official: Biden’s plan to boost refugee resettlement ‘sends important signal’
The number of refugees has skyrocketed in the past four years, with more than 26 million refugees worldwide by mid-2020, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
Yet the number of refugees who have resettled in the United States has fallen to an all-time high of around 12,000 last year, from 85,000 per year at the start of the Trump administration.
President Biden wants to reverse the trend defined by his predecessor, by committing to raise the ceiling for refugees in the United States to 125,000 per year. This number does not include asylum seekers.
Kelly Clements, UN deputy high commissioner for refugees, said Biden’s interest in strengthening the country’s resettlement program “sends a very important signal” to the international community.
“When the United States says, ‘We’re back, we want to restart, rebuild a big, strong resettlement program,’ we’re absolutely thrilled,” Clements says in an interview with All Things Considered. “It sends the world an important message and it really sets a signal and a tone for engagement and this important way of literally changing people’s lives.”
Clements spoke more about what the new administration’s engagement means after former President Trump’s tough refugee policy, as well as his hope to see Trump’s pandemic-era restriction on asylum seekers canceled.
The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.
Can [President Biden] return the message just by flipping a switch like that? Or after four years where the United States said, “America First”, “Refugees are dangerous” – does that message persist?
I’m from California, actually, and I talk to relocation agencies. And, while it will take time to rebuild this program which has been really decimated in recent years, there is a strong team at the local level, at the community level – very welcoming communities like San Diego, where I have just been. – who have strong and important partners who are ready to re-engage and ready to rebuild. Some of these resources were spent for other purposes during the intervening period – in other areas we will literally have to rebuild.
I understand that your United Nations refugee agency is playing a role in the Biden administration’s efforts to roll out the Trump administration’s “Stay in Mexico” program. Tell us about what’s going on.
Yes, in fact, the United States but also Mexico have asked us to engage in what they call the “MPP-Unind” [“MPP” refers to the formal name of the Trump program, Migrant Protection Protocols]. It is a workload of individuals, families who have been waiting – some for two years. And we had the chance, in fact, a few days ago to talk to some who had crossed the border before.
There are about 26,000 [individuals] that we estimate we need this type of treatment – about half of which, in fact more than half, we have already recorded. And at the end of [Thursday], we’ll probably see about 1,000 that have made their way to the United States.
The Biden administration has left a Trump policy in place that allows the United States to refuse migrants due to the pandemic. Does that mean people are going to get stuck in dangerous conditions in Mexican border towns?
Obviously, nations have an obligation to protect health. And there are all kinds of challenges involved in that. But, you know, we have 70 years of experience in major health emergencies like Ebola and SARS. And it is possible to both protect health and protect the right of individuals to seek asylum. So this is something that we would obviously like to see lifted as quickly as possible so that people can actually make their complaints directly.
Connor Donevan and Christopher Intagliata produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Emma Bowman adapted it for the web. [Copyright 2021 NPR]