The world has been quick and loud in its condemnation of the Trump administration’s ill-informed, legally suspect, and morally bankrupt new immigration policies. Alongside a travel ban on citizens of seven, mainly Muslim majority countries, a new “refugee ban” has been the subject of fierce denunciation. Protests are planned across the UK against the move.
But the US retreat from refugee protection only serves to underscore the gaps and weaknesses in the commitments of the rest of the world, in particular by countries like the UK.
There are around 5m Syrian refugees – and an even greater number of internally displaced persons. In 2016, the US resettled “only” around 11,000 Syrian refugees. This number still made the US one of the top three destinations for resettlement of Syrians that year, and it remains behind only Canada in the number of Syrians resettled since the start of the conflict.
How the UK compares
The US population is five times larger than the UK’s – 318m compared to 61m. However, in the same year, according to UNHCR, the UK resettled less than 3,000 Syrian refugees. The UK government gives a slightly higher figure, though one still around a third of the US figure.
Given the scale of the outflows of people from Syria, with much less fanfare, the UK has effectively been pursuing a similar policy to the one Trump has just put in place in the US.
In the same executive order, Trump announced that America’s quota for resettled refugees would drop to 50,000 refugees in 2017 – cut in half from the target of 100,000 set by the outgoing Obama administration.
While past performance suggests that the US might struggle to meet even this lower quota (as the resettlement quotas are targets that are often missed due to processing bottlenecks, especially if “extreme vetting” is implemented), if it did it would have resettled more refugees than the UK has resettled over the last half centry. In fact, the UK has only had a formal refugee resettlement programme since 2004.
And the UK only gets close to the figure of 50,000 over the last half century by including the unprecedented movement of Ugandan Asians in the early 1970s – a population that had the right of abode in the UK until legislative amendments a few years earlier and that the UK government of the day tried its hardest to ship elsewhere.
Barriers to claiming asylum
Ultimately, resettlement policy only affects a tiny number of refugees. Despite UNHCR estimating that over a million of the world’s refugees are in desperate need of resettlement, only a small fraction of those who have endured decades of insecurity in protracted refugee situations, or have acute protection risks are ever selected for resettlement. Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of refugees remain in so-called “countries of first asylum” – such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
In terms of providing asylum to refugees, both the US and the UK have been abysmal. These low numbers are not accidental. They are a deliberate outcome of a series of policies ranging from visa restrictions to interdiction efforts by immigration officers overseas, to the use of detention and forced destitution as deterrents for asylum seeking.
In 2016, the UK received less than 2% of new claims for asylum. More Syrian refugees have crossed into Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon – or even Germany – in a busy day than the UK or the US provided first asylum to since the civil war broke out five long years ago.
The British and American policies stand in sharp contrast to those elsewhere. The states of the Middle East host the overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees, with refugees constituting a fifth of Lebanon’s population.
Canada has resettled 39,000 Syrians, with 25,000 of them being resettled over a period of four months in late 2015 and early 2016. The country’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has now offered to resettle those Syrians turned away by Trump. Germany has also opened its doors to around half a million asylum seekers.
In contrast, while Theresa May belatedly criticised the new immigration policies of the US, the British prime minister defended Trump’s new approach to refugee protection:
The United States is responsible for the United States’ policy on refugees. The United Kingdom is responsible for the United Kingdom’s policy on refugees.
When it belatedly responded to Trump’s executive order, the UK government restricted its concern to British dual nationals. The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, has warned against “pointlessly demonising” these policies. Unfortunately, with much less fanfare and criticism, May and the UK have adopted very similar policies and deserve to be demonised alongside him.