On Friday morning, President Joe Biden made the first morally disastrous decision of his young presidency: He agreed to maintain Donald Trump’s historically low limit of 15,000 refugees to be admitted this year. The decision, said the White House, was “justified by humanitarian concerns and is otherwise in the national interest”. The claim was so absurd, and so completely contradicted Biden’s own values, that the government was forced to reverse the decision a few hours later.
Of course we know where the president is from. The 2015 refugee crisis in Europe triggered a political catastrophe. Right-wing nationalist parties have gained prominence and in some cases brought them to power in countries such as Germany and Sweden, which have had generous policies towards refugees. The fact that the United States stayed away from the crisis did not prevent Donald Trump from exploiting baseless fears of violent refugees and migrants swarming across our borders. It is fair to assume that Joe Biden does not want to sacrifice the boldest domestic agenda in two generations to the refugee cause.
The United States was spared Europe’s torments by the fortune of geography; Syrian refugees could not walk here. Americans have traditionally been able to choose which refugees to accept. But that era may have come to an end, as the number of Central American migrants seeking asylum on the southern border has started to compete with the numbers that arrived in Europe in 2015. The question we need to ask – the question asked by European leaders in 2015 and 2016 – is whether there is a way to reconcile moral obligation with political reality.
Alexander Betts, an expert on forced migration at Oxford University, writes in his forthcoming book The Wealth of Refugees that a sustainable refugee policy must not only fulfill the duty of care towards refugees, but must also enjoy broad political support in the host countries. Betts notes that the forces that are increasing the number of refugees – civil war and failed states, food insecurity, corruption, climate change – are unlikely to increase until the coming years, as are the forces that are increasing the willingness of rich countries to accept refugees Also, relative economic decline and concerns about cultural identity will increase. Then how can you solve this terrible problem?
Speaking to Betts earlier this week, he argued that the United States is now facing a refugee problem, “possibly as much as Europe faced in 2015/06”. Americans are used to thinking of those arriving on the US southern border as migrant job seekers. That was true for generations. But the number of single Mexican men – the classic migrant profile – began to decline more than a decade ago as Mexico became wealthier. By 2014, more migrants from the so-called Northern Triangle countries – Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador – reached the border than from Mexico. These countries suffer from weak and deeply corrupt states where gangs can thrive, endemic violence against women, climate change that has destroyed the money harvest, and deep and growing poverty.
Between 2013 and 2019, the number of asylum applications from the Northern Triangle increased more than tenfold. (Under American law, migrants who reach the border apply for “asylum,” while those who are relocated from overseas are referred to as “refugees.” Admission standards are the same, but asylum seekers do not count towards the annual refugee limit. ) The combination of Trump administration policies and an immense backlog of cases mean few have been processed. But we also have to ask ourselves whether many of these migrants are actually making serious asylum applications. The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone who faces a “reasonable fear of persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. The definition was formulated in response to the murder and persecution by the Nazis. It doesn’t suit most women and children fleeing the Northern Triangle. But it also doesn’t fit most of the people who fled Aleppo and Homs after the Syrian civil war began in 2011. So are many of those who are fleeing Central America, not to mention the millions who have fled the collapsing state of Venezuela. They are what Betts calls “survival migrants”. This is what refugees look like today.
Of course, we cannot simply ignore the distinction between a refugee and a migrant. If we did that, the rich countries would each choose their own trump card long before the millions arrived. This is what Betts is all about when it comes to sustainability. One lesson that became painfully clear in the fall of 2015 is that people are very concerned about the security of their borders. By failing to take preventive action to adequately care for Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, and by receiving some of them in an orderly manner, they sowed a whirlwind and made refugees risk death by drowning or trampling through snow-covered forests, before they presented themselves at the borders in colossal numbers. The European public was first deeply moved by the suffering of the migrants – and then shocked and upset by the scenes of chaos.
Subsequently, the European Union began to provide economic aid, trade and capacity-building to transit nations such as Turkey, Morocco and Tunisia, as well as African countries, which have become new sources of migrants, in the hope of curbing the flow. The dry-eyed assessment I have heard from the experts I have spoken to is that we have managed to solve Europe’s political problem without doing much for the refugees themselves. (You can find a similar conclusion in my 2016 report on foreign policy from Brussels and Greece.)
In this respect, Europe has managed to act systematically and to work together with the other nations involved in the problem. Closing the door to refugees is in no way qualified. The United States, like the EU, must work with both countries of origin and countries of transit. For example, if we accept that many of those who arrive at the border are in fact refugees, some of them will have to be granted asylum elsewhere in the region, especially in Mexico, which has already become a host country for Central Americans. The United States must provide assistance not only to help relocate these refugees, but also to ensure that they are employed. This can be done through the United Nations, rather than directly, so that Mexico does not feel like it has been bribed to take America’s problem out of its hands (even if it does). Betts points out that the US and the EU funded a major resettlement program in the 1990s when civil wars fled millions of people across Latin America. At the time, Mexico moved tens of thousands of Guatemalans to the Yucatán and helped create agricultural and small-scale jobs.
Given the US backlog in asylum cases, new applicants in the United States would inevitably, perhaps for years, be released into the country and become de facto immigrants. Under Trump, the United States forced asylum seekers to be processed in Mexico, where they stayed in poor and dangerous conditions. So far, the Biden government has tried to alleviate sentiment against immigrants by upholding these inhumane policies. However, these aren’t the only two options. Washington could set up satellite visas and asylum offices in Mexico, as Europe has done in several transit countries.
But we also need to think more imaginatively about how we can take in these migrants, however we define them. “Right now we have a door and a place problem,” said Dan Restrepo, former Latin America senior adviser to President Barack Obama. The only door for migrants from the Northern Triangle is marked “Refugee” and can only be opened through the US southern border. Why not revoke a temporary work permit for those who are leaving for purely economic reasons? Granting these permits only in the home country, according to Restrepo, would change the “decision making” of an entire class of potential refugees. The same could apply to family reunification visas. Restrepo added that “You can create doors or lines for most, if not all, categories of people who are on the move.” Those who fear for their lives would of course continue to push the boundaries in search of security.
None of this is new to the Biden administration. Many of the officials now responsible for migration policy come from think tanks and interest groups that have been calling for more humane and flexible policies for years. The news of refugee hats must be a heavy blow to many of them. In any case, they are busy lifting the hundreds of onerous regulations made during the Trump years. But the problem, whether you call it a refugee or migrant problem, will only get worse when the president tries to appease the America Firsters.