Report: Fewer refugees settling in U.S. and Washington state

Admissions are on pace to only reach around one-fifth of their limit in 2019.

New numbers released by the International Rescue Committee show the number of refugees being allowed to enter the U.S. is leading to dramatic reductions in the number of refugees being resettled in Washington state.

The report from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) shows that during fiscal year 2019, which ends in the fall, actual refugee admissions were around 18,000 nationally, marking a historic lowpoint. The U.S. adopted the Refugee Act in 1980, and since then, average admissions have hovered around or exceeded 95,000 people. For the fiscal year 2019, the Trump administration set a limit of 30,000 refugees who would be allowed, but bureaucratic hurdles have bottlenecked that number even further.

Nicky Smith, the executive director of the International Rescue Committee’s Seattle branch, said this year’s limit of 30,000 was lower by 15,000 than the previous year’s. On top of lowering the total limit, the administration is also understaffing resettlement programs, which has led to only 18,000 people being admitted so far.

The additional restrictions have been particularly affecting Muslim refugees, whose admissions have declined by 85 percent since the Trump administration came into power in 2017. However, admissions of Christian refugees have also declined by more than 35 percent, a demographic that includes persecuted Christian minorities.

“Some of the things that we’ve noted is that whilst people of all faiths have been targeted through this refugees admission decline, there are certain (people) that have been particularly impacted,” Smith said.

Admissions from Africa, East Africa and Europe are nearly at their target numbers with one-third of the fiscal year left, but the IRC report said admissions from Latin America, the Near East and South Asia are low. From these regions, admissions are on pace to only reach around one-fifth of their ceilings by the end of the fiscal year.

This has led other countries to also reduce their refugee admissions, taking cues from the U.S., Smith said. It also places additional burdens on other countries that have historically welcomed refugees, including countries such as Colombia and Pakistan, which are much poorer than the U.S.

“I find this completely worrisome in the fact that the U.S. is basically worried about 30,000 refugees into their country, and yet the majority of the world’s refugees are hosted by 10 countries that have around 3 percent of the world’s total GDP,” Smith said.

Despite restrictions set by the administration on refugee admissions, Congress has consistently appropriated funds to handle around 85,000 refugees, indicating there is bipartisan political support for resettlement from politicians outside of the White House, said Danielle Grigsby, interim director of the Refugee Council USA (RCUSA).

“As long as we continue to maintain the support of our allies in Congress, which there’s a lot of positive movement there, we’ll be able to hang on to what we have and really potentially rebuild with a future administration,” Grigsby said.

According to a recent RCUSA report, the first half of fiscal year 2019 saw a 70 percent decline in refugee arrivals when compared to the first half of fiscal year 2017, which covered the end of the Obama presidency in 2016. The Trump administration has also put in place a rule that organizations that handle less than 100 refugees a year do not get funding.

Taken together, this has led to resettlement agencies across the country closing or suspending 51 programs in 41 offices across 23 states. While this has not affected Washington state through office closures, Gigsby said, the number of refugees arriving here has also dwindled.

Between Oct. 1, 2018, and May 31, 2019, there were 954 refugees who arrived in Washington. This is compared to 1,513 who were resettled in the state between Oct. 1, 2016, and Jan. 20, 2017, under the Obama administration.

“It’s definitely something to be concerned about and to watch,” Grigsby said.

Disruptions in refugees coming into the country also affects wrap-around communiy support from people who are prepared to welcome those admitted, as well as employers who hire refugees at scale.

Locally, Aneelah Afzali of the Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS) said while she continues to see Islamaphobia and anti-Muslim sentiments nationally, many people in King County have gotten involved.

“Having more and more people being willing and wanting to reach across the divide and get to know people from different communities,” Afzila said. “We’ve had more people than in the past reach out to us at MAPS.”

On the ground in Washington state, Afzali said people are more welcoming than national political rhetoric would make it seem.