Fact Check: Refugees, Camps, and Resettlement

img_2530More than a thousand Syrians crossed the Iraqi border during the past week, fleeing from the Turkish invasion and attack on Kurdish territory. They join about 250,000 Syrian refugees already living in Iraq. The United Nations is scrambling to set up housing in refugee camps for the new arrivals and for tens of thousands of other Syrian Kurdish refugees expected by January. The Washington Post described the scene:

“Squatting in the shade of the northern Domiz camp’s spartan portacabins this week, many of the new refugees looked shellshocked. Children were jittery, their parents too tired to speak much….

The United Nations said Wednesday that it was reactivating a camp in Bardarash, east of Mosul, to accommodate the new influx. Camp authorities have worked through the night to turn the lights back on and set up tents to house families. Guards and humanitarian staff in Domiz said they had been working 14-hour days to help the new refugees settle in.”

The U.N. High Commission on Refugees provides assistance to refugees around the world and sets up camps, such as those in Iraq, to house refugees as they arrive. Some of those camps are outside the refugees’ home countries, such as the Iraqi camps for Syrian Kurdish refugees. Others are for people displaced within their own countries: for example, Iraqis displaced by the U.S.-backed war against the Islamic State in Iraq. 

Refugee camps are set up where refugees arrive, usually near the borders of the countries that they flee. The overwhelming majority of refugee camps are located in poor countries

Refugees may remain in camps for years, even for decades. Eh Mwee, now a Minnesotan, was one of those refugees

Eh Mwee grew up as one of those refugees, born in Burma but fleeing with her mother to a refugee camp in Thailand when she was just two months old. She was five when her mother died, and then lived with an adoptive family in the camp. …

“Refugees were restricted to the camp, not allowed to live or work outside the camp, and always considered illegal in the rest of the country. Their choices are to live and die inside the camp, to win resettlement in a third country, or to return to their home country.” 

Eh Mwee finished high school. She learned English, in addition to the four other languages she speaks. She applied for resettlement, and waited. 

“Like all refugees who apply to enter the United States, she filled out applications, was interviewed by U.S. officials, waited for background checks and medical checks, and then had even more interviews. Finally, after 22 years in a refugee camp, she was approved for a U.S. visa.”

Other countries also resettle large numbers of refugees

“Refugee resettlement numbers per capita also differ across countries. The U.S. resettled about 70 refugees for every million of its own residents in 2018, lower than the rate in many other nations. Canada led the world on this measure by resettling 756 refugees per million residents. Australia (510), Sweden (493) and Norway (465) also had much higher resettlement figures per million than the U.S.”

The number of refugees continues to rise, reaching 25.9 million worldwide, according to the UNHCR

The number of refugees resettled remains low in comparison. The highest number resettled worldwide was 189,000 in 2016. That number dropped to 92,000 in 2018.

For decades, the United States led the world in refugee resettlement, accepting an average of about 67,000 refugees each year from 2008 to 2017. Since then, refugee admissions have dropped dramatically: 45,000 in 2017, 22,500 in 2018, and 30,000 in 2019. 

U.S. refugee law gives the president the authority to set a cap or ceiling on the number of refugees to be admitted in each fiscal year. That number has averaged 95,000 a year until 2017. Trump set the ceiling at 45,000 for fiscal year 2018, 30,000 for 2019, and 18,000 for 2020. 

None of the Kurdish refugees would be eligible for resettlement in the United States, even if the quota was higher. Immigrants from Syria are barred by the Trump administration’s travel ban.

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Making Some Changes in This Blog

On vacation in DC last week, I spent a lot of time walking and thinking. In part, I thought about what I can do during this time of national crisis and despair, and kept coming back to what and how I write. 

I am a good at researching and identifying facts, falsehoods, and areas of uncertainty. I have also spent much of my professional life explaining complex realities in terms that non-experts can understand. 

I don’t believe in “both sides-ism,” the theory that there is truth on both sides and we should give equal weight to all voices. I see no need to give flat-earthers equal time in science classrooms. I see no need to give equal time to ignorance and lies anywhere else. 

On the other hand—immigration law and policy and news are all complex and tough to understand. My plan, going forward, is to focus my blogs more on plain-language explanations and less on my own outrage about the latest horror stories. I hope that will make this writing more useful not only to already-convinced readers of this blog, but also as an aid in talking (or forwarding information) to friends and family.

Next up: Fact Check: Refugees, Camps, and Resettlement


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Marius, Gurupreet, Aida, Ramlo: Four Refugee Stories

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Marius Kothor, a graduate student at Yale, came to the United States with his family, refugees from Togo. They arrived in February 2000. Being allowed to enter as a refugee saved his life, he says, and more refugees should be allowed to enter:

“[C]oming to the United States as a refugee is the most difficult way to enter this country, because refugees go through a very thorough vetting process.

“I know this because it took my family seven years to be approved for refugee resettlement in the United States after we had to flee political strife in the West African country of Togo. During those seven long years, I lost two brothers to disease and malnutrition. I became ill and bedridden but fought to survive because I did not want my mother to cry again the way she had cried when my brothers died….

We were lucky: Only 1 percent of the millions of refugees around the world will ever receive a lifeline like the one we received.”

Continue reading

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Hope and Help for Immigrants: You Can Act Now


If you feel hopeless in the face of today’s outrages, know that you can act and you can make a difference. Action takes many forms, from calling your political representatives to filing comments opposing new and awful regulations to financial support for immigrant and ally organizations to opening your home or place of worship to asylum seekers. 

Actions make a difference. Massive public outrage over a recent move to deport immigrants with medical problems led to the administration retreating from that plan. Public opposition to the first public charge regulation led to modifications that exempted school lunches and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and made other important changes. Full victory? Of course not, but these are important changes that save lives.  Continue reading

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The (Immigration) Week in Review

what. have we. become

Biggest, baddest news: Trump has cut refugee admissions for 2020 to 18,000, the lowest ever. Thursday’s announcement is devastating news for 

  • refugee families trying to reunite with loved ones still languishing in camps around the world,
  • refugee agencies that will be forced to close, 
  • U.S. communities that receive the tremendous cultural, economic, and social benefits of refugees settling there
  • anyone who believes that the United States can and should be a safe haven for persecuted people.

I suppose Trump’s decision is good news for anyone who still believes the United States was right to turn away Jewish refugees in the 1930s, sending them back to face Nazi persecution and death camps. 

Against this bad news, balance three smaller wins in federal courts: Judges blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to remove limits on time in detention and other protections for immigrant children; temporarily enjoined its effort to extend expedited deportation throughout the entire country; and enjoined ICE from using flawed databases to issue detainers for deportations. Details below:  Continue reading

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Welcoming Minnesota Immigrants

All are welcome here 1

Last week was Welcoming Week, built around September 17—Citizenship Day. During the first weeks of September, thousands of Minnesotans became citizens, in St. Paul and across the state. Immigrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, contribute skills and talent and hard work to Minnesota and the country, comprising 9 percent of Minnesota’s workforce and 6 percent of the state’s business owners. About 8 percent of Minnesotans are immigrants, including those who just became citizens in September. They join what is likely to be another record-breaking high in new citizens, following 757,000 who took the oath of citizenship in 2018. According to MPR, “More than 9,400 of those naturalized in 2018 were Minnesotans.”  Continue reading

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One More Friday Night Immigration Outrage


Seems like terrible immigration stories often break late on Friday, when they may be buried in the weekend news cycle. This week’s Friday night outrage: a not-quite-safe-third-country agreement signed with El Salvador, and an administration plan to force vulnerable asylum seekers to relocate in El Salvador.

El Salvador is not a safe country. That’s obvious to anyone who can read worldwide homicide statistics, even if they do not also know of military and police complicity with criminal gangs and continuing inability of the country’s legal system to protect vulnerable citizens. AP summarizes the problem very well

“’Where will they declare a haven for asylum seekers next? Syria? North Korea? This is cynical and absurd. El Salvador is in no way safe for asylum seekers,’ said Refugees International President Eric Schwartz….

“El Salvador is plagued by gangs and is among the world’s deadliest countries, with one of the highest homicide rates on the globe.

“According to a 2018 State Department report, human rights issues included allegations of ‘unlawful killings of suspected gang members and others by security forces; forced disappearances by military personnel; torture by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; lack of government respect for judicial independence.’” Continue reading

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