More 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.”
“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.