US refugee law is hopelessly outdated. With Ukrainian refugees on the way, it’s time to do something about it: Eskinder Negash


ARLINGTON, Va. – Over the past month and a half, the world has seen heartbreaking images of refugees fleeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We have seen orphans crammed into buses heading for Poland and other neighboring countries; children, pregnant women and the elderly saying goodbye to their loved ones who are left behind to fight. Less than eight months ago, we were equally shaken to watch Afghan mothers drag babies over barbed wire fences to safety as Kabul fell to the Taliban.

The harsh reality facing refugees has become part of our daily conversations as we observe, in real time, the suffering and catastrophic consequences of conflict.

Forty-two years ago, on March 17, 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Refugee Act in the wake of the Vietnam War and its wave of refugees. The Refugee Act established a procedure under which the United States must admit and receive refugees – what we know today as the US Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) through the Department of State American. He also created a complementary refugee resettlement office within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

But perhaps more importantly, the Refugee Act introduced a new definition of “refugee” in the Immigration and Naturalization Act 1965, the same definition enshrined in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention According to this definition, a refugee is “any person who is unable or unwilling to return to this country and who is unable or unwilling to avail himself of the protection of this country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of ‘to be persecuted because of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’.

Since the signing of the Refugee Act, the United States has admitted more than 3.1 million refugees, people who have fled their homes, their stories, their lives because of persecution. But it’s not enough. When President Carter signed the Refugee Act of 1980, the world and the United States were very different places. Today, year by year, the number of people persecuted in their country of origin is increasing. As the world grapples with ethnic and political conflict and a rapidly changing climate, more people need protection from persecution – 2021 produced the highest number of refugees ever recorded. Ethiopians, Cameroonians, Ukrainians, Afghans, Mauritanians, Syrians, Burmese, Sudanese, Congolese: all have been displaced by the conflict and each meets the refugee definition enshrined in US law – and should therefore be safely admitted to this country .

Yet in fiscal year 2021, refugee admissions to the United States were the lowest in history – 11,411, compared to 11,814 in fiscal year 2020 and 30,000 in fiscal year 2019. And nearly 100,000 refugees have pending cases.

We can blame the previous administration for its overt blocking of refugee protection and its cuts to funding for refugee resettlement programs nationwide. But we must also collectively take responsibility for the bureaucracy and bureaucratic blockages that have plagued the USRAP over the past two decades – and the fact that we, as a country, have not done enough to address them.

Despite numerous attempts to pass legislation to update the USRAP, increase the annual refugee cap, and expand eligibility for derivative family member applications, the country’s preeminent system created to admit and accommodate refugees people seeking refuge from evil remains outdated and broken.

Eskinder Negash is the president and CEO of the American Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

The Refugee Act of 1980 was historic legislation for the protection of refugees around the world. He represented America’s interest in being a country that welcomes persecuted people, supports the beginning of a new life, and promotes diversity and safe communities. But it is no longer 1980, and it is high time for new legislation to show refugees around the world that we are still interested in building a society that welcomes and values ​​diversity. Refugees around the world are desperately waiting for our action.

Eskinder Negash is the President and CEO of the American Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, an international, nonprofit, nongovernmental organization founded in 1911 that is committed to working on behalf of refugees and immigrants and their transition. to a dignified life.

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