Does Trump’s refugee order tie UNHCR's hands?

February 6, 2017

On January 27, President Trump signed an executive order, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States,” which prohibits entry by nationals of seven Muslim-majority states (Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen) for 90 days, bans Syrian refugees indefinitely, and suspends the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days.

The new order allows exemptions “when the person is a religious minority in his country of nationality facing religious persecution.” This caveat allows, for example, persecuted Christian refugees in Syria to be prioritized for admission to the United States—but not Syrian Muslims in need of asylum.

Co-authored by Wendy Stocker

Refugee settlement is supposed to be “religion blind” and serve the most vulnerable, including survivors of torture and sexual violence, persons facing political persecution, those with medical needs, families with multiple children, and women and girls at risk.

“Protecting the Nation” may signal a remarkable shift in the U.S. refugee resettlement program—the largest in the world. The Obama administration had proposed increasing the number of refugees resettled in the United States from 70,000 in fiscal year (FY)2015 to 85,000 in FY2016 and 110,000 in FY2017. In 2016 there was a separate U.S. initiative to scale up Syrian refugee resettlement to 10,000, in response to appeals from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to increase quotas. (Canada and Germany were among the states that also took in more.)


Since the inception of the UN Refugee Agency in 1950, it has been supported and funded by UN member states. It is regarded as the authoritative body on forced displacement and refugee issues. Governments and civil society organizations turn to it for guidance and direction.

In response to “Protecting the Nation,” the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration issued a brief joint statement, in which they remind the new U.S. government of the vital importance of its resettlement program, which represents the responsibility of richer countries to protect and host refugees. They offer to work with the new administration “to ensure safe and secure resettlement and immigration programmes.” Echoing the founding principles of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the statement proclaims that “refugees should receive equal treatment for protection and assistance, and opportunities for resettlement, regardless of their religion, nationality or race.”

As the international custodian of refugee rights and the refugee protection regime, UNHCR is responsible for protecting, monitoring, and advocating on behalf of the 65.3 million people in the world forcibly displaced from their homes. As rates of global displacement climb during a time of political uncertainty and eroding compassion, guaranteeing the universal right to asylum is no doubt a Herculean task.

A core element of the UNHCR’s mandate is to find durable solutions that allow refugees to rebuild their lives in safety and dignity, which includes repatriation, integration, and resettlement. Repatriation is a possibility for some refugees—on a strictly voluntary basis—once their homes are again safe and secure. Another solution for refugees unable to return home is to locally integrate into host communities in countries of first asylum.

When these solutions are not possible, refugees may be offered third-state resettlement. Only a small number of countries, roughly 30, take part in UNHCR resettlement programs. Currently less than 1 per cent of refugees are resettled; this low number is more a reflection of states’ unwillingness to provide this solution than of the needs of refugees. Under President Trump’s new refugee order, resettlement in the United States will be reduced to 50,000 refugees for FY2017.


Before refugees are offered resettlement, the UNHCR conducts an established refugee status determination (RSD) process, which determines if a person seeking international protection is considered a refugee under international, regional, or national law. After an intensive screening, it “vets” refugee candidates for resettlement.

The United States then conducts its own screenings, which currently take up to two years. This process involves eight federal government agencies, separate background checks, bio-metric security tests, in-person interviews, and interagency security tests before refugee candidates are accepted and resettled.

All indications are that these screening measures and protective checks are working. Although sources differ, it has been said that, since 9/11, there have been no successful terrorist attacks on U.S. soil by refugees. (And we should be clear that none of the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks were refugees.)

Syrian refugees are already subjected to additional security screenings. Senior UNHCR advisor Jana Mason states that, “of all the categories of persons entering the U.S., these refugees are the single most heavily screened and vetted.”


Financial support is never guaranteed for UNHCR, which relies on voluntary contributions from states to implement its mandate. Funding from the United States—the UNHCR’s largest donor—made up 40 per cent of its budget in 2015.

With mounting humanitarian challenges over the last few years, the UN Refugee Agency has faced chronic funding shortages. In 2015, it experienced a 10 per cent budget shortfall. Then UNHCR High Commissioner—now UN Secretary-General—António Guterres stated that the agency was “financially broke,” leading to cuts in support services, such as food rations. While the UNHCR has attempted to diversify its donor base by tapping into the private sector (which contributed 8 per cent to its 2015 budget; see “Main donors” graph), rich countries remain its major financial supporters.

However, although the UNHCR is responding cautiously to President Trump’s new executive order, its hands are not entirely tied.

To retain international credibility and continue to be a true guardian to refugees, the UNHCR must find ways to garner widespread public support and engage in creative diplomacy that will allow it to speak out more boldly against President Trump’s problematic rhetoric and actions. By firmly rejecting challenges to its founding values and principles this UN agency can retain moral legitimacy and relevance.

For the UN Refugee Agency to continue helping the many displaced millions in desperate need, the international community must promptly renew support for it. Only with secure financial and political backing can the UN Refugee Agency effectively implement its mandate and support host (developing) countries and communities that shelter the majority of the world’s displaced.

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