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The Global Refugee Crisis: Continuing Challenges

By The Democracy & Human Rights Working Group*

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reports that there are currently 25.9 million refugees worldwide, most from Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan, and over half of whom are children. In Syria, the situation has worsened as nearly a million people have fled fighting in the dead of winter. This latest flow of refugees is adding to the record high numbers which are a significant increase from 2012, when there were 9.9 million refugees worldwide. A large part of the increase took place between 2012 and 2015, due largely to the conflict in Syria. Approximately 80 percent of refugees live in countries neighboring their own; Turkey, Pakistan and Uganda are currently the top refugee-hosting countries. The enduring conflicts in Syria, South Sudan, Burma, Yemen, Venezuela, Afghanistan, and many other countries ensure that the flow of refugees is not likely to abate anytime soon.

According to the State Department and the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is someone who “has experienced past persecution or has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion” and has fled their own country. The U.S. policy of allowing those with fears of persecution to enter the country has long been founded on bipartisan core values that reflect our tradition of serving as a safe haven for the oppressed, a tradition that dates to the time of the Pilgrims. The first refugee legislation was passed in the U.S. in 1948 after more than 250,000 displaced Europeans entered the country, and allowed another 400,000 displaced Europeans to enter. In later years, laws were passed to grant admission to those fleeing Communist regimes, and after the Vietnam War, the U.S. further opened its doors to refugees by creating the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Since then, the U.S. has resettled more than three million refugees, most from the former Soviet Union or Indochinese.

The United States provides the largest amount of humanitarian assistance worldwide, totaling nearly $9.3 billion in Fiscal Year 2019. The U.S. has also historically been a global leader with regard to the resettlement of refugees, until recently taking in more refugees than all other countries combined. This changed in 2017, when the U.S. admitted fewer refugees than the rest of the world for the first time in modern history. Over the last three years, the refugee admission ceiling has decreased from 85,000 in 2016 to 50,000 in 2017, to 45,000 in 2018 (though only 22,491 were admitted), and 30,000 in 2019. On November 2, 2019, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced that the Administration will set a ceiling of 18,000 refugees in 2020.

Humanitarian agencies, both international and domestic, are being pushed to their limits as they try to deal with the global refugee crisis. In the U.S., nine private organizations work on refugee resettlement, and 100 of their offices have closed, possibly permanently, due to the decrease in the numbers of refugees. The U.S. has withdrawn from its diplomatic role of calling for increased funding from other donors and asking host countries to ensure that refugees’ rights are respected. It has also refused to join the Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, citing concerns about infringement on U.S. sovereignty, despite the fact that these agreements are non-binding. The position of Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration has remained unfilled since January 23, 2017. Further, the U.S. lost its campaign to have an American serve as the head of the International Organization for Migration when it put forward a candidate with a history of tweeting anti-Muslim messages.

The United States must continue its traditional role of being a global leader on humanitarian assistance, human rights, and economic development in order to successfully reduce the number of refugees globally. Recommendations for the U.S. administration, Congress, and the 2020 presidential candidates for addressing the global refugee crisis include:

  • Raising the ceiling on refugee admissions to restore historically higher levels. This should be done on moral and national security grounds, but also would be economically prudent, as the National Immigration Forum notes in its June 2018 article “Immigrants as Economic Contributors: Refugees Are a Fiscal Success Story for America” that over time refugees contribute more to the economy through consumer spending and entrepreneurship than they are given in assistance.
  • Nominating and appointing an Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration who will reclaim the U.S. role as a global leader on these issues.
  • Speaking out in support of the U.S. tradition of welcoming and admitting refugees, and countering disinformation and hate speech directed against refugees and asylum seekers.
  • Reconsidering U.S. opposition to endorsing the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees.
  • Supporting implementation of the Better Utilization of Investment Leading to Development (BUILD) Act, a bipartisan measure which creates a new U.S. development agency with the mission of helping developing countries while advancing U.S. foreign policy goals and national security interests.
  • Raising public awareness of the positive contributions made by refugees and immigrants in general to the U.S. economy and U.S. society.
  • In addition to robust humanitarian budgets, continuing to fund economic development, rule of law, human rights and democracy programs in developing and conflict-ridden countries to strengthen institutions, provide stability, and encourage participatory governance in order to reduce the need of citizens to seek refuge in other countries.


* The Democracy & Human Rights Working Group is a nonpartisan initiative bringing together academic and think tank experts and practitioners from NGOs and previous Democratic and Republican administrations, seeking to elevate the importance of democracy and human rights issues in U.S. foreign policy. It is convened by Arizona State University’s McCain Institute for International Leadership. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the positions of individual members of the group or of their organizations.

Publish Date
March 23, 2020