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The United States and European Union Refugee Policies

The United States and European Union Refugee Policies and their Responses to the Worldwide Refugee Crisis

1. General Introduction

Each day individuals worldwide are forced to make one of the toughest decisions of their lives, remain in their home country while risking persecution and even their lives or leave their homes in search of safety somewhere else. These individuals are refugees, which are defined as a person who ‘owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his or her nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of that country. The definition is accepted worldwide and was established in Article 1 of the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the status of refugees and modified by the 1967 Protocol relating to the status of refugees. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are currently 25.4 million refugees worldwide, over half of which are under the age of 18, up significantly from the 9.9 million only seven years ago in 2012.[1] Much of the increase is charged by the current armed conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Myanmar, and Syria, but there are also very high numbers of individuals being displaced due to the conflict in Burundi, the Central African Republic, Iran, South Sudan, Ukraine, and Yemen. The top five countries producing refugees are Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, and Somalia with 57% coming from the top three.[2] In this paper, I will discuss the refugee policies of two of the world’s most influential and economically and politically powerful entities, the United States and the European Union, and compare the positives with the many negatives and possible ways to better the policies. It will begin with a background and explanation of the refugee policies in the US and EU, followed by a focus on the most recent responses to the worldwide refugee crisis, and ending with a comparison of the positives and negatives of each with possible solutions or positive directions explained for the policies and a conclusion.

2. Refugee Policy in the United States and the European Union

In this next section, I will discuss a brief history of the United States’ and European Union’s relationships with refugees and their current policies regarding the refugee admissions numbers, screening process, resettlement process, and any follow up that occurs. The first international treaty regarding refugees was the 1951 UN Convention relating to the status of refugees which defines who is a refugee, and sets out the rights of individuals who are granted asylum and the responsibilities of nations that grant asylum, sets out those who do not qualify as refugees, and made non-refoulement a principle of international law. In 1967, another key international treaty on refugees, the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees was entered into force. Although all EU member states are parties to both the Convention and Protocol, the US is only party to the Protocol.[3]

2.2 United States Refugee Policy

From the start, the US has been considered a nation of immigrants. When Thomas Paine published his pamphlet “Common Sense” in January of 1776 arguing for American independence, he made a case for a new American by stating “Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe,”[4] In 1981 this sentiment was continued by President Ronald Reagan who vowed to “continue America’s tradition as a land that welcomes peoples from other countries” and to “continue to share in the responsibility of welcoming and resettling those who flee oppression.” In 1980 the US passed the Refugee Act of 1980 which established the current US Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) and since has resettled more than 3 million refugees making it a global leader in the resettlement of refugees.[5] The US tradition of providing safety to the oppressed and persecuted stretches back further than 1980, however, with Congress passing several pieces of legislation to admit a large number of refugee populations. Between 1948 and the passage of the Refugee Act in 1980, the US admitted over 1.4 million refugees.[6]

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Today, the policies established by the Refugee Act are still in use. Every year the Executive Branch, in consultation with Congress, is tasked with determining the numerical ceiling for refugee admissions. The State Department and Department of Homeland Security evaluate the feasible admission of different refugee populations and the ability of U.S. Government official to process them.[7] In general, refugees are referred to the US by the UNHCR. The UNHCR is an international agency tasked with protecting displaced communities and stateless people. They screen applicants to ensure that they are eligible for refugee status and if they are in need of resettlement, and if so, they refer them to the US and other countries. There are three categories through which individuals can seek access to the program: priority one, two, and three. Priority one is individuals referred by UNHCR or identified by a U.S. Embassy or non-governmental organization, priority two are groups of “special concern,” and priority three includes the relatives of refugees already settled in the US.[8] After the initial UNHCR referral, the screening and vetting process takes on average between 18 and 24 months, during which the refugee will going through several rounds of background checks, screenings, and interviews under USRAP. The process includes an initial screening from the nine Resettlement Support Centers (RSCs) located around the world which collect the applicants’ background information; after a preliminary approval from the State Department they are reviewed by officers from US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), as well as ongoing vetting from numerous intelligence agencies such as the FBI and CIA; USCIS also conducts an in-person interview with each refugee before approval or denial; and the last step is a health screening to prevent those with contagious diseases from coming into the US.[9] In approved after this very lengthy process, the RSC’s work together with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to schedule and arrange for travel to the US, which the refugees sign a promissory note to repay the US for the travel costs six months after their arrival. Upon arrival, there is one final clearance done by US Customs and Border Protection to ensure it is the same individual who was approved for admission, and then they are taken to their housing which typically includes basic needs and usually some food typical of the refugee’s home country. During the first few months, they are helped out financially but are encouraged to seek employment as soon as possible to be able to support themselves. After a year they are eligible to apply for Permanent Resident status, and if they wish five years later they may apply to become a citizen.[10] Due to the nature of the EU as an intergovernmental political and economic union, its approach to refugee policy differs from that of the US.

2.3 European Union Refugee Policy

Although the European Union member states all have their own history and relationship with refugee policy, it was not until the founding of the European Union with the Treaty of Maastricht on November 1, 1993, that cooperation on asylum was introduced into the EU’s institutional framework. In the 1999 Treaty of Amsterdam, EU institutions were granted new powers to create legislation regarding asylum using a specific institutional mechanism: a five-year transitional period with shared rights between the Member States and the Commission and decision by unanimity in the Council after consulting Parliament.[11] In this five year period, the Council hoped to adopt measures regarding criteria and mechanisms for determining which Member State is responsible for considering an asylum application made by a third-country national within the EU, and certain minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers, and the status and procedures of refugees.[12] The Common European Asylum System was to be implemented in two phases; the first phase took place from 1999-2004, and established the criteria and mechanisms for determining the Member State responsible for reviewing asylum applications, established the ‘Eurodac’ database, defining common minimal standards the Member States were to follow with the reception of refugees, qualifications for international protection and the protection granted, and procedures for granting or withdrawing refugee status. The second phase was called for in November of 2004 by the Hague Programme, with a deadline of 2008 later postponed to 2012.[13] The Lisbon Treaty adjusted the measures from establishing minimum standards into creating a common system between the Member States. The new ‘second’ phase of the CEAS was adopted following the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty.[14]

The Common European Asylum System is comprised of five parts. The first is the Asylum Procedures Directive which sets common procedures for the Member States for granting and withdrawing international protection. The second is Reception Conditions Directive which aims to ensure better and more harmonized standards of reception throughout the EU which includes applicants having ensured access to housing, food, clothing, health care, education for minors, and employment under certain conditions. The third is Qualification Direction which sets criteria for qualifications of refugee status and the type of protection granted. The fourth is the Dublin Regulation which establishes the State responsible for processing asylum claims–based on ‘first point of entry–, and the fifth is EURODAC Regulation which establishes an EU asylum fingerprint database.[15] Although the implementation of the system and other actions by differing slightly between the Member States, they are expected to abide by the CEAS.


3. United States and European Union Responses to Refugee Crisis

Europe, along with the rest of the world, is currently experiencing a refugee crisis as persons seeking asylum is at an all-time high. With an increase of about 50% in the past five years, it is crucial for nations with the ability to take in refugees to respond. In order to respond or, in the case of the United States, not respond the EU and the US have taken measures within the last few years that may or may not be beneficial to those seeking asylum.

3.1 United States Response to the Refugee Crisis

In the United States, the worldwide refugee crisis has been completely disregarded by the Trump administration since 2017. In January of that year, Executive Order 13769 was signed by President Donald Trump suspending the entire refugee program for 120 days and lowered the FY 2017 refugee ceiling from the 110,000 set under the Obama administration to only 50,000.[16] In FY 2018, the refugee ceiling was lowered even further to 45,000, the lowest since the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980. The cap for FY 2019 was lowered once again to only 30,000, but the administration has failed to keep pace with the 3,750 refugees who should be resettled every month to hit the cap, and it is expected that the actual number of refugees resettled in 2019 will be less than half of the 30,000 max.[17]Although greatly beneficial to the few who are able to receive refugee status in the US, the very limited number of accepted applications is the exact opposite of what is needed during this period of high displacement numbers. Another huge issue for the refugee population is Trump’s “travel ban.” Beginning with the Executive Order 13769, titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”, the Trump administration suspended the entry of Syrian refugees indefinitely as well as the entry of refugees from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen for an additional 90 day ban after the original 120 day ban on all refugee entries in 2017.[18] Although on February 9, 2017, the Executive Order was restrained, two other orders, Executive Order 13780 and Presidential Proclamation 9645, were signed by President Trump and on June 26, 2018, the Presidential Proclamation 9465 and its accompanying travel ban against majority Muslim countries was upheld by a 5-4 majority by the US Supreme Court.[19] Not only has the US not made beneficial efforts to contribute to the refugee crisis, but under the Trump administration, it has removed the effectiveness of its refugee programs as a broader attack on legal immigration programs. It has alienated entire countries due to an increased sense of nationalism and justified it through fear of terrorism.

3.2 European Union Response to the Refugee Crisis

The European Union, on the other hand, has completely acknowledged the refugee crisis as it has affected them directly and attempted to respond, yet they have not been very successful. The EU’s responses to the crisis include an Ad Hoc solution of mandatory quotas, and a controversial agreement with Turkey. Due to the high increase of refugees coming to the EU, especially in the border states of Italy, Hungary, and Greece, it was vital that they move some of the refugees so the burden is not only put onto those countries. EU 2015/1523 and EU 2015/1601 were the two Council Decisions to adopt the mandatory quota and although it was voted against by Romania, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary, it was adopted using majority voting. In order to ensure an efficient relocation procedure, the Decision required Member States to pledge available relocation places every three months, with the goal of relocated 160,000 refugees to the other EU countries based on size and wealth of each.[20] Although this was meant to help alleviate the burden from the border countries, many of the others did not reach or get anywhere close to their quotas which rendered it significantly less effective than it could have been. The other remedy they devised was the EU-Turkey deal of 2016 which had aims to end irregular migration from Turkey to the EU, open safe and legal channels for Syrian refugees to arrive in Europe, and ensure improved conditions for refugees in Turkey. The deal had two parts, the Joint Action Plan which involved Turkey taking back irregular migrants and preventing the development of new illegal routes from Turkey to the EU. The second part was the Readmission Agreement in which for every irregular migrant returned from the EU to Turkey, one Syrian refugee from Turkey would be resettled in the EU. Although there were many great aspects such as a decrease in lives lost at sea and a 97% decrease in irregular arrivals, there were many issues associated with the deal.[21] The two main issues were the legality of the agreement, which had been agreed upon by heads of states not technically acting as the EU and therefore outside of the scope of EU law, and the determination of Turkey as a safe third country. Although determined to be a safe country for the deal, according to the Statewatch analysis Turkey does not fulfill many of the requirements for designation as a ‘safe country’ under the Procedures Directive.[22] Along with their treatment of refugees being below par, they are also a refugee-producing country themselves as many journalists are seeking refuge due to persecution if they report outside the approved guidelines from the government. The fact that Turkey is not determined a safe country by most proves big issues with the EU-Turkey deal and shows that they may not be looking out for the best interest of the refugees, but rather attempting to refrain from taking responsibility.

4. Comparison of Positives and Negatives with Possible Solutions

The United States has a rather well developed and effective refugee policy put in place by the Refugee Act of 1980, but the current administration is making it impossible the make a positive impact. An obvious solution to bettering the US’ current refugee handlings is by increasing the refugee ceiling back to pre-Trump administration numbers and removing travel bans. Although the risk of terrorism is eminent in the US and many other countries, there are many ways to try and prevent it that do not involve banning entire nations from seeking refuge in the US due to their prominent religion. The European Union, although trying, is still in need of further developing their refugee policy. This is a difficult task that they were not able to tackle during the crisis as they were in crisis management mode and did not have time for reform. They are also the first of their kind as an international union attempting to establish and develop a quality program, making it a continuous trial and error as they try to work as an entity while maintaining some form of sovereignty for each country. As has been explore by the EU, some of the solutions include new migration partnerships similar to the EU-Turkey deal, aimed at migration management, and reforming the Dublin system which creates many issues, especially for the bordering countries, with its ‘first point of entry’ basis, which would no longer be the case in the proposed Amendments.

5. Conclusion

It should be a source of pride for the both the United States and European Union, as well as other countries with the economic and political means to serve refugee populations, to contribute to refugee programs as they save countless lives and give the millions of refugees in need of a haven a place to go. Although the United States has a well developed national refugee program, the Trump administration is hindering its abilities greatly due to a sense of nationalism and fear of terrorism. The European Union, on the other hand, is working much harder to help refugees, yet its newer and less developed refugee program has created issues in their attempts to aid the crisis. It is the responsibility of the US and EU as world leaders to help those in need of asylum. Although both have contributed to helping with the refugee crisis, there is a long way to go in refugee policy is both before it is as beneficial and efficient as it can and should be.

6. Bibliography

  • American Immigration Council. (2018, September 17). An Overview of U.S. Refugee Law and Policy. Retrieved from https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/research/overview-us-refugee-law-and-policy
  • Cepla, Z. (2019, January 25). Fact Sheet: U.S. Refugee Resettlement. Retrieved from https://immigrationforum.org/article/fact-sheet-u-s-refugee-resettlement/
  • Imamovic, S. (2019). Migration and Refugee Crisis [Powerpoint Slides]
  • Kerwin, D. (2018). The US Refugee Resettlement Program — A Return to First Principles: How Refugees Help to Define, Strengthen, and Revitalize the United States. Journal on Migration and Human Security, 205-225. doi:10.14240/cmsrpt0618
  • Liptak, A., & Shear, M. (2018, June 26). Trump’s Travel Ban Is Upheld by Supreme Court. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/26/us/politics/supreme-court-trump-travel-ban.html
  • Paine, T. (1776). Common sense ; addressed to the inhabitants of America, on the following interesting subjects. Philadelphia: R. Bell.
  • Roman, E., Baird, T., & Radcliffe, T. (2016). “Analysis Why Turkey is Not a “Safe Country”. Statewatch, 1-26.
  • “States Parties to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol” (PDF). April 2015. Retrieved 7 June 2019.
  • United Nations. (2019). Figures at a Glance. Retrieved from https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html
  • Unit for Coordination of Editorial and Communication Activities (2018). Migration and Asylum: a challenge for Europe. Publication: European Parliament

[1] UN “Figures at a Glance”, 2019

[2] “An Overview of U.S. Refugee Law and Policy”, 2018

[3] “States Parties to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol”, 2015

[4] Paine, 1776

[5] “An Overview of U.S. Refugee Law and Policy”, 2018

[6] Kerwin, 2018

[7] “An Overview of U.S. Refugee Law and Policy”, 2018

[8] Ibid.

[9] Cepla, 2019

[10] Ibid.

[11] Unit for Coordination of Editorial and Communication Activities, 2018

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Imamovic, 2019

[16]  “An Overview of U.S. Refugee Law and Policy”, 2018

[17] Cepla, 2019

[18]  “An Overview of U.S. Refugee Law and Policy”, 2018

[19] Liptak & Shear, 2018

[20]  Imamovic, 2019

[21]  Imamovic, 2019

[22] (Roman, Baird, & Radcliffe, 2016)


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