A picture is worth a thousand tweets, as we learned when President Trump ordered military strikes in Syria in April after seeing pictures of Syrian children suffering from a chemical attack. That the president was so moved by these pictures had given some hope to the tens of thousands of refugees in line for U.S. resettlement, but to no avail.
The president has chosen to resettle a maximum of 45,000 refugees next year to the United States — the lowest presidential determination on record — 65,000 below last year’s determination and 30,000 below what refugee experts agree is the minimal amount the United States should accept to meet the global need. At a time when the number of displaced globally is at an all-time high, it marks a disturbing retreat from the honored U.S. tradition of protecting persons fleeing persecution.
The president hinted at his administration’s refugee strategy in his recent speech to the United Nations, in which he argued that it was cheaper to house refugees in neighboring countries than to bring them to the United States. He did not mention that, according to a Department of Health and Human Services report, refugees contribute billions annually to our economy through their work and enterprise. It also ignored the fact that some of the world’s poorest nations bear the responsibility of hosting the majority of the world’s refugees.
By setting such a historically low number, the president has undermined our global standing as a moral leader — as we lessen our commitment, so will other nations. The refugees we are leaving behind — children, women and the elderly among them — will not necessarily be resettled in another country; they will languish in fear and danger, with an uncertain fate.
The neighboring countries who host millions of refugees — allies like Jordan, Thailand, Lebanon, Turkey, Kenya and Uganda — may be emboldened to close their own borders to people fleeing possible death. Kenya already has threatened to close the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab, and send everyone back to the local terrorist group in Somalia, Al-Shabaab.
Moreover, the reduction could limit our “soft” power to influence foreign governments to cooperate with us on a multitude of issues, from global security to global responses to humanitarian disasters. Just as the U.S. missile attack on Syria sent a message, our commitment to human rights, or lack thereof, sends one as well.
And as 134 U.S. foreign policy and security experts argued in a letter to Trump in March, maintaining the U.S. refugee program complements, does not conflict with, our national security interests, as it exposes as a lie terrorist propaganda that the U.S. is hostile to Islam.
Perhaps the most devastating effect that this decision will have is that it keeps tens of thousands of lives at risk, desperate human beings who may be forced to take dangerous journeys to find safety. Refugees are not resettled to a third country lightly — less than 1 percent of refugees globally are resettled. It is because they cannot survive in the places they are located, usually a neighboring country, that they are then moved to a resettlement country. As a nation, we must not shy away from the human factor — keeping America first should include keeping it first in compassion.
The pictures of the chemical attack in Syria last April were indeed horrific, but there are thousands of other images of refugees, including children, that are just as disturbing. How easily we forget the picture of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy lying dead face down on a Greek beach. His boat capsized in the Aegean Sea and his father was unable to save him from drowning.
With over 22 million refugees worldwide, any search of the internet would reveal pictures of suffering refugees that would move the hardest heart. These are brutal images that also deserve a U.S. response, only this time with an extended hand.
Given the political will, the United States has the capacity to securely accept at least 75,000 refugees per year, if not more. Congress should show that political will and accept nothing less from the administration.
A robust refugee program would help maintain our global influence on human rights and in the Middle East. It also would alleviate the suffering of thousands of our fellow human beings, including children.
Don’t take my word for it, Mr. President. Just look at the pictures.
Appleby is the senior director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies of New York and the Scalabrini International Migration Network.