Waiting for resettlement is a tiresome process. Each day starts with hope of promising news and ends with crushing disappointment when none arrives. President Biden has been standing in the way of resettling the thousands of refugees who have been approved to come to the United States. Delaying the determination on refugee admissions, which Biden has finally signed, and walking back his promise to expand the program has made these refugees captive to an endless cycle of waiting.
Research shows that waiting for resettlement is physically and emotionally harmful for refugees. These costs of waiting have struck particularly hard for over 700 refugees whose flights to the United States were cancelled, trapping them in uncertainty. They incur several financial risks based on the promise that resettlement is imminent. They leave their jobs. They sell or give up their own homes and possessions. When resettlement does not materialize, refugees are left even more unstable than before.
Refugees have no control over if or when they will be resettled. They remain stuck and powerless. Waiting under these conditions takes a mental toll. Research reveals how emotionally fraught waiting can be, especially when so much is on the line. Refugees have told me how they felt like they were developing depression while being expected to wait patiently for such a significant decision from the government.
Along with security and the opportunity for a better future, resettlement also provides refugees with critical medical care. Many refugees waiting in camps and urban areas suffer from chronic diseases, like diabetes and hypertension, as well as lingering conditions and disabilities sustained in conflict and war. Treatment may be inaccessible or too costly. The longer refugees wait, the longer their health needs are placed on hold.
Under the best of circumstances, the vetting time alone for resettlement can take up to 24 months, not to mention the years and even decades of displacement that many refugees endured before the application process. The refugees waiting for resettlement have been through difficult events. With the last administration and its travel ban, drastic reduction in annual arrivals, and discriminatory criteria, there were roadblocks that had kept thousands of previously eligible refugees stuck in limbo as they waited for the new administration to take office. Meanwhile, the coronavirus created even more hurdles and delays to this already arduous process.
The justifications for the slow action from the new administration come up short. Was the halt of resettlement in response to the increase in asylum seekers at the southern border? Indeed, resettlement and asylum are not competing programs. This notion is wrong and pits one group of refugees against another. The United States needs to certainly maintain its active resettlement program while processing these asylum cases.
The resettlement agencies that welcome refugees need time to rebuild after four years of systematic dismantling under the last administration. But the stability of resettlement agencies relies on predictable refugee arrivals without which they cannot restore the infrastructure damaged by the last administration. The agencies weathered four years of destruction so they could be ready and able to welcome refugees now.
Even as the determination is signed, the number of refugees who will be allowed remains capped at the level set by the previous administration. Biden must follow through and expand the resettlement program. Broken promises do not help these refugees. Concrete actions do.
Molly Fee is a doctoral candidate and researcher for refugee resettlement in the Sociology Department at the University of California in Los Angeles.