America is on track to admit the fewest refugees in four decades

DURING the Iraq war, Suleiman’s family worked closely with the American army in Mosul, as interpreters. When Islamic State took the city over—and its fighters began driving around the city to search for them—they fled east to Erbil, before IS came there, too. Suleiman (not his real name) is now in Amman, Jordan, waiting to hear about his long-stalled refugee case. Without a work permit, he is running out of cash. “Someone needs to tell me whether to go to jail, go to hell, or go to the United States,” he says.

For Iraqis seeking to flee to America as refugees, Suleiman’s story is a typical one. In his first week in office, Donald Trump hastily signed a travel ban, suspending all refugee admissions for 120 days, which plunged travellers’ plans into chaos and triggered mass protests. The travel ban has been withdrawn and resuscitated several times in response to legal challenges. Its third incarnation, which is still in effect, will be challenged before the Supreme Court next week. It has already had a drastic impact on refugee admissions.

In fiscal year 2018, the first one completely governed by the Trump administration, America is on track to resettle only 20,800 refugees according to The Economist’s calculations—a 61% reduction from the previous year, and the fewest since 1980, when the modern system of admissions was established (see chart). Those trying to flee from Syria, which America, along with Britain and France, recently bombed to protest against a chemical-weapons attack, are having an even tougher time. Whereas 6,557 were admitted in 2017, only 44 have been in 2018. Admissions from Iraq, Somalia and Iran have declined by similarly steep margins.

During his campaign, Mr Trump proposed a “complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”. He appears to be working steadily towards that goal. From 2013 to 2017, Muslims made up 41% of admitted refugees. But more than halfway through the current fiscal year, they make up just 17%. Beleaguered religious minorities from Muslim countries, such as Iranian Bahais and Iraqi Yazidis, have also been harmed by the policy change, facing admission declines of 98%. Admissions of Christians, which were roughly equal to those of Muslims in previous years, have now surged to 58% of all incoming refugees.

The professed reason for the decline in admissions is to protect national security through, as Mr Trump terms it, “extreme vetting”. The additional measures have been kept vague, to avoid giving “our playbook to our enemies” in the words of one official. Under Barack Obama’s administration American screening was already among the toughest in the world, requiring interviews, continuous background checks, fingerprinting and iris scans. For some applicants, the process could take over two years to complete. Under Mr Trump’s administration, the process has got more extreme still.

These checks appear to be effective. A recent study by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank, found that the rate of vetting failure, when a person with terrorist sympathies is allowed into America and goes on to commit an attack, is vanishingly small: one in 29m. The study also found that the chance of an American dying at the hands of an improperly admitted terrorist was one in 328m.

Bureaucratic tweaks are also slowing the flow of refugees. To be admitted, a refugee applicant must be screened in person by agents from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). But the DHS has been reassigning agents who conduct these interviews and has also reduced foreign trips to carry out such screenings, leaving many applicants in limbo. Medical and background checks expire after a set time, prompting some to restart the lengthy process. “Even without the travel ban, there are many, many ways to throw sand into the gears to keep the refugee pipeline from moving,” says Bill Frelick, director of the refugee programme at Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group.

Under American law, the executive branch has nearly complete authority over refugee policy. With minimal involvement from Congress, the president can set a cap on the annual number of refugees admitted. Mr Trump, for example, has set this cap to 45,000—the lowest ever—though the actual number will be less than half that. So long as the White House does not articulate a policy of explicit exclusion, the chances of a successful court challenge are low. “They’ve clearly found a legal way to enforce the Muslim ban,” says Mark Hetfield, the president of HIAS, a refugee-resettlement agency. “They’ve realised that they can turn up the security vetting and keep everyone out.”

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