When US President Donald Trump announced an annual refugee admissions ceiling of 15,000 for fiscal year 2021 (FY21), outraged refugee rights advocates lamented the wholesale dismantling of a program that had rescued millions of refugees since the 1975 fall of Saigon. In May, President Joe Biden revised the FY21 admissions cap to 62,500, saying this would “remove any lingering doubt in the minds of refugees around the world who have suffered so much, and who are anxiously waiting for their new lives to begin.”
But the numbers are in, and doubts remain.
The United States admitted 11,411 refugees in FY21, which ended on September 30, not even close to hitting Trump’s meager ceiling. More than 51,000 places that could have been used to save lives and restore hope were lost forever.
It’s true that Trump decimated the refugee resettlement infrastructure, and the Biden administration could not be expected to rebuild it in a day. To its credit, the administration resettled 1,151 refugees in the final month of the fiscal year compared to the first month, October 2020, when the Trump administration resettled just one refugee. But that number compares to more than 7,000 a month resettled in the last year of the Obama administration, or even about 5,000 per month in the last year of the George W. Bush administration.
But this is not simply about numbers. These are people whose lives are on the line.
Last week, Mohib Ullah, a Rohingya refugee rights activist from Myanmar whom I met when visiting the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, in 2018, was killed by unidentified gunmen. In the months before his death, he sent letters to Bangladeshi authorities documenting the escalating death threats against him and seeking protection. For naught. Now, I am receiving messages like this one from other refugee activists I have worked with:
A second not safe here in camps. Very bad. Plz move from camp outside to a safe. … They killing one by one activists and leader. Their gangs everywhere. Plz move to me with my family any place... Plz last word to move from the camp. No guarantee and no secure life. They will kill one by one.
Refugee resettlement saves lives. Every refugee resettlement place that goes unused is another person whose life remains at risk.