U.N. Official: Biden Plan To Boost Refugee Resettlement 'Sends Important Signal' | WABE 90.1 FM

U.N. Official: Biden Plan To Boost Refugee Resettlement 'Sends Important Signal'

Mar 4, 2021

The number of refugees has soared over the past four years, with more than 26 million refugees worldwide as of mid-2020, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

Yet the number of refugees who have resettled in the U.S. has plummeted to a record low of about 12,000 last year, from 85,000 a year at the start of the Trump administration.

President Biden wants to reverse the trend set by his predecessor, with a pledge to raise the cap on refugees in the U.S. up to 125,000 per year. That number does not include asylum-seekers.

Kelly Clements, U.N. deputy high commissioner for refugees, says Biden's interest in bolstering the country's resettlement program "sends a very important signal" to the international community.

"When the U.S. says 'We're back, we want to restart, rebuild an important and robust resettlement program,' we are absolutely ecstatic," Clements says in an interview with All Things Considered. "It sends the world an important message and it really sets a signal and a tone for engagement and this important way to change people's lives quite literally."

Clements spoke more about what the new administration's pledge means after former President Trump's hard-line policies on refugees, as well as her hope to see Trump's pandemic-era restriction on asylum-seekers overturned.

The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

Can [President Biden] flip the message just by flipping a switch like that? Or after four years of the U.S. saying, "America first," "Refugees are dangerous" — does that message linger?

I've just come from California, actually, and discussions with resettlement agencies. And, while it will take some time to rebuild this program that has been really decimated over the last few years, there is a strong team at the local level, community level — very welcoming communities like San Diego, where I just was — that have strong and important partners that are ready to re-engage and ready to rebuild. Some of these resources have been dedicated to other purposes during the intervening period — in other areas, we'll quite literally have to rebuild.

I understand your U.N. refugee agency is playing a role in the Biden administration's effort to unwind the Trump administration's "Remain in Mexico" program. Tell us about what's happening.

Yes, in fact, we were asked by the United States but also by Mexico to engage with regard to what they call the "MPP unwind" ["MPP" refers to the formal name of the Trump program, Migrant Protection Protocols]. This is a caseload of individuals, families that have been waiting — some for two years. And we had a chance, in fact, a couple of days ago, to talk to some who had already crossed the border.

There are about 26,000 [individuals] that we estimate that are in need of this kind of processing — about half of which, actually over half, we have already registered. And by the end of [Thursday], we will probably see about 1,000 who have crossed into the United States.

The Biden administration has left in place a Trump policy that lets the U.S. turn away migrants due to the pandemic. Does that mean people are going to remain stuck living in dangerous conditions in Mexican border cities?

Obviously, nations have an obligation to protect health. And there are all kinds of challenges that are involved with this. But, you know, we have 70 years of experience working with big health emergencies like Ebola and SARS. And it is possible to both protect health and protect the right for individuals to seek asylum. So this is something obviously we would like to see lifted as quickly as possible so people can actually make their claims directly.

Connor Donevan and Christopher Intagliata produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Two trend lines have moved in opposite directions over the last four years. One is the number of refugees worldwide. It has been soaring - 26.3 million as of mid-2020. The other is the number of refugees resettled in the U.S. It has plummeted from 85,000 a year at the start of the Trump administration to about 12,000 last year. President Biden wants to reverse that second trend. And here to talk about what that means is the U.N. Refugee Agency's deputy high commissioner, Kelly Clements.

Hi there.

KELLY CLEMENTS: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So Biden says he wants to raise the cap on refugees in the U.S. up to 125,000 per year. Just for comparison, Germany, a country with about a quarter of the U.S. population, took in close to a million refugees in a year back in 2015. So why is Biden's goal of 125,000 significant?

CLEMENTS: Well, Ari, it sends a signal. It sends a very important signal. You started off by talking about the global refugee situation. These are people in need, people in need of this very important form of international protection. It is a lifeline for many. It does literally save lives. We have estimated that there are 1.4 million refugees around the world that need this very important protection tool, a safety valve, if you will. So when the U.S. says, we're back; we want to restart, rebuild an important and robust resettlement program, we are absolutely ecstatic. It sends the world an important message, and it really sets a signal and a tone for engagement and this important way to change people's lives, quite literally.

SHAPIRO: Can you flip the message just by flipping a switch like that, or after four years of the U.S. saying, America first; refugees are dangerous - does that message linger?

CLEMENTS: Well, you know, there is - you know, I've just come from California, actually, in discussions with resettlement agencies. And, well, it will take some time to rebuild this program that is - has been really decimated over the last few years. There is a strong team at the local level, community level, very welcoming communities like San Diego, where I just was, that have strong and important partners that are ready to reengage and ready to rebuild. Some of these resources have been dedicated to other purposes during the intervening period. In other areas, we'll quite literally have to rebuild.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk specifically about the U.S.-Mexico border because am I correct that the 125,000-refugee figure does not include asylum seekers who cross that border?

CLEMENTS: No, they do not.

SHAPIRO: So I understand your U.N. Refugee Agency is playing a role in the Biden administration's effort to unwind the Trump administration's Remain in Mexico program. Tell us about what's happening.

CLEMENTS: Yes. In fact, we were asked by the United States but also by Mexico to engage with regard to what they call the MPP unwind. This is the - a caseload of individuals, families that have been waiting, some for two years. And we had a chance, in fact, a couple of days ago to talk to some who had already crossed the border. There are about 26,000 that we estimate that are in need of this kind of processing, about half of which - actually, over half we have already registered. And by the end of today, we will probably see about a thousand who have crossed into the United States.

SHAPIRO: The Biden administration has left in place a Trump policy that lets the U.S. turn away migrants due to the pandemic. Does that mean people are going to remain stuck living in dangerous conditions in Mexican border cities?

CLEMENTS: Well, you know, Ari, we've seen this in various parts of the world in terms of national authorities or local authorities in some circumstance. Obviously, nations have an obligation to protect health. And there are all kinds of challenges that are involved with this. But you know, we have 70 years of experience working with big health emergencies like Ebola and SARS. And it is possible to both protect health and protect the right for individuals to seek asylum. So this is something, obviously, we would like to see lifted as quickly as possible so people can actually make their claims directly.

SHAPIRO: Kelly Clements is the deputy high commissioner of the U.N.'s Refugee Agency.

Thank you for talking with us again.

CLEMENTS: Thank you so much, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.