Over the past year, America has initiated not one—but two—historic responses to refugee crises. Through Operation Allies Welcome, the United States welcomed more than 76,000 Afghans fleeing regime change and violence. Through the Uniting for Ukraine initiative, more than 100,000 Americans have signed up to sponsor Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s aggression. While there is still work to be done, the U.S. response to displacement from Afghanistan and Ukraine has shown that when it comes to offering refuge to the persecuted, America is back.
With more than 100 million people displaced around the world, Ukraine and Afghanistan will not be the last in need of humanitarian assistance and support. America’s refreshed commitment to welcoming the displaced must also remain constant to reduce the scale of human suffering. President Joe Biden recently set a goal of admitting 125,000 refugees to the U.S. over the course of the year, an ambitious echo of last year’s commitment. However—over the last year—the United States came nowhere close to meeting that goal, admitting almost 20,000 individuals through the formal refugee admissions program. America needs to do better. If the past year teaches us anything, it’s that America can—and should.
America’s robust response to the refugee crises in the last year was the result of quick thinking and a collaborative approach that came despite programmatic constraints. The traditional refugee admissions program in the U.S. was created over 40 years ago, which has led to challenges due to decades-old inefficiencies and the prior administration’s historic decrease in admissions. The call to respond to the most recent crises was a needed jumpstart for reform and modernization that led to innovations and pilot programs previously thought improbable—both across government and inclusive of external experts and the private sector. Where many refugees waited years—sometimes, even decades—for an answer on whether they could be admitted to the U.S., the government innovated to streamline and speed up refugee processing for Afghans. While ensuring procedural integrity, this new model could be further developed to benefit more refugees so displaced people can move out of camps and into their forever homes more quickly.
The U.S. government also focused on integrating technology. With the exploration of tech capabilities, the Biden administration’s Ukraine refugee program welcomed more than 50,000 people in just over four months. These learnings should be a best practice in resettlement—not the result of ad-hoc creativity amid a crisis. If these innovations—among others—can be institutionalized, the U.S. may have a shot at meeting its 2023 resettlement goal.
Most importantly, the success of these efforts included collaboration with the private sector, which provided vital community connections and helped recruit volunteers. Companies like Verizon have helped pair volunteer needs with the skills of their employees who are willing to help. Others provided resources for housing, which means partnerships like these must remain a part of the equation as we think about the future of refugee admissions—a big tent approach that ensures our new refugee neighbors are fully supported as they restart their lives.
America must fulfill its commitment to refugees. Those awaiting decisions from the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program should have the opportunity to be one of 125,000 in the next year, as promised—not one of almost 20,000. The refugee program should be a boon of hope—or, at the very least, a fair shot at a new life for those fleeing persecution—not an additional source of uncertainty, delay, or despair. The Biden administration is moving in the right direction with efforts to speed up responsiveness to refugee applicants and surging staffing to process people faster, which should result in quicker decisions that provide transparency.
Some may argue that a decades-long admissions process is necessary to ensure rigorous vetting; however, a long process is not necessarily a good process. With additional innovations and investments, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program can continue to safeguard national security while honoring the urgent need for safety experienced by those fleeing persecution.
Over the past year, America has welcomed tens of thousands of families in search of safety outside of the Refugee Admissions Program. This year, America should welcome the 125,000 refugees set in President Biden’s goal. The Refugee Admissions Program ensures that the American will to welcome outlasts crisis coverage, delivering on promises of sanctuary made to Syrian 10-year-olds who have known nothing but war alongside those made to the newly displaced. The Refugee Admissions Program was built to do both—to provide durable refugee solutions for those fleeing decades-old conflict and crises to come.
The U.S. has a bold admissions goal for 2023; the standard is set. The goal is both a test of American integrity and American capability. The International Rescue Committee believes America is up to the test and stands ready to help—will the United States rise to meet the challenge?
Hans Van de Weerd is the International Rescue Committee’s senior vice president of resettlement, asylum, and integration. Prior to his current role, Hans was the executive director of the International Rescue Committee’s office in Northern California. Before joining the IRC in 2012, Hans was a general director for Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF)/Doctors without Borders, where his work included leading a campaign for access to essential medicines and directing country programs in India and Iraq. He began his career in the humanitarian field in 2002 at ZOA Refugee Care, where he was program director for Afghanistan.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
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