Criminal Justice & the Rule of Law

COVID-19 and the Chance to Reform U.S. Refugee Policy

Sam Denney, Kemal Kirisci
Tuesday, August 18, 2020, 10:07 AM

COVID-19 has exposed the underlying fault lines in societies around the world. Yet by revealing long ignored flaws, it presents a rare chance to reform.

Refugees on a boat crossing the Mediterranean Sea from the Turkish coast to the Greek island of Lesbos in 2016. (Mstyslav Chernov,; CC BY-SA 4.0,

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Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on Order from Chaos.

COVID-19 has exposed the underlying fault lines in societies around the world and in modern globalization. Yet by revealing long ignored flaws, it presents a rare chance to reform.

Unsurprisingly, refugees — the vast majority of whom live deeply precarious lives — have been among the most threatened by the pandemic. A new U.S. administration should seize the opportunity presented by COVID-19 to build a better refugee policy, both for refugees’ benefit and for U.S. national security and strategic interests. With the 70th anniversary of the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees approaching in 2021, now is an opportune time for an update to U.S. refugee policy.

An Erstwhile Beacon

The United States has traditionally welcomed immigrants and refugees. Since 1975, it has accepted more than 3 million refugees from various parts of the world, while more than 430,000 asylum seekershave been granted lawful permanent residence since 1990. The United States played a central role in writing the Geneva Convention and establishing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with a mandate to oversee its implementation. These efforts were foundational for the emerging post-war international order and for addressing the immediate practical problem presented by the massive number of Europeans displaced by World War II. During the Cold War and into the 1990s, this system provided refuge mainly to those fleeing Communist oppression in the Soviet bloc or conflict in places like Vietnam, Iraq, and Yugoslavia.

Today, vibrant refugee communities can be found in cities like Los Angeles, California, Nashville, Tennessee, and St. Louis, Missouri, which host the largest number of Vietnamese, Kurds, and Bosnians in the United States, respectively. A compelling argument can be made that America needs refugees and owes part of its economic success to those who came to its shores seeking shelter from persecution and violence. The arrival of refugees helped to uphold America’s identity as a multicultural nation that accepts all victims of persecution who would come to its shores.

Internationally, overseeing the implementation of the Geneva Convention and the protection of refugees bolstered U.S. leadership of the rules-based international order against its strategic rivals. For all its flaws at home, America’s stewardship of an international consensus on the need to protect and support refugees provided it with an additional moral authority.

A Downward Trend

But in recent years, this picture has changed sharply. The number of refugees has steadily grown as conflicts around the globe have gone increasingly unresolved. According to UNHCR, their numbers have gone up from roughly 10 million a decade ago to 20.4 million today. (This figure does not include 5.6 million Palestinians refugees and 3.6 million Venezuelans “displaced abroad.”) And 77% find themselves in a protracted situation — defined as having remained displaced without a durable solution, in the form of voluntary return to their home countries following the resolution of conflicts, resettlement or local integration, for more than five years. The persistence of conflicts has caused the number of refugees able to return to their homes between 2010 and 2019 to drop to 3.9 million, compared to roughly 10 million between 2000 and 2010 and 15.3 million in the 1990s.

While the causes of these trends are undoubtedly complex, the erosion of a U.S. commitment to and leadership of the international refugee system cannot be discounted. U.S. resettlement numbers have collapsed from nearly 85,000 in 2016 to 30,000 in 2019. It is slated to go down to 18,000 in 2020. In a January 2017 executive order, the Trump administration specifically banned all forms of immigration from several Muslim-majority countries for 90 days and halted the admission of refugees for 120 days. The immigration ban faced numerous challenges in U.S. courts before an amended version was upheld by the Supreme Court in June 2018. The Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, introduced in 2019, have restricted access to the United States for asylum-seekers, who are instead required to apply for asylum from outside the United States, mostly Mexico. This is a practice that contradicts the Geneva Convention.

The Opportunity

As the 2020 presidential election draws near, a key division amongst Democrats who hope to see President Trump leave office in 2021 is between the restorationists, who think things can go back to the way they were before Trump, and the reformists, who see the hurricane of the Trump administration as an opportunity to build back stronger. COVID-19 should render this debate moot with regards to U.S. refugee policy.

The pandemic has forced refugees, who often live in densely populated areas with little access to healthcare and whose economic condition is fragile at best, into a “double emergency.” Given that the vast majority of refugees are hosted by economically and socially precarious developing countries, COVID-19 is likely to push these countries to a breaking point. Already weak countries like Lebanon, which hoststhe largest number of Syrian refugees in proportion to its population (1 in 7), have seen their economies and currencies collapse under the weight of refugees, the pandemic, and bad governance. The recent, massive explosion in Beirut will only serve to exacerbate conditions for refugees.

There are already signs that a post-Trump United States could adopt a more helpful stance on refugees. Presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has promised to rescind the Trump administration’s Muslim ban, restore access to asylum, and increase yearly refugee resettlement quotas to 125,000, a move that would show solidarity with countries hosting large numbers of refugees and likely spur U.S. allies to follow suit. There is also support in Congress for shouldering a greater refugee burden, as seen with Refugee Protection Act proposed in November 2019.

With a definitive end to the COVID-19 pandemic nowhere in sight, the threat facing refugees and the political stability of their host countries calls for the next administration to go beyond simply restoring the traditional U.S. leadership role on refugees. To address the challenge of rebuilding after COVID-19, the United States should endorse the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR).

Adopted in December 2018, the GCR recognizes that traditional durable solutions are under challenge and protracted refugee situations are likely to persist. Against this reality, it advocates that the international community work to improve the self-reliance of refugees and the resilience of their host communities to transform refugees from being a humanitarian burden to a developmental and economic opportunity.

A U.S. leadership role through the GCR would spur other countries to implement one of its most innovative policy ideas: states and the private sector taking a more active role in creating self-reliance opportunities for refugees and their host communities. In particular, the GCR suggests preferential trade arrangements for countries hosting large numbers of refugees. Trade liberalization to support sectors with a high refugee participation could lead to better and more sustainable job opportunities for refugees. The resulting economic growth would also benefit host communities, serve to support social cohesion, and help power already fragile economies coming out of a COVID-19-induced economic recession and collapse in trade and tourism.

A revamped U.S. commitment to helping refugees carries direct benefits for U.S. national security priorities, in particular with respect to the strategic rivalry posed by a rising China.

Firstly, revamping its leadership role in managing refugee resettlement would go a long way in helping America reclaim the moral leadership it has enjoyed in past decades, which enabled it to create unique solutions to problems. America’s support for refugees does more for it in a “battle of ideas” than its military and economic capacity alone: an America that actively protects the less fortunate might more easily win hearts and minds globally while also serving its own national security interests.

Secondly, pairing trade concessions with actions by a host country to support formal livelihood opportunities for refugees will allow the United States to bolster these economies, supporting regional stability in the process. Faced with the challenge of Chinese debt-trap diplomacy, supporting refugees and thus the economies that host them will make these countries more resilient to Chinese influence. A renewed emphasis on human rights through supporting refugees would strengthen the hand of an American administration confronting China on its own human rights abuses.

The devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed deep flaws in countries around the world and endangered the health and livelihoods of millions. To build a better, more democratic, more equitable world after the pandemic, the United States could start by helping refugees, rather than what it can do by merely seeking its own benefit.

Sam Denney is a 2021-2022 German Chancellor Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung. He specializes in transatlantic relations, German domestic and foreign policy, and threats to democracy in Europe. Sam previously worked in the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution as a senior research assistant. He earned an MA in German and European Studies from Georgetown University and a BA in German and European Studies from Vanderbilt University.
Kemal Kirişci is the TÜSİAD senior fellow and director of the Center on the United States and Europe's Turkey Project at Brookings, with an expertise in Turkish foreign policy and migration studies. Within the project, Kirişci runs the Turkey Project Policy Paper series and frequently writes on the latest developments out of Turkey. He is the co-author of "The Consequences of Chaos: Syria's Humanitarian Crisis and the Failure to Protect" (Brookings Institution Press, April 2016), which considers the long-term economic, political, and social implications of Syria's displaced and offers policy recommendations to address the humanitarian crisis.

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