No Refuge: Persecuted Christians Entering US Dwindle to Record Low

Refugee resettlement hit a record low over the past year, with the United States taking in fewer than half the amount permitted under a reduced refugee ceiling of 45,000.

While the number of displaced people and persecuted Christians continues to rise around the globe, US refugee figures have plunged under the Trump administration.

The 2018 totals—just 22,491 refugees in the fiscal year ending September 30—indicate a disturbing trend for advocates, following recent news that the government plans to further restrict the resettlement cap by a third, to 30,000 next year.

Though most of the refugees welcomed over the past year are Christians, the overall drop means far fewer believers are finding refuge in the US than in prior years. In the 2018 fiscal year, 15,748 Christian refugees entered the country, a 36.4 percent decline from the previous year and a 55 percent decline from fiscal year 2016.

The reductions are even more dramatic among Christian refugees escaping persecution for their faith. Only 1,215 Christians were resettled from the 11 countries cited by Open Doors USA as the worst for Christians, down nearly 75 percent from the previous year.

Just 20 believers from Syria, 23 from Iran, and 26 from Iraq were give refuge in the United States in the past year, a huge drop from historic levels despite ongoing risk and conflict in these areas. Many who were told they would be resettled are now stranded in third countries, disallowed from continuing to the US, but unable to return to their homelands for fear of persecution.

The past year was both the worst on record for persecuted Christian refugees and for refugees overall.

Soerens, who provided analysis on resettlement breakdowns drawing from State Department data, says the situation is even worse for other persecuted minorities. Muslim refugees have been kept out of the United States at a much higher rate. Fewer than 3,500 Muslims found refuge in the US in the past year, down 85 percent from 2017 and more than 90 percent from the year before.

For the first year in recent memory, Canada resettled more refugees than the United States, despite having roughly one-ninth of the population.

Surveys this year from the Pew Research Center have found as few as a quarter of white evangelicals believe the US is responsible for accepting refugees, compared to 43 percent of white mainline Protestants, 50 percent of Catholics, and 63 percent of black Protestants (most of whom identify as evangelical).

But vocal evangelical advocates continue to defend refugee admittance and have questioned how the current policy’s direction fits with broader efforts to promote religious freedom.

Yet refugee policy has not reflected those priorities; only 70 Christians from places like Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, and Yemen were resettled in the US in the last fiscal year, compared to more than 3,000 Christians from the region who came in fiscal year 2017. (Some religious freedom advocates believe it is best to support refugees by keeping them close to their homelands.)

“This dismantling of refugee resettlement is really tearing to shreds what people of faith have spent decades building,” Smyers said. “This is them tearing apart what it has taken churches decades to build.”

“To say we’re disappointed is an understatement,” said Chris Palusky, president of Bethany Christian Services.

Caring for refugees is “a Matthew 25 issue,” he says. “We believe that these refugees are ‘the least of these,’ so we’re advocating for what we believe Christ would want us to do.”

Politicians on both sides of the political aisle have joined numerous evangelical leadersin speaking out against the sharp downturn in the country’s resettlement program. Last week, in an editorial in USA Today, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and senator Bob Menendez called the new policy “repugnant” and spoke of the nation’s strong bipartisan history of resettlement as “a point of pride, a reflection of our fundamental values, and a service to our strategic and humanitarian interests.”

The policy shift continues to hurt advocacy and resettlement organizations, forcing layoffs and shutdowns across institutions. World Relief shuttered five offices and laid off 140 staff last year. Caritas, the Catholic relief agency, is joining the scores of resettlement groups closing offices because of a lack of incoming refugees.

Resettlement workers and other agency staff—case workers, legal aids, English teachers—are forced to find other jobs, so even if resettlement numbers rise again, the infrastructure will no longer be there to support it.

Smyers said Church World Service’s numbers of incoming refugees are drastically down. All of the group’s offices have seen staff layoffs and slashed programming.

At Bethany Christian Services, Palusky said international programs are actually on the rise, as are projects related to unaccompanied minors from Central and South America. But refugee programs are shrinking.

The organization anticipated hundreds of new refugees last year in states like Pennsylvania and Michigan but received substantially fewer.

Numerous agency leaders told CT they have more churches asking to help than there are new refugees. “We have to tell them, ‘We don’t have anyone for you to welcome,’” said Smyers.

Palusky also emphasized how communities suffer from slowing refugee entry since he sees their cultural and entrepreneurial contributions to American life. “We’ve seen the benefits of [resettlement] for families and for the community,” he said. “When we push them away, it’s not only a loss for them; it’s a loss for us.”

As the number of refugees entering the country continues its rapid decline, Soerens believes the US is further “forfeiting the moral credibility to diplomatically insist that our allies do more to resettle refugees” and is harming its long-term ability to integrate refugees in the future.

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