Weekly post: Refugee crisis
What the data tells us about the global refugee crisis and how the U.S. can play a role
HELLO THERE FELLOW DATA WARRIORS! 👋📊⚔️
In addition to the Charts of the Week roundup, this newsletter will also feature a weekly deep dive data storytelling post on a specific topic from a member of the community. Today’s post comes from our very own Data Journalist Intern, Emily Irion, a graduate student at UCSD’s School of Global Policy & Strategy. You can follow her data room profile on OpenAxis or on Twitter. As always, each visualization has a backlink to access the chart and explore the dataset with tools for collaboration and crowdsourcing insights!
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 4.9 million refugees have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion began in late February. This is quickly becoming one of the largest refugee crises in recent history. To put this in perspective, within just a few weeks this crisis has become the 5th largest since 1960.
Overall, the UNHCR estimates that there are 26.6 million refugees worldwide as of mid-2021. As the crisis in Ukraine drags on and risks descending into a protracted conflict, these refugee numbers are sure to swell upwards, with neighboring European countries such as Poland (almost 3 million refugees admitted to date) taking the majority of them in so far. As the international community reacts, eyes turn to the United States. Recently, the Biden Administration announced that the U.S. would welcome 100,000 Ukrainian refugees in response to the current conflict. Yet, many insist that this ceiling of 100,000 is not enough. According to WRAPS (Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System), the U.S. has admitted 8,758 refugees this year, with 704 from Ukraine.
This begets the question of whether the United States’ current resettlement infrastructure has the capacity to achieve the 100,000 refugee goal. Well, for context, the total 2022 refugee ceiling is set at 125,000. In comparison, 2021 had the lowest ceiling of admission ever at 15,000. The Biden Administration then revised this number to 62,500. However, the U.S. fell short of both targets and only admitted around 12,000 refugees in 2021. This matters because the federal funding for refugees in the United States is correlated with the number of admissions. Recent years have brought in fewer refugees, decreasing the need for funding. Since the resettlement program relies on partnerships with non-profit agencies, as the funding dried up, so did their resources, and many shut down or cut staff. This decline in admission ceilings, from 2016 to present, resulted in massive backlogs, creating additional pressures on this heavily under-resourced program.
The Biden administration has proposed a significant increase in funding to address some of these capacity and resource constraints. However, the refugee crisis is a part of a more substantial problem. Current global forced displacement is estimated to be 84 million, including refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people. There is a strict and lengthy legal process to becoming a refugee. And although refugee status comes with certain rights, including the freedom to work and access to education, resettlement is not one of them. According to UNHCR, the U.S. resettlement process takes approximately two years. Most are unwilling or unable to wait for this process. According to CBS News “Between February 1 and April 6, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials processed nearly 10,000 Ukrainians who lacked prior permission.” As a result, many displaced people rather seek asylum in the United States, which requires them to be on U.S. soil, over refugee status.
The severity of the Ukraine situation also highlights the double standards in treatment based on where a conflict is occurring. Advocates and experts point out the stark contrast in treatment for those seeking refugee status or asylum from non-white countries. Indeed, a recently released Homeland Security Department memo reveals exemptions to Title 42 for Ukrainians. Title 42 is a controversial policy that began under the Trump Administration. It allows the U.S. to reject migrants as a public health measure to prevent the spread of diseases in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently, President Biden announced his intention to repeal Title 42, with May 23rd set as the expiration date. This is a welcomed policy change for immigration advocates, however it does not gloss over or change the fact that the U.S. has expelled migrants more than 1.7 million times since March 2020.
As climate change and political instability heighten in the future, new humanitarian disasters will invariably continue to occur. Crises present an opportunity to enact new helpful or harmful policies, but they also provide the chance to correct course on ineffective existing ones. There is a clear need to rebuild and expand the U.S. refugee resettlement program. The Ukraine crisis may provide an impetus to do so, and any changes should aim to improve equity in the process.
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