UNITED NATIONS — The plight of refugees was center stage at the United Nations in 2016, as dozens of countries attending a U.S.-led summit pledged to admit many more people.
Two years later, the optimism born of that summit has been replaced by bitterness and uncertainty as the number of refugees worldwide has soared and far fewer are being resettled in other countries. Nations hosting millions of refugees from their neighbors said they had been let down by the world’s richest countries and were facing serious problems as a result.
“Unfortunately, the heavy burden of humanitarian consequences of the Syrian crisis has been left on Turkey’s shoulders,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mehmet Cavusoglu, estimating that his country has spent $32 billion feeding, sheltering and educating refugees. “Commitments have not been fulfilled. Our calls for more burden and responsibility sharing fell on deaf ears.”
The Trump administration has slashed the maximum number of refugees it will let in next year to less than a third of what it was during the Obama administration. This year, the United States will admit about 21,000 refugees, fewer than the ceiling of 45,000. Next year’s cap of 30,000 may not be reached, either, as the administration says it will focus on processing a backlog of 800,000 asylum seekers already in the country provisionally.
The U.N. General Assembly will vote on the Global Compact on Refugees in December, the U.N. refugee agency said. The agreement is rooted in the premise that refugees are the world’s responsibility and eventually should be resettled. While the compact mentions increasing refugee access to other countries, it focuses largely on encouraging countries, corporations and institutions like the World Bank to provide more humanitarian aid to host nations struggling with the influxes.
The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, said Monday that the United States would donate an additional $185 million to help Rohingya Muslims displaced by a military crackdown in Myanmar, with $156 million earmarked for refugees and host communities in Bangladesh. The donation brings U.S. aid in the crisis to $389 million this year, but Haley cautioned that U.S. generosity was not bottomless.
“While the U.S. is generous, we’re going to be generous to those that share our values, generous to those that want to work with us and not those that try and stop the U.S. or say they hate America and are counterproductive,” she said.
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said her country has taken care of more than 1 million traumatized Rohingya, a crushing burden.
“The magnitude of the problem has caused serious challenges for us,” she said at the U.N. meeting on the global compact. “The diversion of resources for the Rohingya has taken a toll on society, the environment and the economy.”
Among the diplomats and leaders attending, there was a sense of exhaustion over the continuing waves of migrants who, as Cavusoglu put it, have turned the Mediterranean Sea into a “graveyard of desperate people.”
Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell said some refugee crises have been forgotten, subsumed in newer situations like the flow of people from Venezuela and Nicaragua.
“We have boats of refugees coming by water into Europe, seeking asylum,” he said. “There are more and more of them. More than our administrative capabilities.”
Haley, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis all favored maintaining the U.S. refugee ceiling at the current level, according to U.S. officials who have seen cables summarizing their arguments.
Critics say the United States is abandoning its leadership role on refugee issues under the Trump administration’s “America First” policy. Historically, the United States has taken in more refugees than the rest of the world combined. Now, it is on the verge of being overtaken by Canada.
More than 1 million refugees are considered eligible for resettlement in another country. All together, the countries of the world have set aside just 70,000 spaces for them this year. Fewer than three dozen countries accept refugees.
“How can we be going around the world and urging governments like Jordan and Turkey and Uganda to provide safety to literally millions of refugees, when we turn around and announce we’re going resettle the smallest number in the history of the refugee program?” said Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International. “It’s not enough to say we take in more than others.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the U.N. General Assembly would vote on the Global Compact on Refugees this week. The U.N. refugee agency said the vote will take place in December.