Under Trump, Christian Refugees Came to US in Greater Proportions – But Far Smaller Numbers

Patrick Goodenough | February 11, 2021 | 4:34am EST
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Refugees in a displaced persons camp in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. (Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)
Refugees in a displaced persons camp in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. (Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)

(CNSNews.com) – The Trump administration’s refugee policies led to an increased proportion of Christians among those resettled in the United States – but because overall refugee numbers were reduced so significantly, far fewer followers of the world’s most persecuted religious faith were resettled during the Trump years than previously, advocates told the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on Wednesday.

Between fiscal year 2016 and fiscal year 2020, the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. from the 50 countries on the Open Doors USA annual list of the world’s worst persecutors of Christians dropped by 83 percent – from 16,714 to 2,811 – Jenny Yang, senior vice president of advocacy and policy at World Relief, told a USCIRF hearing on “Refugees Fleeing Religious Persecution.”

From two countries that have historically accounted for large number of Christian refugees, Iraq and Burma, the number of Christian refugees resettled in the U.S. dropped between FY 2016 and FY 2020 by 92 percent and 81 percent respectively, she said. World Relief is the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals.

(The annual Open Doors watchlist, described as “countries where it is most dangerous to follow Jesus” is dominated by Islamic countries. Since 2005 at least half, and as many as nine, of the ten worst countries listed each year were Islamic. On this year’s list, the top ten are North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Yemen, Iran, Nigeria, and India, Six of the ten are Islamic states, and in a seventh, Nigeria, Muslims account for about 53 percent of the population.)

Adherents of faiths other than Christianity face persecution too. Between FY 2016 and FY 2020, the number of Yezidi refugees from Iraq and Syria admitted to the U.S. dropped by 96 percent, the number of persecuted Muslims, mostly Rohingya, from Burma by 86 percent, and the number of persecuted Jews from Iran by 100 percent, Yang said.

During the Obama administration, refugee admission numbers ranged from a high of 84,994 in FY 2016 to a low of 56,424 in FY 2011. Under President Trump admission numbers were reduced significantly, and ranged from a high of 30,000 in FY 2019 to a low of 11,814 in FY 2020.

Nigerians who have fled fighting between the army and Boko Haram terrorists shelter at a UNHCR camp on the Nigeria-Cameroon border. (Photo by Reinnier Kaze/AFP via Getty Images)
Nigerians who have fled fighting between the army and Boko Haram terrorists shelter at a UNHCR camp on the Nigeria-Cameroon border. (Photo by Reinnier Kaze/AFP via Getty Images)

President Biden is expected to increase the admission ceiling for the current fiscal year, to around 62,500 (adjusting the record-low 15,000 cap set by President Trump last fall) and has also announced a ceiling of 125,000 admissions for the next fiscal year, the highest in three decades. The move has been applauded by refugee resettlement agencies, and by the USCIRF, a bipartisan statutory body that advises the executive and legislative branches.

Given the state of religious persecution worldwide, and especially persecution targeting Christians, Yazidis and other minorities in the Middle East, some Republican lawmakers during the Obama era pressed for non-Muslim minorities to be prioritized among applicants for refugee status. Obama declined to do so, rejecting what he said would amount to a “religious test” in the refugee admission process.

During most of the Obama administration, Christians outnumbered Muslims – although not by large margins – among the refugee admissions.

That changed in the last full fiscal year of the Obama administration, when 44.5 percent of the 84,994 refugees resettled in the U.S. were Christians and 45.7 percent were Muslims.

Over the following three years, the ratio shifted markedly the other way again, even as the overall admission numbers dropped:

FY 2017 – 47.2 percent Christians, 42.1 percent Muslims.

FY 2018 – 71.2 percent Christians, 15.5 percent Muslims.

FY 2019 – 79.2 percent Christians, 16.5 percent Muslims.

“Under President Trump, the percentage of refugees resettled to the United States who were Christian soared from 44 percent in 2016 to 79 percent in 2019,” noted Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and a former USCIRF staffer.

“But the actual number of Christians resettled to the United States plummeted over 36 percent, from 37,521 to 23,754,” he said. “I mention this to underscore that the best way to help more refugees who have fled religious persecution is to help more refugees, not to replace one form of discrimination with another.”

The FY 2020 refugee admissions program introduced a new category of prioritized admissions, for refugees “who have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of religion,” or to those falling in a category listed in the Lautenberg Amendment – which granted priority status to Soviet Jews, Vietnamese nationals and others minorities seeking refuge – and its 2004 extension, which covers persecuted religious minorities in Iran.

For that fiscal year, Trump reserved 22 percent of the total refugee admission places for those religious persecution, and in the end 41 percent of the total admissions (4,859 out of a total 11,814) were admitted under that category.

The religious persecution category was retained for FY 2021, and in the first quarter – Oct. 1, 2020-Jan. 31, 2021 – 56 percent of those admitted (786 out of a total 1,403) fell under that category.

On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of 12 senators reintroduced a bill designed to make it easier for “Hong Kongers who participated peacefully in the protest movement [under Beijing’s national security laws and policies] and have a well-founded fear of persecution” to obtain U.S. refugee status.

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