President Joe Biden on Thursday announced his intention to massively increase the cap on annual refugee admissions to the US, which fell to a historical low under Donald Trump.
In line with a campaign promise, Biden said he would set at 125,000 the cap on admissions as part of the country’s refugee resettlement programme, against the current 15,000.
“We offered safe havens for those fleeing violence or persecution” in previous years, when America’s “moral leadership on refugee issues” encouraged other nations to open their doors as well, Biden said.
“So today I’m approving an executive order to begin the hard work of restoring our refugee admissions programme to help meet the unprecedented global need,” he added.
“It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged, but that’s precisely what we’re going to do.”
The US has an extensive history of welcoming refugees and is one of the world’s largest resettlement nations.
But after nearly 79,000 refugees headed to US shores in 2016, the numbers plunged, with just 6,740 arriving in 2020, according to resettlement data by the United Nations refugee agency.
The executive order “will raise refugee admissions back up to 125,000 persons for the first full fiscal year of the Biden/Harris administration”, which begins Oct 1, the president said.
Biden’s announcement earned swift praise from UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, who said it would send a compelling message to other countries to follow suit.
“The action today by President Biden will save lives. It’s that simple,” Grandi said in a statement, adding that the expansion shows that “strength is rooted in compassion”.
He added that despite the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, which has left more than 2.2 million people dead worldwide, “we remind countries of the life-threatening circumstances that refugees face and encourage them to continue to expand their resettlement programs.”
Biden said he would direct the State Department, where on Thursday he delivered his maiden foreign policy speech as president, to consult with Congress about making a “downpayment” for raising the refugee cap as soon as possible.
The UN estimates that there are 25.9 million refugees worldwide, most of whom are hosted in developing countries.