November 1, 2017

Trump imposes stricter refugee controls as he wrestles with travel bans

By Safya Khan-Ruf, journalist

President Trump’s latest executive order has resumed the United States refugee programme, toughening barriers for refugees entering the US from 11 separate countries.

The decision to allow refugees to enter the US was announced last Tuesday, as the 120-day travel ban came to an end.

Trump’s executive order, which led to the banning of refugees for four months, included banning citizens from some Muslim-majority countries. This was blocked by states such as Hawaii and Maryland, and led to heavy criticism within the US and overseas as well.  

While the travel ban has been repeatedly overturned by the courts, the temporary refugee restrictions had been left in place. Activists and rights groups have criticized Trump’s decision to toughen measures on refugees from specific countries.

“High Risk”

Applicants from the 11 countries which have been labeled as “high-risk” will be restricted to a 90-day review period and processed with a delay, according to the administration.

While the White House has yet to release details of these 11 countries, The Atlantic writes that it has confirmed with two officials – one from the administration and the other from an advocacy group – that the countries involved are Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. All but two are Muslim-majority countries.

The new security measures will also allow US immigration officials to collect additional data on asylum seekers, such as the name of family members and previous workplaces.

A memo obtained by Reuters stated that the government review would seek “to determine what additional safeguards, if any, were necessary to ensure that the admission of refugees from these countries of concern does not pose a threat to the security and welfare of the United States”.

While running for president, Trump had promised to drastically reduce the number of refugee admissions for reasons of national security.

“[Hillary Clinton’s] plan will import generations of terrorism, extremism, and radicalism into your schools and throughout your communities,” said Trump during the presidential campaign at a rally in Minneapolis, Minnesota, two days before the election. “When I’m elected president, we will suspend the Syrian refugee program and we will keep radical Islamic terrorists the hell out of our country.”

Last month, Trump announced the lowest cap on refugee resettlements ever set by a US president, with 45,000 refugees allowed in as opposed to President Obama’s increased cap of 110,000.

Trump and Immigration

Before the ban was enacted, screening was in place for most adult male nationals from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen, as well as any Palestinians living in those countries.

This month, a US district judge temporarily halted a separate executive order that would have banned immigrants from Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen just hours before it was to be implemented.

This is the third iteration of Trump’s attempt to halt travel from certain nations due to “national security” reasons.

The first of Trump’s travel bans was ordered on 27 Jan and was called “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States.” It aimed to suspend the entry of immigrant and nonimmigrant people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days.

“Since 9/11, no-one has been killed in this country in a terrorist attack by anyone who emigrated from any of the seven countries,” said William C. Banks, director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University College of Law.

The Justice Department has also urged a federal appeals court to lift the Hawaii federal judge’s blockade of President Trump’s newest travel ban.

The BBC has revealed emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act that showed the UK government’s alarm over the impact of Trump’s travel ban on UK citizens and on UK national security.

In one email, the Home Office’s international director, Richard Clarke, discussed “potential UK activism/adverse reaction” in response to the travel ban with officials at the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism.

The emails also showed the Foreign Office struggling with the weight of communications from British politicians after Trump’s executive order.

One official proposed an internal government warning system to monitor and react to decisions made by Trump to avoid getting caught out by decisions made by the US president “just as London is going to sleep”. This was rejected by Whitehall.

When Trump first pushed the travel ban, airports descended into chaos: officials were left confused as to how to enforce the order, lawyers scrambled to help those caught in the crossfire and politicians streamed in to express their disapproval.

While the mayhem has reduced, criticism of the different versions of the travel ban has not abated, both in the US and abroad.

In Iran, President Hassan Rouhani dismissed Trump as a political novice and criticised his immigration policies. UN human rights experts warned that asylum seekers could face torture if refused entry and the Pope called for more openness to other cultures.  

The decision to target 11 countries with more delays and obstructive procedures is unlikely to allay criticism.