Democrats should pledge to stop creating refugees

The Trump administration will be remembered for enacting many policies that exacerbate human suffering, particularly its inhumane handling of immigration and refugees. In addition to packing people into cages at detention centers, tearing children from their mothers, and banning travel to the U.S. from several predominantly Muslim nations, Trump’s team eviscerated the U.S. refugee intake program. This year, it capped intake at a miserly 18,000 refugees (down from 110,000 in the last year of the Obama administration), during a time when more people have been forced to flee their homes than any period since the inception of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program in 1980.

Joe Biden’s campaign website lays out a plan detailing how his administration would seek to “secure our values as a nation of immigrants.” He promises to reverse Trump’s policies, raise the number of refugees the U.S. will resettle to a morally more respectable 125,000, and tackle what he calls “the root causes of migration,” mainly through economic assistance.  

This is a good start. But a future Biden-Harris administration should recognize that U.S. foreign policy has been one of the primary drivers of migration. Leaving aside the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the bombing of Libya and support of the Saudi/UAE-led war in Yemen were catastrophic blunders that displaced and endangered millions of people. If the Democrats really want to help refugees, they should announce at the Democratic National Convention next week that they will stop making more of them. 

To do this, they would need to double down on the party platform’s position of “not impos[ing] regime change on other countries” and commit to refraining from interventionist military or economic policies, including the Democratic Party’s historic infatuation with misplaced sanctions. Comprehensive economic sanctions by the U.S. have exacerbated the humanitarian crises in Venezuela and other countries, driving millions from their home and country, while failing to achieve the stated policy aims of regime change. A Biden administration should pledge to undertake an honest accounting of the humanitarian and policy impacts of economic sanctions.

Suffering from the region’s sustained destabilization, Syria remains the source of more refugees than any other country today, with 6.7 million Syrians displaced across the globe. The threat of continued mass exodus from Syria and neighboring Turkey hangs over Europe. Mitigating the drivers of Syrian displacement requires a fundamental shift in America’s existing approach to the country.   

In the face of futile efforts to spur regime change, including the Obama administration’s half-hearted support for the Syrian opposition, the war has festered and morphed into a prolonged conflict. The U.S. fixation on removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad impeded the battle against America’s real adversary, ISIS, and resulted in the rise of extremism now concentrated in Syria’s Idlib province.  

The Trump administration has done little to improve on this situation, and the looming refugee crisis is set to worsen alongside the threat posed by the unresolved presence of thousands of ISIS fighters and their dependents in and around the Al Houl Camp in Northeast Syria. Preventing the expansion of our adversaries’ interests in Syria requires bold diplomacy, not short-sighted and untenable tactical military moves disguised as “containment.”  

Finally, to minimize the refugee crisis, the Biden-Harris campaign should strongly condemn and seek to weed out systemic corruption in the United States, which often drives reckless U.S. foreign and military policies. Key Members of Congress have close ties to powerful arms corporations. Nearly one in three members on the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee owns stock in weapons contractors. The Democrats should announce a plan to end conflicts of interest by enforcing all members serving on key oversight or budget committees as well as those occupying executive branch roles to divest in military stocks, and to refuse campaign contributions from the defense industry.

Under the Obama administration, the White House approved over $100 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia in support of its war in Yemen. Arms manufacturers successfully lobbied both the White House and Congress to support these sales, which have fueled the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Three million Yemenis have been forced to flee since the start of the war in 2015, and more than 60 percent of Yemenis are acutely food insecure, all while the country is dealing with COVID-19 and a cholera endemic. The United States has taken in just 50 refugees from Yemen since 2015. In 2019, it took in one. 

The DNC platform rightly pledges to end support for this war. And emergency humanitarian assistance, development assistance and refugee intake will all help. But to get to the real roots of many of the world’s refugee crises, the Biden team should look closer to home.  

This article originally appeared in Responsible Statecraft.