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Neil Edwards is the volunteer intern for CFR's Africa Program in Washington, DC. He is a master's candidate at the School of International Service at American University and is a returned Peace Corps Rwanda volunteer.
At the World Economic Forum this past January, Mohamed, a Somali national living in Kakuma Refugee Camp located in northwestern Kenya, spoke on behalf of refuges worldwide. He addressed the sobering reality that living in a refugee camp is likely a life-sentence. “It surprises me that money and capital move around the world in seconds, but it takes a refugee decades… for a place to call home.” Mohamed, now twenty-six, emphasized that his over twenty-year wait has prevented him from realizing his dream of higher education. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), out of the 1.2 million refugees worldwide that needed resettlement in 2018, only fifty-five thousand were actually resettled—a mere 4.7 percent of the global need.
Worldwide, there are 70.8 million forcibly displaced people fleeing from conflict, natural disaster, or persecution. Of these, 41.3 million people are internally displaced within their own nation, 25.9 million are living in refugee camps—half of which are under the age of eighteen—and 3.5 million are seeking asylum. Sub-Saharan Africa hosts twenty-six percent of the world’s refugee population. According to UNHCR, the African refugee population grew by 150 percent from 2010 to 2016, with every year seeing an increase. In the coming years, the number of refugees in sub-Saharan Africa is likely to continue increasing based on intensifying violence in the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and terror groups in the Lake Chad basin. There is, therefore, an urgent need to fix the broken refugee system that keeps individuals like Mohamed waiting for resettlement indefinitely. As he said in his address, “We are not animals and we are not criminals. It’s not a crime to flee from your country.”
Historically, the United States has led the world in refugee resettlement. Resettlement is the end goal of refugees; it offers a permanent and stable place of residence. In contrast, refugee camps are meant to be temporary. Since 1980, the United States has accepted three out of the four million refugees who have been resettled worldwide. However, in 2017, the United States resettled fewer refugees than the rest of the world combined—the first time this has happened in U.S. history. From 2016 to 2017, U.S. resettlement of refugees plummeted by one third—from 92,000 to 33,000—the lowest rate since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The number of refugees the U.S. resettled from Africa dropped from 30,000 in 2016 to around 10,000 in 2018. Now, there is even talk that the Trump administration may wholly suspend refugee admission in 2020.
Escalating violence in sub-Saharan Africa has increased the number of refugees and the demand for resettlement to record levels. These numbers will continue to rise and demand urgent attention. Addressing this change through an improved refugee resettlement system requires more resources, not less.