This blog post is based on a conversation with Rachel Fabi, PhD, a Practical Ethics a co-investigator on the project: Determining the Number of Refugees to be Resettled in the United States: An Ethical and Human Rights Analysis.


By Amelia Hood


One year ago, President Trump dramatically reduced the number of refugees that would be allowed to enter the United States in 2018. Following the unprecedented 110,000-person ceiling set by President Obama for 2017, Trump lowered the number to 45,000. This marks the first time in history that the United States is not the leader in refugee resettlement—the first year we’ve accepted fewer than half the world’s refugees. This comes at a time when there are more refugees and internally displaced people than ever before (about 25 million). President Trump recently announced the ceiling for his second year in office: 30,000.


The process of determining the number of refugees to be resettled in the United States neither begins nor ends with the President. The UNHCR, the United Nations’ Refugee Agency, determines how many refugees there are in the world. The United States’ Department of State takes that number into consideration and each year, suggests a number of refugees to accept to the President. With the President’s approval, the number is then approved by Congress.


Investigators on the project Determining the Number of Refugees to be Resettled in the United States: An Ethical and Human Rights Analysis were awarded funding by the JHU Exploration of Practical Ethics Program to analyze both policy and ethical questions about the criteria used to determine the number of refugees admitted to the United States each year. The investigators, led by Leonard Rubenstein, JD, interviewed various stakeholders and experts who are deeply familiar with the process: past and present members of the State Department, congressional staff, think tanks on both sides of the political aisle, as well as those involved with the actual resettlement process including NGOs and domestic and international refugee bureaus.


In these interviews, respondents cited many prudential reasons for resettling refugees. Taking in refugees can help to advance US foreign policy goals. It also helps to maintain the US’ influence and stature as a world leader. Some cited the costs and benefits of resettling refugees, who tend to make a net-positive contribution to the US economy.


Respondents also gave moral reasons for resettling refugees. Operating within the framework of human rights, powerful countries, like the United States, are obligated to help those whose rights are endangered or violated. Others cited the moral importance of diversity, and America’s identity as a nation of immigrants.


One major finding of this project is that both of these categories of reasons support a higher number of refugees to be resettled than the ceiling President Trump has set.   Moral obligations based on humanitarianism, a duty to repair, and the political legitimacy of the international order can be used to inform refugee policy and provide a sound moral as well as policy basis for determining the number of refugees to be admitted.  It would result in a far higher number of refugees resettled in the United States.


Through scholarly publications, investigators hope to show both the diversity of values that exists in the process of determining this number and that agreement is possible.  They also hope to guide the thinking motivating the process itself, as well as the ethical and practical considerations supporting it, through the creation of a white paper and ethical framework.


Drs. Rubenstein, Fabi, and the rest of the team will present their findings and talk more about the ethics of determining refugee resettlement at the Practical Ethics Symposium on November 14 in Feinstone Hall at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. The Symposium will feature presentations from all of the 2018 awardees of the JHU Exploration of Practical Ethics Program. Follow this link for more information and to RSVP to the Symposium.


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Amelia Hood

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