WASHINGTON (AFP): President Joe Biden’s administration on Thursday launched a program to encourage ordinary Americans to sponsor refugees as admissions languish despite record displacement around the world.
In what he billed as the biggest innovation in US refugee resettlement in four decades, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the new Welcome Corps would aim to ask 10,000 Americans in its first year to offer a hand to new refugees.
“By launching the Welcome Corps, we build on a proud tradition of providing refuge and demonstrate the spirit and generosity of the American people as we commit to welcoming refugees in need of our support,” said Blinken, long known for his advocacy for refugees.
US citizens or permanent residents in groups of five or more can sponsor refugees by helping them with basics such as winter clothing, furniture and security deposits for housing as the new Americans seek work.
Each circle of sponsors must demonstrate that it can provide a minimum of $2,275 in support per refugee. The circles will not be compensated.
The Welcome Corps is modeled after a successful program in neighboring Canada as well as narrower initiatives in the United States for people fleeing Ukraine and Afghanistan, a US official said.
Biden has set a goal of allowing 125,000 refugees a year, reversing drastic cuts by previous president Donald Trump, who made opposition to non-Western immigration a signature issue.
The Biden cap is in addition to Ukrainians and Afghans who can come to the United States under separate programs.
But only 6,750 refugees were resettled in the first quarter of the current fiscal year, due to long delays in processing and verification of claims.
Biden recently also gave the green-light for border guards to turn back migrants at the Mexican border after coming under political pressure over rising numbers of undocumented Central Americans, Haitians and Venezuelans.
– Speeding up refugees –
Refugee advocates including religious groups welcomed the initiative and businesses including Airbnb promised to offer support through the Welcome Corps.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, praised the Biden administration’s “forward-thinking approach” but cautioned that “the ability to resettle refugees domestically has not been the fundamental challenge.”
“The Biden administration must prioritize the streamlining of refugee admissions, which remain regrettably low this fiscal year,” she said in a statement.
“Without urgent action to increase efficiency, it risks letting the compassion of individual sponsors and the expertise of professional refugee resettlement organizations go to waste.”
Julieta Valls Noyes, the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, acknowledged that admissions were “not where we would like them to be.”
But she called the quarterly figures a “lagging indicator” and said that US authorities have completed 20,000 interviews overseas.
“We expect that those people should be hitting our country within the next few months,” she told reporters.
Calling refugees “the most vetted individuals to enter this country,” Noyes said the United States was reaching out to the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations as it clears a backlog.
In addition to establishing Welcome Corps, “we’re doing a lot of work with our traditional resettlement agency partners to try and speed up processing while maintaining the integrity and the security of the program,” she said.
A record of more than 100 million people are displaced worldwide, according to UN figures, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine creating a new flow of refugees to add to crises including Afghanistan, Venezuela, Myanmar and Burkina Faso.
A surge in refugees over the past decade from war-ravaged Syria led to the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of people in Europe but also a political backlash.
Turkey is host to the largest number of refugees at 3.7 million, mostly from Syria, followed by Venezuela’s neighbour Colombia and then Germany, according to the UN refugee agency.