U.N. Official: Biden Plan To Boost Refugee Resettlement 'Sends Important Signal' U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Kelly Clements says she's pleased the U.S. plans to raise the cap on refugees to 125,000 per year. Work is already underway at the U.S.-Mexico border.
NPR logo

U.N. Official: Biden Plan To Boost Refugee Resettlement 'Sends Important Signal'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/973763365/973792054" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
U.N. Official: Biden Plan To Boost Refugee Resettlement 'Sends Important Signal'

U.N. Official: Biden Plan To Boost Refugee Resettlement 'Sends Important Signal'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/973763365/973792054" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Two trend lines have moved in opposite directions over the last four years. One is the number of refugees worldwide. It has been soaring - 26.3 million as of mid-2020. The other is the number of refugees resettled in the U.S. It has plummeted from 85,000 a year at the start of the Trump administration to about 12,000 last year. President Biden wants to reverse that second trend. And here to talk about what that means is the U.N. Refugee Agency's deputy high commissioner, Kelly Clements.

Hi there.

KELLY CLEMENTS: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So Biden says he wants to raise the cap on refugees in the U.S. up to 125,000 per year. Just for comparison, Germany, a country with about a quarter of the U.S. population, took in close to a million refugees in a year back in 2015. So why is Biden's goal of 125,000 significant?

CLEMENTS: Well, Ari, it sends a signal. It sends a very important signal. You started off by talking about the global refugee situation. These are people in need, people in need of this very important form of international protection. It is a lifeline for many. It does literally save lives. We have estimated that there are 1.4 million refugees around the world that need this very important protection tool, a safety valve, if you will. So when the U.S. says, we're back; we want to restart, rebuild an important and robust resettlement program, we are absolutely ecstatic. It sends the world an important message, and it really sets a signal and a tone for engagement and this important way to change people's lives, quite literally.

SHAPIRO: Can you flip the message just by flipping a switch like that, or after four years of the U.S. saying, America first; refugees are dangerous - does that message linger?

CLEMENTS: Well, you know, there is - you know, I've just come from California, actually, in discussions with resettlement agencies. And, well, it will take some time to rebuild this program that is - has been really decimated over the last few years. There is a strong team at the local level, community level, very welcoming communities like San Diego, where I just was, that have strong and important partners that are ready to reengage and ready to rebuild. Some of these resources have been dedicated to other purposes during the intervening period. In other areas, we'll quite literally have to rebuild.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk specifically about the U.S.-Mexico border because am I correct that the 125,000-refugee figure does not include asylum seekers who cross that border?

CLEMENTS: No, they do not.

SHAPIRO: So I understand your U.N. Refugee Agency is playing a role in the Biden administration's effort to unwind the Trump administration's Remain in Mexico program. Tell us about what's happening.

CLEMENTS: Yes. In fact, we were asked by the United States but also by Mexico to engage with regard to what they call the MPP unwind. This is the - a caseload of individuals, families that have been waiting, some for two years. And we had a chance, in fact, a couple of days ago to talk to some who had already crossed the border. There are about 26,000 that we estimate that are in need of this kind of processing, about half of which - actually, over half we have already registered. And by the end of today, we will probably see about a thousand who have crossed into the United States.

SHAPIRO: The Biden administration has left in place a Trump policy that lets the U.S. turn away migrants due to the pandemic. Does that mean people are going to remain stuck living in dangerous conditions in Mexican border cities?

CLEMENTS: Well, you know, Ari, we've seen this in various parts of the world in terms of national authorities or local authorities in some circumstance. Obviously, nations have an obligation to protect health. And there are all kinds of challenges that are involved with this. But you know, we have 70 years of experience working with big health emergencies like Ebola and SARS. And it is possible to both protect health and protect the right for individuals to seek asylum. So this is something, obviously, we would like to see lifted as quickly as possible so people can actually make their claims directly.

SHAPIRO: Kelly Clements is the deputy high commissioner of the U.N.'s Refugee Agency.

Thank you for talking with us again.

CLEMENTS: Thank you so much, Ari.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.