Since 1980, more than 3 million refugees have been resettled to the U.S. From refugees fleeing Communist countries in the 1980s, to those who faced genocide and ethnic violence in the Balkans and Africa in the 1990s, and now those who have been persecuted by ISIS in the Middle East — the U.S. resettlement program provided rays of hope to the oppressed across the globe. 

For nearly four decades, one country — the United States — stood at the forefront of resettlement for refugees. The U.S. was invested heavily in resettlement on a bipartisan basis up until the Trump administration. The work conducted over decades and administrations to improve and expand resettlement capacity and infrastructure is in danger as the U.S. turns its back on the very program it promoted for decades. 

The Trump administration’s dramatic reduction in resettlement opportunities in recent years leaves a void in the international protection regime that will be incredibly difficult to fill, and the implications will be felt globally. 

When I was with the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the U.S. regularly encouraged us to do more to promote resettlement, and in particular to encourage more countries to start resettlement programs. The number of resettlement countries grew through patient engagement year after year by UNHCR and the U.S. and other leading nations. 

Last year, 28 countries resettled refugees. As recently as the early 2000s, the number of resettlement countries was less than half of that. France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and other EU partners established or substantially increased resettlement programs. Outside of the EU, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay joined the ranks of resettlement countries. 

A constant during this effort to expand resettlement was the steadfast example and leadership of the U.S. With American leadership, the expanded group of resettlement countries worked together to broaden the reach of resettlement. Communication and cooperation improved among resettlement countries through regular meetings and operational coordination.  

The reality is that resettlement is quite rare. In my years working with refugees, I think the most common misconception I ran into was that most refugees are resettled. The truth is, a refugee has less than a 1 percent chance of being resettled. Resettlement is reserved for a tiny fraction of these people, those least likely to survive the long wait in camps or urban areas. It is a small number, but the move is life-saving for those in greatest peril. Only the most vulnerable refugees are resettled, and the U.S. slashing its program makes the slim chance of resettlement for the most needy even slimmer. 

The benefits from resettlement, however, can extend beyond individuals fortunate enough to be resettled. Resettlement countries working together have been able to influence conditions in the countries of first refuge, or “host countries”: strengthening security, advancing rights for refugees, keeping borders open for those fleeing, and discouraging irregular movements out of the country. When resettlement countries voluntarily take on part of the refugee burden through resettlement, the significance of that interest is not lost on host countries.

We have learned over the years that when there is no possibility of resettlement, desperate refugees often move on their own to seek protection, leading to dangerous and disruptive migration flows.   This is why one of the main principles of resettlement since the 1990s has been to make resettlement available to refugees who need it, regardless of location. This capacity, built slowly over decades, is in imminent peril without a robust and responsive U.S. resettlement program.  

The downward spiral of the U.S. resettlement program since 2016 threatens to destroy the hard-won gains to expand and improve resettlement made by five different U.S. administrations over the last four decades. The drastic U.S. cuts over the last two years have already left global resettlement badly bruised; worldwide resettlement numbers have fallen in tandem with the shrinkage of the U.S. program. The projected decrease in refugee slots for 2020 to the lowest number since the modern program was created — just 18,000 — will exacerbate this already difficult situation.

Now Canada, not the U.S., is projected to be the largest resettlement country in the world. Considering Canada is a country one-tenth the size of the U.S. gives you a sense of how incommensurate the U.S resettlement ceiling is compared to capacity. However, even with Canada doing more than ever, that still won’t compensate the loss of tens of thousands of U.S resettlement places. 

Refugees around the world, host countries, and other resettlement countries will continue to watch closely what the U.S. does. If the U.S. abandons the resettlement of refugee populations it may be seen as a signal that these refugees are no longer of concern, putting those refugees’ protection at greater risk. 

Over the last 40 years, in dozens of refugee crises, the U.S. resettlement program has been an essential tool in the world’s humanitarian toolbox. To again lower resettlement ceilings — because of false perceptions, or for real but readily resolvable issues — is a tragedy for all those refugees whose lives depend on it either directly or indirectly. 

As the U.S. resettlement program retreats, it leaves voids that cannot be filled. No other country has the resources, expertise, and reach to respond to resettlement needs worldwide. And no country is better positioned, more experienced, or more capable at making resettlement work than the U.S.

With the number of refugees at record levels, there has never been a time when solutions for refugees at risk, such as resettlement, have been needed more.   

Larry Yungk is a former Senior Resettlement Officer at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He now serves on the Church World Service (CWS) Advisory Committee and is an adjunct fellow at the Niskanen Center.