On September 25, the State Department announced that the Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System (WRAPS) – the central data portal on U.S. refugee admissions – would no longer share select reports after October 9, bringing an end to the main source of refugee admissions data for the public. Before the change, this platform included refugee data on religious identity, language, state arrivals, and Afghan and Iraqi-specific Special Immigrant Visa arrivals. This data is no longer available on WRAPS, and it is unlikely that it will be included on the new platform in 2021.
This change is concerning, and the State Department must be more transparent about why specific information has become unavailable and why the changes were made with limited public notice. Going forward, the department should continue releasing relevant information in consultation with refugee resettlement stakeholders.
The Refugee Processing Center (RPC) that runs WRAPS is operated by the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM). WRAPS is used to process and track U.S. refugee admissions and provide “greater flexibility, efficiency, and accountability to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.” Without access to refugee admissions data, however, accountability will become next to impossible.
A spokesperson for the department explained that the change was made to address privacy concerns and transition to a new, more secure information technology system, START, which is expected to be available in December 2021. This creates a one-year gap in information availability, on the heels of four years of rapid policy changes, increased politicization of refugee resettlement, and the weakest refugee admissions levels in history. The reduction in available data, combined with the one-year hiatus in interactive reporting, will limit policymakers’ and advocates’ capacity to respond to future refugee resettlement concerns.
What should policymakers and advocates consider moving forward on issues of refugee data access and protection?
We must advocate for agency transparency, especially in light of multiple policy changes and increased partisanship.
Refugee resettlement agencies in the U.S. are concerned about the changes. “It certainly will make it more difficult to hold our government accountable to its commitments to protect those fleeing violations of their religious liberty globally,” said Matthew Soerens, U.S. director of church mobilization and advocacy for World Relief, a refugee resettlement agency.
For example, the decline in resettlement of Christian refugees — even though increasing their numbers was a declared Trump administration priority for the past three years — reflects the kind of divergence between policy and implementation that can occur absent accurate data. The prioritization of Christian refugees has been controversial. Still, since WRAPS will no longer publicly share data on refugees’ religious identity, it will be impossible to track whether or not the U.S. is prioritizing refugees with specific religious identities. Therefore, it is crucial that policymakers defend sources of data and that WRAPS continues to share data until the transition to the new data system.
We must collect and publish policy-relevant evidence to support the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.
Information on refugee resettlement is difficult to collect. The diversity of the refugee community in language, national origin, geographic dispersion throughout the U.S., and other demographic characteristics makes it difficult for researchers and policymakers to gather this data on their own.
Nearly all analysis relies on the data collected by the federal agency that administers the program. Without agency-gathered data, researchers typically rely on segmented snapshots in time rather than longitudinal data. Since most information is gathered at the local and state level, findings are not likely to represent national trends. This will impede knowledge development for further studies of refugees, such as integration, acculturation outcomes, or variation across states and localities.
It is important for future knowledge of the refugee admissions program to combine multiple sources of quantitative and qualitative data to be grounded in the reality of refugees and the communities in which they live.
We must address refugees’ legitimate privacy concerns and look for a better balance between disclosure and individual privacy.
As the RPC collects data in WRAPS, it should publicly release policy-relevant evidence to support decisions around program improvements. At the same time, we need to be cognizant of how refugee data is released to the public.
Individuals seeking international refugee protection in the U.S. are required to provide substantial biometric data for security processing. While the RPC does not publish any personally identifiable information, it has concerns about publishing even anonymized information through its interactive reporting platform. While these concerns over refugee information protection may be legitimate, the combined pace of public notification and lack of transparency in decision-making is concerning. Decisions on balancing disclosure with privacy must come from consultation with refugee resettlement stakeholders about the information they need to make programmatic decisions.
The RPC already collects policy-relevant evidence to support decisions around program improvements. The incoming Biden administration has an opportunity to ensure that this information is shared with refugee resettlement stakeholders outside the federal agency. With the potential for increased refugee admissions, the planned shift in technology systems will need to be carefully managed. Otherwise, a one-year hiatus in data access will harm policymakers and refugee resettlement advocates’ ability to respond to resettlement concerns. The RPC must be more transparent about what specific information is now restricted and why the changes were made with limited public notice. Rather than wait until 2021 for the updated platform to be released, the RPC should continue releasing relevant information in consultation with refugee resettlement stakeholders.
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