A Trump presidency is a disturbing prospect for refugees

By Erika Feller. Former Assistant High Commissioner at the UNHCR; Vice Chancellor’s Professorial Fellow

The United States has an important role as world a leader on the resettlement of refugees. But such leadership is unlikely to materialise should Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump win on November 8.


Trump has promised wholesale deportations, discriminatory asylum bans and walls to keep people out. This is the reverse of what his Government has pledged at two recent world summits in New York.

If Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton wins, a non-discriminatory, tolerant and open refugee policy has at a minimum a fighting chance.

However, leaders can be very fickle after election and the refugee debate in a country can move very fast, depending on incalculable factors such as a domestic terrorism event.

Other world leaders have promised new settlement offers and aid for refugees

On 19 and 20 September, New York was host to two major international Summits, billed as heralding in a new era of solidarity and responsibility sharing when it comes to refugees, the internally displaced and vulnerable migrants.  

It was significant that States adopted the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants which generally endorsed a program of greater support to host countries, through increasing humanitarian funding and development aid and expanding resettlement and other entry possibilities into third states.  

The Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, an initiative of President Barak Obama on 20 September, saw 48 States commit to more concrete pledges, attaching actual numbers to new resettlement offers and dollars to aid offers.

Overviewing the outcome documents, it is reasonable to feel optimistic – until, that is, one reads the fine print.  
Most such conference documents are drafted with constructive ambiguity – commitments will be honoured when possible and reasonable, and without prejudice to national interests and priorities.  The New York Declaration is no exception.  How precise is the implementation time-table for the pledges is yet to be clarified.

For these two important meetings to live up to the fine language they have generated and the promise they genuinely hold, honest and determined leadership is required at the national level.  

Trump’s deportations, asylum bans and walls

Trump has probably had the most to say about how he sees the refugee responsibilities of the US, and much of it has been pretty negative.   He has loosely promised large-scale deportations, discriminatory asylum bans targeting Muslims in particular and walls to keep people out.  

His call for “extreme vetting procedures” to find the extremists before people can be resettled to the US would constitute a virtual wall in itself, given that current procedures already work to delay entry by months, even years.  

He seems to support confining refugees from Muslim countries to “safe havens” in their own region, without, needless to say, having reviewed the tragic history of failed efforts to create such zones in the past.  

Trump has been strong on strengthening criminal justice enforcement and has spoken repeatedly in favour of deporting offending aliens, regardless of how serious, or minor the offence.   The barrier to asylum for minor offences has long been an issue of concern in the US.  Trump would seem to want to make it insurmountable, even while he proposes the creation of ever more criminal offences in the immigration area.  

What Trump says and what he does are not guaranteed to converge, of course, as his partial backing away from the more extreme of his proposals to make the US/Mexico border impenetrable suggests.  

But it is pretty safe to assume that were his candidature to succeed, there would be a rapid reversal of what his Government has only just pledged at the recent New York meetings.  

Clinton promises to continue the US’ tradition of welcoming refugees

Clinton, to the contrary, is talking the talk, at least, with her support for enforcing immigration laws humanely, ending family detention for parents and children in desperate situations at borders, increasing the Syrian refugee intake and speeding up resettlement vetting procedures, even if they must remain “careful”, to avoid protracted stay in inadequate and unsafe asylum.  

Her call for clearer and faster routes to US citizenship would be an important contribution to the current campaign of the UN Refugee Agency to end statelessness within ten years.  

Clinton has shown a consistency in her policy statements which her opponent has not, in particular in her position that the US must remain true to its historical tradition as a country which welcomes refugees.  

To what extent she would be allowed to hold to that line, however, is still an open question, given how polarised the public and parties have become over immigration, refugees and national security issues which are likely to be key drivers of how the vote will play out.  

In short, it is fair to conclude that it would be under Clinton, rather than Trump, that a non-discriminatory, tolerant and open refugee policy which lies at the heart of commitments made over the last two days in New York has at least a fighting chance.

Banner image: Syrian refugee children in Lebanon. Credit: Flickr/Trocaire/Eoghan Rice.

This article has been co-published with SBS

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immigration; policy Immigration; Policy democrat; republican Democrat; Republican