Trump’s Refugee Ban Leaves Separated Burmese Families in Limbo

By Saw Yan Naing 30 January 2017

US President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Friday initiating a temporary ban on refugee arrivals for at least four months, officially halting all refugee admission and resettlement schemes in the US.

Also banned from entering the country are nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

The move has raised eyebrows among refugees from Burma—now in camps on the Thai-Burma border—who have been awaiting resettlement in the US, joining around 100,000 others already stateside.

Duncan McArthur, Burma program director of The Border Consortium (TBC), a humanitarian agency that has facilitated the distribution of aid for Burmese refugees for more than two decades, told The Irrawaddy that even though the US ended refugee resettlement programs from the Thai border in 2014, pending cases will be impacted by Trump’s order.

Others affected include those who have applied for resettlement due to special protection concerns or for family reunification in the US.

“This pending caseload for resettlement from Thailand’s border camps are the people most likely to be affected under an executive order includes a temporary ban on refugees,” said Duncan, adding that there has historically been strong bi-partisan support in the US for refugees, democracy, human rights and ethnic minorities in Burma.

Saw Honest, chairman of Mae La refugee camp, the most populous camp on the Thai border, told The Irrawaddy that international nongovernmental organizations such as International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN refugee agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), had informed camp committee leaders on Sunday that the processing of refugee resettlement cases would be temporarily stopped.

No exact date for resumed processing has reportedly been announced.

“In a meeting yesterday, the IOM and the UNHCR told us that resettlement for refugees who applied to reunite with their families will be halted. Other additional resettlement cases will likely end. But we were not told the exact date,” said Saw Honest. Some of those refugees who applied for resettlement based on family reunification have already raised their concerns with the Karen Refugee Committee.

Even though Trump appeared to have singled out nationals of Muslim-majority countries in the order, his policies will also have an impact on refugees of other faiths, including Buddhists and Christians from Burma, Saw Honest added.

Catholic Charities, an organization that assists refugees resettling in Syracuse, New York, reported that Trump’s order had already affected some 220 refugees who had been previously approved for a move to the city, according to local media in the US. Among them were Burmese refugees.

Vivian Tan, a spokesperson for the UNHCR, told The Irrawaddy that a suspension of resettlement programs could be risky for those Burmese refugees who are considered particularly vulnerable.

“For many, a suspension will mean they will remain in dangerous situations. UNHCR hopes that this review can proceed expeditiously, and that the resettlement program can restart quickly,” she said.

The resettlement places that the US provides are vital, she added, pointing out that the millions of refugees who have been resettled over the decades have shown that they can contribute positively to the economic, cultural, and civic vitality of the US.

“We remain committed to working with the US administration to address any outstanding concerns during its planned review. Resettlement aims to help the most vulnerable refugees,” Tan said.