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

Kelly Clements, United Nations deputy high commissioner for refugees, says that the Biden administration's promise to welcome more refugees into the U.S. sets an important tone on the international stage.
Johan Ordonez
AFP via Getty Images
Kelly Clements, United Nations deputy high commissioner for refugees, says that the Biden administration's promise to welcome more refugees into the U.S. sets an important tone on the international stage.

The number of refugees has soared over the past four years, with more than 26 millionrefugees worldwide as of mid-2020, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

Yet the number of refugees who have resettled in the U.S. has plummeted to a record low of about 12,000 last year, from 85,000 a year at the start of the Trump administration.

President Biden wants to reverse the trend set by his predecessor, with a pledge to raise the cap on refugees in the U.S. up to 125,000 per year. That number does not include asylum-seekers.

Kelly Clements, U.N. deputy high commissioner for refugees, says Biden's interest in bolstering the country's resettlement program "sends a very important signal" to the international community.

"When the U.S. says 'We're back, we want to restart, rebuild an important and robust resettlement program,' we are absolutely ecstatic," Clements says in an interview with All Things Considered. "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."

Clements spoke more about what the new administration's pledge means after former President Trump's hard-line policies on refugees, as well as her hope to see Trump's pandemic-era restriction on asylum-seekers overturned.

The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

Can [President Biden] 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?

I've just come from California, actually, and discussions with resettlement agencies. And, while it will take some time to rebuild this program that 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 re-engage 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.

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.

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" ["MPP" refers to the formal name of the Trump program, Migrant Protection Protocols]. This is 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 [individuals] 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 [Thursday], we will probably see about 1,000 who have crossed into the United States.

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?

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.

Connor Donevan and Christopher Intagliata produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.