Apparently, not all wars produce acceptance-worthy refugees
By Sara Swetzoff
On March 24, the Biden administration announced that the U.S. will accept 100,000 displaced Ukrainians. And yet, in fiscal year 2021 not a single Yemeni refugee was admitted.
Yemen, devastated by war for more than seven years, has seen hundreds of thousands of its citizens leave for neighboring countries. More than a million are internally displaced. Ukrainian refugees can readily access five welcoming neighbor states by road and rail; Yemenis are unwelcome in Saudi Arabia, separated from Oman by a desert and bound on all other sides by the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
Even if the April 1 ceasefire brings a lasting truce and peace, Yemen will need decades to rebuild (https://www.un.org). Washington can help immediately by offering resettlement to those who face the most urgent security and health risks.
Many seeking resettlement have already been registered as refugees in Djibouti and Ethiopia for seven years. Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic and Tigray war in Ethiopia have strained the region’s refugee support services.
Even Yemenis whose immediate family members are U.S. citizens have found it hard to access standard family reunification immigration pathways. Despite Biden’s rescinding of Trump’s Muslim ban more than a year ago, nearly 500,000 applicants worldwide are waiting for scheduling.
Chris Richardson, an immigration attorney, offered further insight on the unique challenges facing Yemenis. Richardson, who left his foreign service post in protest after Trump enacted the ban, states that two things are working against those people impacted by the ban: (1) the backlog, for every kind of immigration or temporary residency permit is taking a long time right now, and (2) a security discrimination long predating Trump. Yemeni and Iranian nationals have always had a difficult time securing visas because of the extensive background checks. These stringent “security advisory opinion” guidelines can cause significant delays to applications already impacted by the ban and Covid backlogs. They also impact refugee policy.
Eight Years of Suffering
One wonders why, after eight years of war, Yemenis weren’t offered resettlement opportunities as soon as the crisis initially unfolded. Most refugees left during the first two years, when the internal conflict escalated into a regional conflict in March 2015. But instead of offering sanctuary, Obama offered aerial refueling to the Saudi military’s bombing campaign.
“I feel lucky,” said Labib Nasher, one of just 50 Yemeni refugees admitted to the U.S. since the war began in 2015 and prior to the ban. This 2019 article published by the Guardian was one of the few pieces of journalism that I could even find about Yemeni refugees in the U.S.
Obama moved swiftly to get involved in the war. In April 2015, just one month after the “official” start of the war by many accounts, Military Times magazine reported that Washington had begun daily aerial-refueling of tanker flights to support the Saudi-led coalition (April 8, 2015).
Robert Malley, Obama’s key advisor on the Middle East, told TRT World in an interview that the administration “got it wrong” in supporting the Saudi-led coalition (Feb. 14, 2019). He admitted that this military support helped escalate and entrench the ongoing conflict between the Houthi warlords and the Saudi-led coalition called in by Yemen’s president-in-exile, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
The timing of Malley’s interview coincided with bipartisan congressional efforts to pass the “war powers resolution” and thus end U.S. military support for the Saudi war effort. Trump used a presidential veto to make sure it failed, thus preserving his close relationship with Riyadh.
A Broken System
The double standards in migration and refugee policy — who gets to be a refugee versus who is categorized as a “migrant” and which refugees and immigrants are desirable — have never been more obvious than now.
While Yemenis are far from the only ones disproportionately impacted by current immigration policy – remember the Haitians, who are the Biden administration’s main target of detention and deportation — their extreme situation sheds light on the current shortcomings of Washington’s Middle East policy. Biden continues to utilize the legal loopholes or “soft ban” policies that Trump implemented and exploited. While lifting the Muslim ban, Biden has done little to remedy its impacts or expedite Yemeni family reunification or refugee resettlement opportunities.
In March 2021, the State Department announced that people denied visas during the Trump travel ban should seek a revised decision or reapply. However, the administration didn’t open any special office or pathway for them to do so. Instead, it seems that they joined a massive visa processing backlog.
In February 2020, 75,000 applications were pending at the National Visa Center; within a year, that number had increased to nearly 500,000. According to the most recent numbers logged in late February 2022, about 500,000 individuals were cleared for interviews and about another 500,000 eligible applicants were still waiting for an interview. Only 32,317 “documentarily complete IV applicants” were scheduled for March 2022 appointments worldwide.
According to Subha Varadarajan, an attorney with the National Immigrant Law Coalition and Asian Law Caucus and who is affiliated with the “No Muslim Ban Ever” campaign, it’s very difficult to know how many of these applicants are Yemeni. One year after the ban’s end, she is still trying to determine this number and how many subsequently secured visas. A sign-on letter at the No Muslim Ban Ever website explains the remedial steps that the coalition is requesting to reunite families and repair the damage done by the ban.
Refugee policy is similarly bogged down. The president sets the refugee quota numbers; despite raising it to 62,500 immediately after coming into office, only 11,000 refugees were admitted last year. “The refugee system was destroyed by Trump,” Richardson explained. He says the combined defunding the refugee resettlement organizations and slowing down administrative backend through excessive security checks severely “atrophied” the system and will take years to rebuild.
Richardson also elaborated on the challenges Yemenis have faced for decades. He mentioned that at one point during his work with the State Department, the Office of the General Inspector cited the American embassy in Yemen for revoking the passports of Americans of Yemeni origin. “This is emblematic of the State Department’s ‘wild west’ view of certain places like Yemen,” Richardson explained. “In Spain that would never happen. But in a place like Yemen, if you get an unscrupulous officer, they might actually be rewarded by the State Department.”
To expedite the rebuilding of the refugee infrastructure and prioritize vulnerable populations such as Yemenis, Richardson asserts that we would “need the entire government to change the way it operates.” Some in Congress have listened: Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Joe Neguse (D-Calif.) introduced the Guaranteed Refugee Ceiling Enhancement Act during March 2021. If passed, this “GRACE Act” would set the 2022 cap of 125,000 refugees as the permanent floor for annual refugee resettlement (https://lofgren.house.gov/media/press-releases). With a long-term guarantee of funding, refugee agencies could maintain and expand their services without having to worry about shuttering their doors and cutting staff every time a new administration decides to weaponize immigration policy.
The Biden Administration’s Responsibility
Washington’s distinct responsibility toward Yemenis has become more urgent since Russia invaded Ukraine. Biden’s campaign promises to end U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition remains unfulfilled (https://www.counterpunch.org). Instead, his administration has continued to do business with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, even allowing a controversial Trump administration weapons deal to go through after freezing it temporarily.
Since the Russian invasion, the U.S. has become increasingly reliant on Saudi oil. Meanwhile, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have apparently maintained open communications with Putin while Mohamed Bin Salman (MBS), the architect of the war who had a warm rapport with Trump, is refusing to take Biden’s calls.
In a recent op-ed, lawyer Charles Pierson explains that some political analysts believe MBS might increase oil production if Biden expands support for the Saudi-led coalition. It is heart-wrenching to think that when the current ceasefire ends, Washington might once again exchange blood for oil by continuing to sell weapons and provide logistical support.
One might think that if the U.S. is complicit in this war, we might at least accept some refugees to offset its toll. But acknowledging refugees is a charged political act. Unequivocally referring to those Ukrainians fleeing the war as “refugees” (even if they are not technically registered as such with the UN) and providing them with asylum in the West is a political choice that signals condemnation of Russia’s attack. In the case of Yemen, Washington’s complicity in the Saudi airstrikes means that it doesn’t want to irk Riyadh and fault our own foreign policy by recognizing Yemeni refugees.
Now, more than ever, Washington must take a clear ethical stance on the Yemen war by ending all material support for Riyadh’s offensive attacks and creating a Yemeni refugee program — effective immediately. We cannot condemn the current human rights crisis in Ukraine while ignoring that of Yemen any longer. Nor we cannot sacrifice the Yemenis’ chance for lasting peace to satisfy our need for Gulf oil.
Sara Swetzoff is a Ph.D. candidate in African Studies at Howard University and a Fulbright Ethiopia 2020 awardee.
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