The U.S. Would Need to Take In 80 Million Refugees to Equal Jordan

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- When it comes to harboring refugees in the land of the free and the home of the brave, there’s a gap between what the U.S. says and what it does.

Here’s what the U.S. says, on the State Department website: “The United States is proud of its history of welcoming immigrants and refugees. The U.S. refugee resettlement program reflects the United States’ highest values and aspirations to compassion, generosity and leadership.”

And here’s what the U.S. does, according to a new report from the International Rescue Committee: “Refugee resettlement to the United States has ground to a halt. Under the current administration, a series of policy changes will result in no more than 21,000 refugees being welcomed to the U.S. in Fiscal Year 2018. This will mark the lowest arrivals ever in the program’s history at a time when global needs have never been greater.”

If the number does turn out to be 21,000—and that seems reasonable, given the current rate of 1,500 to 2,000 a month—it would indeed be the lowest number of refugees resettled in the U.S. since 1980, when the modern refugee resettlement program began. (It would still be a bit above the 19,946 who were resettled in 1977 under a previous program that’s not directly comparable, according to data supplied by the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center in Rosslyn, Va.)

The contrast between the United States and Jordan is stunning. The U.S. has admitted 3.4 million refugees since 1975, according to the Refugee Processing Center; the number of U.S. residents who are currently refugees is fewer than 3.4 million because some refugees have gone home, moved to other countries, become citizens, or died.

Jordan, a small, poor country with far fewer resources to support refugees, houses about 2 million refugees. That’s 20 percent of its population. The equivalent for the U.S. would require adding 80 million refugees, swelling the U.S. population to about 400 million. More than 600,000 of Jordan’s refugees are from Syria and more than 100,000 are from Iraq, according to the International Rescue Committee.

In short, the U.S. isn’t doing its share to help people who are fleeing persecution at home. (Nor are most other wealthy nations.) “There’s all this noise around the fact that we get stuck with all these refugees,” says Jennifer Sime, senior vice president of U.S. programs for the International Rescue Committee. “That’s the talk. No, we’re not. These numbers are really, really tiny.”

One difference between Jordan and the U.S. is that the U.S. numbers are for resettlement, which is a permanent solution leading to citizenship and has high upfront costs that are recouped when the refugees become productive citizens. Jordan does not have a formal resettlement program.  

Jordanians opened their arms to Syrian refugees starting in 2012, says Bryn Boyce, deputy director of programs and acting country director in Jordan for the International Rescue Committee. King Abdullah II and Queen Rania led the effort. “The response was very warm and very accommodating,” Boyce says. As the years have dragged on and the numbers have grown, the burden feels heavier, even though a majority of Jordanians remain in favor of accepting refugees, Boyce says. 

That’s why it’s important for the U.S. and other wealthy nations to relieve the stress on Jordan and other countries such as Lebanon that have accepted lots of refugees, argues the International Rescue Committee, a non-profit that helps refugees become self-sufficient. “The U.S. is abandoning the most in-need refugee populations, including religious minorities; those who assisted U.S. troops and missions overseas; families seeking to be unified with their loved ones; and the 50 percent of refugees who are children,” the new report says. 

With the U.S. unemployment rate down to 3.8 percent in May, refugees who do make it into the U.S. have little trouble finding work. Says Sime: “Our field offices get calls from employers saying, ‘When are you getting more refugees?’ They are wiling to take the jobs that nobody else wants and to start at the very beginning and try to provide for their families.”

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