By Geoff Gilbert, The Conversation, 30 January 2017
With an irony that hasn’t gone unnoticed, US President Donald Trump signed his executive order Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the US on January 27, Holocaust Memorial Day.
The order’s instructions are harsh and shocking. Not only does it suspend the US Refugee Admissions Programme for 120 days and all refugee arrivals from Syria indefinitely, it suspends all new arrivals from designated countries, which, apart from Syria and Iraq, are reportedly Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – all predominantly Muslim.
The executive order is highly problematic on several levels, and it’s good to see the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration issue a joint statement expressing their concern. As the order came into effect, several foreign and dual nationals were detained by US authorities and others barred from boarding inbound flights from other countries. Protests sprang up at major US airports and two members of Congress went to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to secure the release of an Iraqi refugee who had worked for the US government in his home country.
The day after the order was signed, however, a federal judge temporarily blocked the government from deporting citizens from the designated countries and refugees who might face irreparable harm if the US breached its duty not to “refoule”, meaning to expel or return people to a place of danger. But the chaos it has created goes on.
The order’s provisions are vague, and its rationale clearly ill-conceived. It refers to the events of September 11 2001 despite the fact that no refugees were involved in hijacking and crashing any of the four planes that wreaked havoc that day. Statistically, Americans’ chances of being killed by an immigrant terrorist are vanishingly small – and in any case, existing laws and the 1951 Refugee Convention itself are already in place to keep terrorists out.
Almost by definition, refugee movements are unplanned and irregular, and when they take place on a large scale, some of those fleeing could indeed be using the refugee movement to hide and gain entry to territories from which they would otherwise be barred. This is why the 1951 Convention relating the Status of Refugees, by which the US is bound, excludes from protection anyone who could seriously be considered to have committed a war crime, a crime against peace, a crime against humanity or a serious non-political crime. Known terrorists would never qualify for refugee status (Article 1F).