U.S. President Donald Trump’s Executive order temporarily halting the resettlement of all Syrian refugees and banning entry of individuals from seven predominantly Muslim nations has left the United Nations scrambling to limit the fall-out to some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
“This week alone, over 800 refugees were set to make America their new home, but instead find themselves barred from traveling to the U.S.,” said a statement issued Monday from the U.N. Refugee agency, UNHCR.
According to the statement, “UNCHR estimates that 20,000 refugees in precarious circumstances might have been resettled to the United States during the 120 days covered by the suspension announced Friday, based on average monthly figures for the last 15 years.”
The agency, which works around the world assisting and screening refugees for resettlement said “refugees are anxious, confused and heartbroken at this suspension in what is already a lengthy process.”
On Friday, Trump signed the executive order, which includes a 120-day suspension of refugee admissions and a 90-day entry ban for people from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya and Yemen.
The president has dismissed critics who accuse him of targeting Muslims, saying in a statement that it is “not about religion — this is about terror and keeping our country safe.”
He noted that there “are over 40 different countries worldwide that are majority Muslim that are not affected by this order.” And he said the U.S. would resume issuing “visas to all countries once we are sure we have reviewed and implemented the most secure policies over the next 90 days.”
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid al Hussein criticized the ban on Twitter and Facebook, writing that “discrimination based on nationality alone is forbidden under human rights law.” He also called the order “mean-spirited” and said it wastes “resources needed for proper counter-terrorism.”
The human rights chief has been a vocal critic of Trump for his views on torture and immigrants, and referred to him in a September speech denouncing “populists and demagogues in Europe and the U.S.”
UN Concerns and Confusion
Meanwhile, concerns and confusion at the United Nations around the immigration ban extend beyond the people the organization serves to those who serve them.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres sent an email to thousands of staff on Monday morning saying he had “been following closely the developments regarding the recent Executive Order on immigration” issued Friday.
He said his office had been in close contact with the U.S. Mission to the United Nations throughout the weekend, and had “received reassurances that the order should not impact U.N. staff and their families who are entering the United States using their G4 visas.”
G4 visas are issued to officers and employees of international organizations and members of their immediate families.
At the daily briefing for journalists, Guterres’ chief spokesperson said there “may have been a handful of cases” of staff being told by airlines that they could not board since the order was signed Friday. The spokesperson’s office quickly sent out a clarification saying there were no “confirmed cases” of staff being affected by the ban.
The U.N. secretary-general has not issued a direct condemnation of the ban or called for it to be revoked.
“We very much hope that the measures put in place regarding refugees are temporary,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in response to questions about the U.N. position. “The U.S. has been a critical partner of the United Nations organization, especially UNHCR and IOM in resettling refugees.”
On Saturday, the International Organization for Migration and UNCHR put out a joint statement on the importance of ensuring safe and secure resettlement and immigration programs.
“We strongly believe that refugees should receive equal treatment for protection and assistance, and opportunities for resettlement, regardless of their religion, nationality or race,” the statement said. “We will continue to engage actively and constructively with the U.S. government, as we have done for decades, to protect those who need it most, and to offer our support on asylum and migration matters.”
In a speech Friday just hours before Trump signed the order, Guterres told a U.N. gathering commemorating the victims of the Holocaust that “Today, we see anti-Semitism, along with racism, xenophobia, anti-Muslim hatred and other forms of intolerance, triggered by populism.”
Guterres, a former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees continued, “I am extremely concerned at the discrimination faced by minorities, refugees and migrants across the world. I find the stereotyping of Muslims deeply troubling.” He said there is a “new normal” in public discourse “in which prejudice is given a free pass and the door is opened to even more extreme hatred.”