The United States fielded more new asylum requests than any other country last year, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency, even as the Trump administration has been employing stricter measures to keep people out.
The number of new applications for asylum in the U.S. increased by 27 percent from 2016 to 2017, reaching 331,700, according to the “Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2017” report. The U.S. surpassed Germany, which fielded 198,300 applications.
The U.N. report was published Tuesday before World Refugee Day, which falls on Wednesday.
The latest numbers are in line with the steady increase in asylum claims coming from Central America that the U.S. has seen since 2013.
“Similar to last year, applicants from the [northern region of Central America] made up 43 percent of all claims, and the number of claims increased by 44 percent, reaching levels not seen since the 1980s,” the study said. The applicants consist mainly of people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras who are fleeing gang violence.
The release of these figures comes amid a public backlash against the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy. The administration seeks to prosecute anybody who attempts to cross the border illegally ― an effort that is driving family separations on a massive scale. More than 2,300 children were separated from their parents between May 5 and June 9.
Even once people have put in their asylum requests, the system is so backlogged ― there were 311,000 pending cases as of January ― that a decision can take years. Only 65,600 asylum decisions were made in the U.S. in 2017, the U.N. report said, making the U.S. home to the largest asylum-seeking population in the world.
“This backlog has grown by more than 1,750 percent over the last five years, and the rate of new asylum applications has more than tripled,” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said. The agency announced in January that it would be scheduling interviews for more recent applications, prioritizing new entrants over those who have already been waiting years for a decision.
“Asylum is a slow process in the U.S. and it’s always been sort of a neglected activity within our judicial system. Never really have adequate resources been allocated to this particular legal component of the work,” said Erol Kekic, executive director of the immigration and refugee program at the Church World Service, a global humanitarian agency.
The political will to deal with the asylum issue hasn’t been strong enough over the last 15 to 20 years, meaning that the government doesn’t have the personnel in place to make the process more efficient, Kekic said.
The Trump administration, he noted, claims it’s trying to address the backlog by moving officers who had been working overseas on refugee resettlement back to the U.S. to deal with asylum claims.
Kekic criticized that strategy as merely “watering down, moving shells around so nothing really ever gets done.”
Worldwide, the number of asylum seekers waiting for decisions on their applications spiked about 300,000, to 3.1 million by the end of last year, the U.N. report said.
A record 68.5 million people ― a jump of almost 3 million in just one year ― had also been displaced by the end of 2017. More than 25 million of them fled their countries as refugees. The remainder were internally displaced or seeking asylum.
As crises like the civil war in Syria and the persecution of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar continue, governments worldwide are struggling to find sustainable solutions. Tensions erupted among European governments last week after Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini turned away a rescue ship carrying hundreds of migrants, forcing it to spend days at sea before finally docking safely in Spain. And German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government appears to be falling apart as internal squabbles over how to handle migration take center stage.
“We are at a watershed, where success in managing forced displacement globally requires a new and far more comprehensive approach so that countries and communities aren’t left dealing with this alone,” said Filippo Grandi, chief of the U.N. Refugee Agency.