Aid groups see Trump’s travel restrictions as ‘a huge step backwards’
Several international aid organizations say they have been forced to make contingency plans in case staff members are barred from entering the United States under President Trump’s new immigration rules.
Some are reassessing plans for staff scheduled to come to the country for briefings and meetings. Others are imposing travel restrictions on their diverse cadre of employees, even those who are U.S. nationals.
An executive order, part of a broader set of immigration directives, bars refugee arrivals for 120 days — indefinitely in the case of Syria — and suspends travel to the U.S. for citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days. Trump signed the order on Jan. 27.
“Many of our member organizations would have nationals of these countries working for them and staff working in those countries,” said Patricia McIlreavy, vice president of the humanitarian policy and practice team for InterAction, the largest U.S. alliance of nongovernmental international organizations, with more than 220 members and partners.
The international nonprofit CARE, which operates in five of the seven countries whose citizens are prohibited from coming to the United States, has banned its U.S.-based staff — including those who are American citizens — from traveling to the seven nations. (CARE does not operate in Libya or Iran.)
Officials of the Atlanta-based group said the move was essential because of the inconsistency with which the order was being carried out, and they did not want to imperil their staff.
“They potentially could face trouble coming back into the U.S.,” said Nick Osborne, CARE’s vice president of international programs. “We don’t want to take the risk of them facing trouble.”
Christy Delafield, a spokeswoman for Mercy Corps, said in an email that the organization has 5,000 team members around the world, including hundreds who are citizens of the nations named in the executive order.
The group’s team members regularly travel to the U.S. for business purposes, such as meetings with administration officials and congressional offices, “to brief them about what’s happening in their countries and our work there,” Delafield said.
A few such visits to the U.S. had been planned in the next 90 days. Now, “those team members may need to postpone their travel as a result of the order,” Delafield said.
Officials at Relief International, which has aid programs in six of the seven countries under the ban, faced a similar situation.
Three members of the organization’s U.S.-based staff who are green card holders from Afghanistan, Pakistan and South Africa had trips planned to Iran, Somalia and Vietnam, according to Nancy Wilson, Relief International’s chief executive.
Of those, only Iran and Somalia are on the list of restricted countries. Still, “we just said don’t go,” Wilson said. “What if they are outside the country and the list of seven countries gets longer? We just can’t be taking the risk for them to be traveling outside and not be able to get back.”
On Saturday, immigration officials at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia detained two brothers from Yemen, coerced them to relinquish their green cards, and forced them to return to Ethiopia shortly after the executive order banning travel was signed, the Guardian newspaper reported, and it linked to a lawsuit filed on the brothers’ behalf.
But on Wednesday, the White House said it had issued new guidance that exempts green card holders from the travel restrictions. At a briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that legal permanent residents no longer needed a waiver to enter the United States.
It’s a huge step backwards for refugees, for our global workforce, and for our relationships beyond this country’s borders.
— A statement from Oxfam
The order has other possible implications aside from the travel limitations, officials from various aid groups said.
There is widespread concern that the order could prohibit humanitarian agencies from effectively and safely delivering aid and hinder their ability to quickly respond to future humanitarian emergencies, officials said.
“Our work overseas is very much based on the ability to be able to travel as and when required,” said Osborne of CARE. “If there is an emergency situation in one of the seven noted countries, that would restrict our ability to deploy our staff. Our ability to deploy technical staff to aid the response is going to be inhibited.”
For example, there is a growing food crisis in Somalia, where some 5 million people — approximately 40% of the population — are suffering from a shortage of food, according to the United Nations World Food Program.
Osborne said the executive order could hamper CARE’s relief efforts in Somalia if the group is unable to dispatch U.S.- based staff to respond to what the agency said could be “a major humanitarian emergency.”
Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, warned of the possible impact of reciprocal measures in response to Trump’s order. Iran has already canceled future visas for American citizens.
The order will prevent Oxfam from supporting local organizations that are on the front lines of meeting humanitarian need, the group said in a statement. It will also hinder the relay of “critical analysis to U.S. policy makers on conditions in some of the world’s most vulnerable places directly from the people living and working on the ground,” the group said. “It’s a huge step backwards for refugees, for our global workforce, and for our relationships beyond this country’s borders.”
Fallout from the executive order was also taking an emotional toll on U.S. aid workers, said McIlreavy of InterAction.
“Many in the network have refugee portfolios,” McIlreavy said. “They are seeing … families being separated …communities uncertain of their future. And that’s a lot of stress not just for the individuals but for staff who have worked with them for a long time.”
There is also concern over how U.S. aid workers might be perceived and treated as they conduct operations in the seven nations subjected to the travel ban. The order might serve to erode confidence in U.S. aid groups, Wilson said. People might begin to question their motives and dependability.
“You’re working in these countries and people ask you what’s going on with your government … and will you really be around to do this work tomorrow?” Wilson said.
Last September, President Obama convened a Leaders’ Summit on Refugees at the United Nations, where he pushed back against anti-refugee sentiment in some parts the country and called on nations to fulfill a moral obligation to help resolve the global refugee crisis.
“There was a belief that the U.S. was going to continue to be a global leader” on refugees, McIlreavy said. “Now there’s a certain level of concern that if we start already eroding those commitments … what else comes next?”
Said Wilson: “Does ‘America first’ mean America only, or are we going to remain a leading humanitarian nation?”
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