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How Donald Trump's Executive Order counters international law

31 January 2017

By Julian Waagensen, Trócaire Policy & Advocacy Adviser

President Trump’s Executive Order on refugees and immigration could be considered to be in breach of international law in several respects. 

As an agency working in countries affected by war, persecution and severe human rights violations, Trócaire is very concerned not only about the impact the order will have on people’s lives but also on the message it sends out to the world about the world’s most vulnerable people. 

Syrian refugee in Lebanon

Houssein, 10 years old, studies on his bed in a camp in Lebanon. He and his family were the first to arrive in the camp from Syria in 2011. (Photo: Isabel Corthier / Caritas)

What has the order done?

1. Suspends the entire US refugee admissions system for 120 days while a review is carried out of vetting systems. The US already had one of the most rigorous vetting regimes in the world, taking 18 to 24 months and requiring interviews and background checks through multiple federal agencies. 

2. Suspends the Syrian refugee program indefinitely. The US accepted 12,486 Syrian refugees in 2016. This contrasts with about 300,000 received by Germany the same year. Since the Syrian civil war began, Turkey has received about 2.7 million refugees, Lebanon 1 million refugees and Jordan 650,000.

3. Bans entry from seven majority-Muslim countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – for 90 days. This has barred even legal US residents from re-entry into the country. It also lets the Department of Homeland Security ban more countries at any time.

4. Prioritises refugee claims on the basis of religious persecution. This provision would allow America to prioritise Christians from the Middle East over Muslims. In 2016, the US accepted 37,521 Christian and 38,901 Muslim refugees. Since 2001, the US has accepted nearly 400,000 Christian refugees and 279,000 Muslim refugees.

5. Lowered the total of 2017 refugees from anywhere to 50,000, down from 110,000. It has also ordered a review of states’ rights to accept or deny refugees.

How could this be a violation of international law?

1. Suspending the refugee admissions system could be considered a violations of the Right to Asylum. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) guarantees the right of an individual to seek asylum. Although there is no right to be granted asylum, there is a right to apply for it. By denying asylum seekers access to its territory, the US are denying the right to seek asylum.

2. The ban on entry from seven majority-Muslim countries violates the principle of non-discrimination in the Refugee Convention. By specifically targeting seven named countries, the Executive Order discriminates on the grounds of both religion and country of origin. 

3. Denying people the opportunity to seek asylum and forcing them to return to where they came from can lead to violations under the Refugee Convention, which prohibits expelling or returning a person to a place where he or she could face persecution, torture or inhuman treatment.

Giving hope to the displaced

At a time when a record number of people around the world are displaced by violence, the international community needs to stand behind international law to ensure safety for people who have been forced to flee. 

As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stated last weekend in the aftermath of President Trump's Executive Order, "We believe that now more than ever, welcoming newcomers and refugees is an act of love and hope."