US President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily barring citizens of Somalia, Sudan and five other Muslim-majority countries from entering the US has left the region in limbo, complicating counter-terrorism efforts while also putting in doubt the resettlement of refugees.
The order did not escape the attention of State Department officials who circulated a draft memo criticising President Trump’s executive order on immigration.
“The policy would be counterproductive especially on the gains we have made in the fight against terror. The arrangements that these countries set up to provide information on individual applicants is farfetched as in some cases, these countries may not have the ability or capacity, or be wholly incapable of providing such,” said the dissent memo, through which dissenting views are sent by US diplomats from across the world to the Secretary of State and other top department officials.
The biggest concern for regional countries, especially Kenya will be Somalia, where the US move is deemed counterproductive, as it seeks to help the Somali military fight Al Shabaab.
Kenya is already playing host to more than 350,000 refugees some of whom are awaiting relocation to the US, having met the strict vetting process that spans over eight years.
Data from the UN Population Division shows that at least 150,000 Somali nationals have been resettled in the US under the programme since 1991, with 11,000 of them in 2015, mostly drawn from the Dadaab Refugee camp in Kenya. Of this, only 272 permanent residency cards and 299 non-immigrant visas were awarded, US State Department data shows.
At the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) centre, hundreds of Somali nationals on transit to the US under the resettlement programme, are now stuck after Mr Trump signed the executive order on immigration that effectively bars citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, from entering the US for the next 90 days, and a ban on the admission of all refugees for 120 days.
In a joint statement, IOM and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees agency (UNHCR) said that the resettlement places provided by every country were vital and they remained committed to working with the US Administration to ensure safe and secure resettlement and immigration programmes.
“We hope that the US will continue its strong leadership role and long tradition of protecting those who are fleeing conflict and persecution. 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 two agencies said.
“These travel restriction will complicate US security co-operation in the region. They will be a big boon for al-Shabaab recruiting efforts,” Rashid Abdi, regional director for the International Crisis Group said.
His sentiments confirms the US diplomats’ fears that the ban will “increase an anti-American sentiment’ in the Muslim world, further complicating the goodwill the US has gained in fighting terrorism.
“Instead of building bridges in these countries, we are sending a message that we consider all nationals of these countries to be a security risk. Almost one-third of the combined population of these countries are children. There isn’t any question that their perception of the US will be coloured by this ban,” the diplomats protested.
Countries like Sudan, which was fresh from trade sanctions that were lifted barely a fortnight ago summoned the US top diplomat in Khartoum in protest to the move, terming it ill timed.
On January 13, Washington through former president Barack Obama lifted a Khartoum trade embargo, unfroze assets, and removed financial sanctions citing the latter’s progress to confront terrorism.
“The ban marred recent progress in relations between the two countries and it is a negative signal on the bilateral relations between the two countries,” Sudan Foreign Ministry Undersecretary, Abdel-Ghani al-Na’im told US diplomat Steven Koutsis.
A leaked cable from the US embassy in Khartoum showed the worry from Sudanese businessmen community over their ability to attract US business to Sudan in the wake of the lifting of US sanctions.
Outgoing African Union Commission chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma told African leaders at the start of the AU summit in Addis Ababa that the continent was now entering into ‘very turbulent times’.
“The very country to which many of our people were taken as slaves during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade has now decided to ban refugees from some of our countries. What do we do about this?” Ms Zuma said.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, speaking at the same summit said that the continent was known for its friendly welcome for refugees.
“African nations are among the world’s largest and most generous hosts of refugees. African borders remain open for those who need protection, when so many borders are being closed even in some of the most developed countries in the world,” Mr Guterres told African presidents at the gathering.
Currently, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda lead on the continent for their intake of refugees fleeing wars, data from Global Refugee Crisis shows. The top source countries for refugees includes Somalia, South Sudan, Eritrea, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic.
Some 26,000 refugees in Kenya have been affected by the ban, most of them Somali, said United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) spokeswoman, Yvonne Ndege.