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U.N. Official Visits White House To Make The Case For Refugees


The White House is holding off, for now, on releasing a new version of the travel ban. And that means, for now, refugees are facing uncertainty, not sure if or when the door to the U.S. may close again. Among the programs in limbo - U.S. refugee resettlement.

Filippo Grandi is a prominent champion of that program as the United Nations high commissioner for refugees. He has just wrapped up a visit to Washington, including meetings at the White House. And I asked him, does he buy the Trump administration argument that the travel ban is necessary for U.S. national security?

FILIPPO GRANDI: There is nothing wrong with that argument that the national security of the United States is a primary responsibility of the government. I fully agree. My task here is to remind the government and remind, now, public opinion how important that program is. It may be small, but really it is a life-saving measure for thousands of very, very fragile, weak and vulnerable people.

And it is a very important signal that governments, like the U.S., that resettle people give to countries like Lebanon, like Kenya, countries that host millions of refugees. And those countries are close allies to the United States. So that signal has also political value, which I think is very important. And I hope it will last.

KELLY: You said that after your meetings you feel like you understood the national security argument that the Trump administration has made, that you understood that better. How come? And what was the case they were making to you, and why did it resonate?

GRANDI: I understood better how important it was in their reasoning to raise that argument. On the other hand, I still maintain that refugees, candidates for resettlement, are probably the most vetted people of anybody who enters the United States. So I think - let me say it once again - that that process is adequate.

KELLY: When I interviewed you almost exactly a year ago, you talked to me about - that you were somewhat surprised at how politicized the debate over refugees was. And if anything, it has gotten more politicized in the year since we last spoke. What do you make of that?

GRANDI: I think this is bad, but it's not just the United States. Unfortunately, the politicization of the refugee issue is very common everywhere. There is a spreading of that phenomenon also to developing countries. Let's not forget, the majority of refugees are there, not in the rich world. So it is important to depoliticize. It is very important to remember that - who are the refugees?

You know, I was in Syria a few days ago. I saw the most devastating destruction I've ever seen in my long career in difficult places. I've seen entire cities, prosperous cities, wiped out. I've seen entire agricultural systems collapsed that gave livelihoods to millions of people. That's what refugees are fleeing from. They are not agents of insecurity. They flee from devastation, from lack of opportunities, from insecurity and fear. I think we should not forget that humanitarian angle, which is the foundation of the solidarity that the entire world should exercise in respect of the refugees.

KELLY: So make the case. What do you say to administration that is trying to honor a campaign promise and which is clearly concerned about the potential national security threat that they see from the inflow of refugees into the country?

GRANDI: Well, I say the people that are coming to this country have the opportunity to go through a very severe and - legitimately severe screening process. So I said to the administration, conduct a review of that screening. Do it in a manner that satisfies your security concerns. And then, frankly, in this country, you have among the best programs to integrate refugees. So let's hope that those verifications, that that checking is positive and that we can resume a constructive discussion on refugees.

KELLY: Filippo Grandi is the United Nations high commissioner for refugees. Filippo Grandi, thank you for coming in.

GRANDI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.