U.S. Embassy Memos Offer a Glimpse Into the “Devastated” Lives of Refugees Rejected by the Travel Ban

Memos from U.S. embassies in Ethiopia and Jordan to the State Department highlight the impact of Trump's executive order on vulnerable refugees.

Syrian refugees are seen at the Zaatari  refugee camp, on the Jordanian border on 31 May 2017. It's the second refugee camp in the world . The field of Zaatari grows and spreads in the middle of nowhere. Of temporary solution to being the second largest refugee camp in the world and the fourth largest city in Jordan. Besieged by concertinas and guarded by the Jordanian army, the settlement currently accommodates 85,000 Syrian refugees, half of them children.  (Photo by Alvaro Fuente/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Syrian refugees are seen at the Zaatari refugee camp, on the Jordanian border on May 31, 2017. Photo: Alvaro Fuente/NurPhoto/Getty Images

In internal memos, American embassies in Jordan and Ethiopia detailed how refugees there were “devastated” by January’s U.S. executive order barring travel from predominately Muslim countries. The memos back to State Department headquarters tell of the desperation of asylum-seekers who had their hopes of getting into the United States dashed by the order — including a girl who tried to kill herself when her family was told they could not travel.

The embassy documents, which The Intercept obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, are dated from the days and weeks after President Donald Trump issued what came to be known as “the Muslim ban,” sparking protests nationwide. In addition to barring travel from seven Muslim-majority nations — almost all war-torn and with large refugee populations — the order mandated an immediate halt to all refugee admissions for 120 days, cut the number of refugees to be let in to the U.S. this year by half, and indefinitely blocked refugees from Syria. The controversial order was immediately met with legal challenges and will be taken up by the Supreme Court next month. Trump used this morning’s terror attack in the London subway to declare that “the travel ban into the United States should be far larger, tougher, and more specific.”

But a memo from the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, dated February 6, 2017, a little over a week after the order was signed, told the stories of refugees for whom the travel ban was “undoubtedly devastating.” The memo noted that despite a court stay halting its implementation, the order had already had “severely impacted” U.S. refugee programs and “delayed thousands of in-process legitimate travelers.”

More than 150 refugees from Somalia, Eritrea, and Sudan, who had been poised to travel to the United States, were left stranded in a transit camp in Addis Ababa. When State Department officials visited the camp on January 30, the refugees asked them to intercede and “to prioritize those who are more in need,” including a Somali “with a heart condition whose family departed the day before the EO was announced,” and an “8-year-old boy who has lost 90 percent of his vision to glaucoma,” according to the February 6 memo. Among the Somalis who had to be informed that their “already-printed visas would not allow them entry into the United States” were people who had been “waiting more than a year to join their family members already settled in the U.S.” Those cases included a 2-year-old and “a 4-year-old who had never met his father.”

A March 9 memo described a meeting with Somali refugees who were “clearly emotionally distressed” by the effects of the ban. “A mother of nine said she had used all her money to buy winter clothing for the trip to the United States,” the memo stated. She also “mentioned that her oldest daughter had tried to commit suicide after their family was told their travel was postponed indefinitely.”

Like Ethiopia, Jordan hosts many thousands of refugees, including from the banned countries. The order meant that 27,686 of them who were in the “pipeline” for U.S. resettlement, “all of whom are now in limbo,” according to a January 30 missive from the U.S. embassy in Amman. Nearly 22,000 of the affected refugees were from Syria, on top of a significant number of Syrians in Jordan waiting for other forms of visas. As in Ethiopia, the families were “devastated” by the uncertainty.

A young couple from Aleppo “had sold their house to pay for what they hoped would be a new life in Ohio” and had no money to live in Jordan or return to Syria. Their three-year-old daughter “suffered from panic attacks every time she heard an airplane flying overhead.” A family of five “saw no choice but to return to their battered neighborhood in Homs, despite no longer having a home.” The eldest daughter in the family, a recent graduate of law school, grilled the consular officer, “as if cross examining him,” the memo said. “‘Is the 90-day ban actually permanent?” she asked. “Are you just telling us 90 days to try to give us hope?”

GAMBELA, ETHIOPIA - JUNE 20: South Sudanese refugee family members are seen as they try to live at Nguenyyiel refugee camp in Gambela region of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on June 20, 2017. In the refugee camp, which was opened by UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), around 60,000 refugees mostly women and children take shelter. Ethiopia, currently hosts around 850,000 refugees from 20 different countries mostly Sudanese, Somalis, Eritreans and South Sudanese.  (Photo by Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

South Sudanese refugee family members live at Nguenyyiel refugee camp in Gambela region of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where about 60,000 refugees take shelter, on June 20, 2017.

Photo: Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

As chaos prompted by the executive order played out, with passengers stuck around the world and protesters descending on U.S. airports, the State Department memos reflect the impact that the ban had on refugees, who were “some of the most vulnerable in the world.” The documents are similar in tone and content to memos dissenting on the policy that leaked at the time, such as one from the U.S. consulate in Dubai reflected the anguish of Iranian and Iraqi refugees, and another signed by nearly 1,000 foreign service officers stating, “We are better than this ban.” A senior immigration official told The Intercept in January, “There are people literally crying in the office here.”

After federal courts intervened against the ban, there was a period where many refugees were again able to travel. In the March 9 memo, the Addis Ababa embassy noted that the 156 refugees initially stranded in Ethiopia had been resettled in the United States. But the memo went on to say that new caps on refugee admissions for the year were “dramatically slowing the pace of admissions from Ethiopia,” with “just a couple more families” expected to qualify that month.

Trump’s order capped the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. in fiscal year 2017 at 50,000, down from former President Barack Obama’s target number of 110,000. That ceiling came into effect in late June and was reached almost immediately, meaning that admissions have slowed to a trickle of special cases. Advocacy groups say that the combination of the ban and cap have generated many more instances like those detailed in the State Department memos.

“These are people with very urgent need,” said Betsy Fisher, policy director for the International Refugee Assistance Project. “Those are the kind of stories that we’re hearing, and the kind of cases we deal with when people aren’t allowed in.”

Federal judges blocked parts of the order halting refugees and banning travelers from Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and Syria (Iraq was removed from the list in the March order), but the Supreme Court has partially reinstated those travel bans until it takes up the case. In the interim, the order does not apply to people with “a bona fide relationship” in the United States. Just this week, the court said that relationships between refugees and resettlement agencies did not qualify as “bona fide,” allowing the Trump administration to block roughly 24,000 refugees who might have qualified for an exception.

“It’s all eyes to the Supreme Court on October 10, we’ll see what happens,” said Fisher.

In the meantime, advocacy groups are concerned by news reports that the Trump administration is considering further lowering next year’s quota for refugees to below 50,000, the lowest it has been since 1980. The president must set that ceiling by the beginning of fiscal year 2018, on October 1. Such a low number is “insufficient and unconscionable – especially as the global migrant crisis continues to escalate,” the group Church World Service said in a statement.

The State Department documents highlight how badly people are left in the lurch when options for resettlement are rescinded. Pending asylum applications, many sell their belongings to raise money for relocation and give up their assigned shelters in camps for displaced people. The February memo from Addis Ababa stated that most of the cases that the embassy there handles are female and mostly children under 16.

“Longer wait times will undoubtedly mean further hardships for applicants who have waited years on a legal path to migration,” it read. “Most live without legal authorization for employment or travel,” and their uncertain status in Ethiopia would leave them scraping by in black-market jobs.

The January 30 memo from Jordan said that most Syrians there “lack legal status in Amman; Jordanian authorities admitted them with the understanding they would soon be leaving for the United States. Many have no homes to which they can return. Several lost houses to Syrian regime or opposition shelling.” Most had used all their resources to get as far as they had, and the withdrawal of U.S. support left them with no money.

Personnel from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees told the Addis Ababa embassy that “an increasing number of refugees” were considering taking the dangerous route to Europe if it appeared that resettlement in the United States was “not a realistic option.”

The memos also make clear how U.S. withdrawal from refugee assistance impacted other countries: The February memo noted that Ethiopia’s refugee agency had been “instrumental” in handling paperwork and processing for the delays caused by the order and made special exceptions to accommodate them. The director of the Ethiopian agency “argued passionately” for the U.S. to continue taking in refugees, saying that the executive order “would affect America’s image abroad,” according to the memo. The State Department refugee coordinator, Peter Vrooman, discussed with the U.N. personnel and the International Organization for Migration how to get Canada, France, and Nordic countries to accept more refugees as the United States took in fewer. Both international organizations “realize that even in a best-case scenario, expanded quotas from other countries will not make up for reduced intake from the United States.”

Faraj Ghazi al-Jamous, a Syrian refugee who was prevented from travel to the United States due to President Donald Trump's executive order blocking entry to citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Syria, sits in a living room with his son, showing documents provided by the UNHCR verifying his status, in the Jordanian capital Amman on February 1, 2017. After spending over a year amid interviews, health and security checks, Jamous, a father of five who was travelling with his wife and children, was contacted by a representative from the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) who told him that the family's immigration and resettlement plans were suspended indefinitely. / AFP / Khalil MAZRAAWI        (Photo credit should read KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)

Faraj Ghazi al-Jamous, a Syrian refugee prevented from travel to the U.S. due to President Donald Trump’s executive order, sits in a living room with his son in the Jordanian capital, Amman, showing documents provided by the UNHCR verifying his status, Feb. 1, 2017.

Photo: Khalil Mazraawik AFP/Getty Images

In response to questions from The Intercept, a State Department official said that “U.S. funding provides life-saving assistance to millions of displaced and crisis-affected people, including refugees worldwide” and highlighted ongoing humanitarian support for Ethiopia and Jordan. In fiscal year 2017 to date, the official said the United States had resettled 2,897 refugees from Ethiopia, primarily Somalis and Eritreans. The official was unable to immediately provide a comparable figure for Jordan.

The Jordan memo also discussed local reaction to the ban. Government officials in Jordan said privately that the order would “benefit Daesh recruitment” (using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State), and the embassy in Amman also noted public outrage at the ban in a section headed with a quote: “It’s easier to get into heaven than the United States.” Even people not directly affected were turned off: A Jordanian employee withdrew herself from a U.S.-sponsored course, and a group of high school seniors visiting the embassy who had planned to attend college in the U.S. now said “that they had reservations.” The memo notes, “high-achieving Jordanian students now appear to be considering other options — particularly Canada.”

Other State Department memos released to The Intercept detail public and governmental responses from other nations, including protests in Malaysia and “broadly negative” reactions in Iraq. A dispatch from Somalia noted that the media reaction there was “muted,” but the discussion is mostly redacted. Other memos — on Sudan, Afghanistan, Bulgaria, and Canada — were almost entirely withheld. The documents were released as part of an ongoing Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for records relating to the travel ban from a number of federal agencies.

Top photo: Syrian refugees are seen at the Zaatari refugee camp, on the Jordanian border on May 31, 2017.

Join The Conversation