Refugee arrivals in Tennessee drop to historic low in 2020

By: - July 8, 2021 5:01 am
(Photo: John Partipilo)

(Photo: John Partipilo)

As a former child soldier, Gatluak Thach was granted refugee status and moved to Nashville in 1996 to start a new life.

Efforts to teach his wife and the nearby community English eventually led to Thach founding the Nashville Center for Empowerment, but over the last few years, Thach noticed a significant decrease in the number of refugees coming to Tennessee, a statistic echoed throughout the country. 

While COVID-19 significantly impacted refugee settlement programs and services, the number of people granted asylum in the US was significantly throttled under the Trump Administration. 

Under the Obama administration, Tennessee received a total of 1,683 arrivals in 2014. In 2016, Tennessee received 2,049, one of its largest resettlements in recent history, according to the Tennessee Office for Refugees

From 2017 to 2018, total arrivals dwindled from 1,185 to 478. In 2020, Tennessee received 225 arrivals, the lowest recorded in recent history. 

Nationwide, only 11,814 refugees were accepted into the country in 2020 in response to Donald Trump’s conservative immigration policies, limiting access to asylum and suspending refugee arrivals from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.

These low numbers were further impacted by the pandemic, which affected refugee services overseas and in the United States.  

In 2020, Nashville received 151 arrivals, with some arriving as late as September. Refugee organizations normally oversee that refugees settle into their new lives, but the pandemic interrupted even the most basic services.

Case workers working remotely found it difficult to keep in contact with refugees, who often had limited technical and English skills. Recent arrivals were unable to find employment and were in need of financial assistance, along with food and transportation. Thach’s organization coordinated with other organizations, such as United Way of Greater Nashville, to continue providing services to refugees, but “It was a tough time for everyone, especially new Americans,” he said.  

Although refugee services are not back to normal, it’s better than it was last year, he added.

Tennessee has a long history of welcoming refugees, who are deeply rooted in our communities and have worked throughout the pandemic, in healthcare, food and other essential industries, to keep our communities safe and functioning.

– Judith Clerjeune, Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition

Still, the pandemic continues to impact refugee processing overseas. Although the Biden administration lifted some of the restrictions against immigration, increasing the cap from 15,000 to 62,500, refugee processing overseas “is still very slow,” said Louisa Saratora, state refugee coordinator for the Tennessee Office for Refugees. 

Processing has either slowed to a crawl or shut down altogether to ensure the safety of staff members. Refugees who had previously been approved for entry were now stuck in limbo, waiting for services to restart.   

“Remote work, no new interviews, health and safety restrictions on groups of any kind are all impacting the refugee program’s ability to increase refugee arrivals,” said Saratora.  

Refugees include asylees, special immigrant visa holders, Cuban or Haitian entrants and trafficking victims. Individuals are placed into priority lists for processing, leading to families being separated. Refugees arriving in the U.S. can petition for their families to come join them, but with new COVID variants rising, families could be separated for years. 

“A lot of them are still waiting on a simple interview,” said Tabeer Sindi, president of the Tennessee Kurdish Community Council. “Everything is up in the air.”

The UN Refugee Agency estimates that the global refugee population has more than doubled in the past decade and that global forced displacement rose to 80 million through mid 2020. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), overall political violence declined, and more countries experienced violence. Demonstrations increased worldwide, and as the vaccine distribution accelerates, conflicts are expected to increase in 2021. 

Sindi doesn’t know if COVID is entirely to blame for the halt to refugee processing, but he hopes the Biden administration continues with immigration reform and simplifying the process.  

The Mutabazi family outside their Nashville home. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Alex Mutabazi, back row center, brought his family to Nashville I’m 2016 to escape violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Sindi and his family came in 1996 as political asylees joining the active community of immigrants that led Davidson County to become a city of diversity. Nashville is home to the nation’s largest Kurdish community, estimated to be a population of 15,000. 

Immigrant communities have been credited with filling voids in Tennessee’s workforce and make up a large number of workers at Gaylord Opryland and the Nashville International Airport, staples of the city’s tourist industry. 

“Tennessee has a long history of welcoming refugees, who are deeply rooted in our communities and have worked throughout the pandemic, in healthcare, food and other essential industries, to keep our communities safe and functioning,” said Judith Clerjeune,  advocacy director at Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.

Refugee organizations are hoping that after years of conservative political policies and COVID’s recent effects on Tennessee’s refugee resettlement program that they’ll be able to continue providing essential services for the state’s refugee population, while many wait to unite with loved ones.  

“It is our responsibility as human beings to do whatever we can to give hope to those whose hope  has been broken,” said Thach.


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Dulce Torres Guzman
Dulce Torres Guzman

Dulce has written for the Nashville Scene and Crucero News. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, she received the John Seigenthaler Award for Outstanding Graduate in Print Journalism in 2016. Torres Guzman is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She enjoys the outdoors and is passionate about preserving the environment and environmental issues.