On numerous occasions, President Trump has described America’s asylum laws as the most accepting — or, in his words, “dumbest,” in the world. “When people, with or without children, enter our Country, they must be told to leave… only country in the World that does this!” he tweeted this month. But many other countries are much more accepting of asylum seekers than the United States is. In fact, the United States ranks 50th in the world in net increase in asylees, refugees, and people in similar situations as a share of its population since 2012.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) publishes data on the number of refugees and asylum seekers in each country. From 2012 to 2017, UNHCR finds that the United States accepted a net increase of 654,128 asylees, refugees, and people in similar circumstances. That amounted to 0.2 percent of the U.S. population in 2017. As the Figure below shows, 49 other countries had higher rates of acceptance than the United States did. The average rate of acceptance for the top 50 countries was 1.2 percent of the population — six times higher than the U.S. rate.
In absolute terms, the United States does rank in the top 10, but it is important to control for the size of the population of the receiving country both to understand the likely effects of the absolute numbers on the country and to allow a legitimate comparison across countries. This is the same reason why per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a better measure of how wealthy people in a country are than just aggregate GDP. The Chinese are not seven times wealthier than Canadians because China’s GDP is seven times larger. In fact, Canadians are five times wealthier because Canada’s per capita GDP is five times larger. To understand how wealthy or how accepting a country is, the population of the country is as relevant as the size of its aggregate wealth or the absolute number of immigrants it accepts.
The more accepting nations include Australia and most of Western and Northern Europe — Sweden, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, Italy, Norway, Finland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. The average rate for these countries was 0.7 percent — 3.3 times more than the United States. But it also includes many countries that are much less wealthy than the United States. Lebanon, which has accepted an astounding 14 percent of its population in asylees just since 2012, has a per capita GDP of $8,400 — 7 times less than the United States — but it has accepted asylees at 73 times the rate of the United States.
President Trump is simply incorrect that other countries don’t accept refugees and asylees, including those who come in unannounced. In fact, four dozen other countries are dealing with more significant asylee populations than the United States is. Some of the difference between the United States and other countries could be explained by UNHCR shifts in methodology in who is counted as a refugee or asylee. As I have explained before, however, the United States has been one of the least welcoming wealthy countries in terms of net total immigration as a share of the country’s population in recent years. America should reform its immigration laws, but it should do so to make them more welcoming, not less.