The US government plans to almost halve the number of refugees allowed into the country to “alleviate the burden” on its immigration system.

The country’s state department announced it would only allow 18,000 people to resettle over the next 12 months – the lowest number in the history of the modern refugee programme.

Donald Trump’s administration said it had to shift its focus to processing a backlog of asylum claims, mostly filed by refugees crossing the US-Mexico border.

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The US state department said in a statement: “The current burdens on the US immigration system must be alleviated before it is again possible to resettle large number of refugees.”

The move has been criticised by human rights groups.

Of the proposed 18,000 spots, 4,000 would be reserved for Iraqis, 5,000 for those fleeing religious persecution and 1,500 for people from the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

President Donald Trump, who has made cutting immigration a centrepiece of his presidency, has also issued an executive order saying he would give state and local governments the option to opt out of resettling refugees in their communities.

One of his first acts after assuming office in January 2017 was to issue an order capping the maximum number of refugees that year at 50,000, less than half the number former president Barack Obama had set a few months earlier.

The refugee cap was then cut to 45,000 for 2018, 30,000 for 2019, and now 18,000 for 2020.

The reduction comes at a time when there are nearly 71 million displaced people around the world, many of them refugees who have been waiting years in limbo for a chance at resettlement.

The administration said refugee resettlement was a drain on government resources but immigration experts say new arrivals, who come with a legal status, often quickly fill jobs and contribute to local tax revenues.

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Samantha Power, a former US ambassador to the UN, described the move as an “abomination”.

Meanwhile, Mark Hetfield, chief executive of Jewish non-profit refugee assistance organisation HIAS, said the executive order was an attempt by Mr Trump to “allow governors and mayors to imitate his own refugee ban, state by state and town by town”.

Under US law, the president must consult Congress before finalising the annual number of refugees it plans to accept but the decision is ultimately made by the White House.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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