Trump addresses crowd at inauguration concert at the Lincoln Memorial
Trump addresses crowd at inauguration concert at the Lincoln MemorialReuters

President Donald Trump defended an executive order halting the entry of asylum seekers into the United States, rebuffing criticism from European leaders and protesters who labelled the move a ban on Muslims.

The order, signed by the president on Friday, fulfills a campaign promise by Trump, who repeatedly pledged in 2016 to temporarily halt the entry of asylum seekers from countries with high levels of terrorism until the vetting process for potential immigrants to the US is revamped.

Under the new directive, no asylum seekers will be permitted into the US for a period of 120 days. In addition, the order creates a general ban on refugees from Syria beyond the 120 days. Also, all non-citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen – including green-card holders – would be barred from entering the United States for 90 days.

Just hours after the order was signed, two Iraqi citizens carrying US visas were initially denied entry into the United States at JFK airport in New York.

That sparked angry protests around the US and drew criticism from European leaders.

"We have signed international obligations, so welcoming refugees fleeing war and oppression forms part of our duties,” said French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

"Love thy neighbor is part of this tradition, the act of helping others. This unites us, we Westerners,” said German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel.

French President François Hollande also weighed in: "We should engage in discussions that sometimes should be very firm ... When he rejects the arrival of refugees, while Europe has done its duty, we should respond to him."

President Trump responded via Twitter on Sunday, reaffirming his support for “strong borders” and “extreme vetting”, adding that Europe was no example for immigration policy, calling the continent “a horrible mess”.

“Our country needs strong borders and extreme vetting, NOW. Look what is happening all over Europe and, indeed, the world - a horrible mess!”