[Individual articles from the Fall 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]
With decades-long conflicts preventing the return of millions of refugees and newer outbreaks of violence leading to ongoing mass outflows of refugees from numerous countries, global resettlement needs have increased significantly alongside rising refugee numbers. For UNHCR, resettlement to a third country is a crucial tool to provide the most vulnerable refugees with protection and support they could not otherwise access. It is a durable solution for refugees who can neither return to their country of origin nor integrate in their country of asylum. Providing refugees with the legal status and support to rebuild independent lives is a significant state contribution towards responsibility sharing with countries hosting large numbers of refugees.
Resettlement is a small part of the solution for refugees. The UNHCR Projected Global Resettlement Needs 2018 document estimates that close to 1.2 million of the post-WWII global high of 22.5 million refugees need resettlement. Despite the diversification of resettlement involvement to 37 states and a record number of refugee submissions in 2016, the number of resettlement places committed by states has dropped again, with global needs outnumbering the 93,200 resettlement places states have pledged to make available in 2018 by a factor of 13 to 1. This drop is a sharp reminder of the vulnerability of the resettlement tool to political changes and the fragility of public support in many countries for voluntarily accepting refugees through resettlement.
The Syrian crisis put a focus on growing resettlement needs, and states responded. Many new states answered the appeals to offer resettlement places, particularly to Syrian refugees, either through formal resettlement programs or through other humanitarian admissions schemes, but the greatest increase in total numbers was offered by the United States, already the highest contributor. The Obama administration set a goal of admitting 110,000 refugees from the around the world in fiscal year 2017 (which started on October 1, 2016), an increase from 85,000 in fiscal year 2016 and from 70,000 in each of the previous three years.
Increased targets and financial support enabled UNHCR submissions to reach a 20-year high in 2016, with at least 162,575 refugees referred to states for resettlement consideration. Significantly, 44,000 of these submissions were from sub-Saharan Africa, the highest number in almost 15 years, and over 107,000 of these 2016 UNHCR submissions were made to the U.S.
The decision by the current U.S. administration to cut the resettlement arrival numbers to 50,000 in fiscal year 2017 has changed global resettlement dynamics. The combined total of 93,200 new places made available by states this year is a 43% reduction in what was offered in 2016, with particularly severe reductions in sub-Saharan Africa. Refugees themselves are devastated by this blow to their hopes and expectations, especially nationalities resettled by very few countries other than the U.S., such as Somalis. This drop has also exacerbated UNHCR’s challenges associated with effectively identifying those refugees most in need of resettlement and selecting those to prioritize for submission. This significant reduction by the U.S. government has also highlighted how vital the support of the receiving domestic population is to resettlement.
UNHCR assesses refugee populations’ prospects for durable solutions to identify refugees in need of resettlement as part of its mandate. However, with places available for less than 10% of those in need, the final selection of individuals and families who will have their cases submitted to a resettlement state is among the most challenging aspects of the resettlement process.
The production of a UNHCR resettlement submission is time-consuming and labour intensive. Well-established and closely monitored standard operating procedures ensure that the process is tied to the protection strategy for individual population groups and managed with integrity and transparency, but many factors impact decision-making. Every effort is made to prioritize based on the needs of the refugees and to sensitively manage refugee expectations against the number of resettlement places allocated. However, state preferences, logistical factors related to the accessibility of the refugees to be interviewed and the availability of resources to assess protection needs and process resettlement cases within set timeframes inevitably also play a role.
UNHCR has closely collaborated with states and other resettlement partners for decades. States have endorsed UNHCR’s submission categories and are responsive to the vulnerabilities identified in countries of asylum as articulated in the Global Resettlement Needs document. UNHCR calls on states to make multi-year resettlement commitments to allow UNHCR to plan effectively, but also to be open to urgent and emerging needs and to accept diverse caseloads. Individual resettlement states also understandably follow their own criteria, and are subject to pressures at home, particularly regarding perceptions of the needs and integration prospects of specific nationalities and profiles. As a result, although countries may request submissions from among the vulnerable groups identified by UNHCR in a specific country of asylum, such as survivors of violence and torture, women and girls at risk, children at risk and refugees facing legal and physical protection needs, UNHCR may still not be able to submit the neediest cases for resettlement.
There are never enough places for emergency cases that need immediate resettlement or for those with severe medical needs. Families with many children, single men, people with certain political profiles and persons with mental health challenges are not accepted by some countries. Other factors include the refugees’ inability to articulate their own refugee claim, medical or social conditions that the country is not able to address or security or other logistical issues that arise and make certain camps or locations inaccessible for resettlement processing. Furthermore, states with smaller quotas may legitimately wish to restrict their selection to a few nationalities to simplify the post-arrival integration supports required, or restrict their interview locations to reduce costs. With needs so far outstripping available places, UNHCR must inevitably make compromises.
On a practical level, UNHCR resettlement caseworkers are driven by the need to produce a set number of completed resettlement cases each week from among those identified with resettlement needs. Detailed interviews are required to ensure that the refugee claim, resettlement needs and family links are thoroughly and accurately documented. As part of the preparations, staff must update registration data often collected years before, assess dependencies to retain family unity and ensure that the best interests of unaccompanied and separated children are considered. There are many logistical factors, including limited access to the registration database and to certain camps, which may delay the completion of individual cases and challenge the ability to meet set targets.
From the perspective of staff in direct contact with refugees, it is painful that even refugees facing extreme difficulties must be told that no resettlement places are available for them. Tragically, the loss of hope of being resettled, coupled with the restrictions placed by many states on family reunification, is driving desperate refugees to travel onwards from their first countries of asylum. In doing so, they expose themselves to the risks of trafficking, kidnapping, sexual and other abuse, the possibility of death on open waters and rejection in new countries of asylum.
While the reduction of resettlement spaces offered by states in 2017 is disheartening, a greater awareness of resettlement needs globally has developed alongside an encouraging growth in the engagement of civil society and the private sector. One hopes that the promises embodied in the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, endorsed by every member state of the United Nations, will truly lead to states increasing their commitment to help refugees find durable solutions through resettlement or alternative migration pathways and to being more flexible in their family reunification processing. The world’s refugees deserve nothing less.
Barbara Treviranus has facilitated Canadian private sponsorships and was founding manager of the Refugee Sponsorship Training Program (RSTP) which trains and supports private sponsoring groups in Canada. She rewrote UNHCR’s Resettlement Handbook in 2011 and has worked for UNHCR as a resettlement caseworker in Nepal and a resettlement officer in Kenya and Ethiopia. This article reflects the personal perspectives of the author rather than the official position of the UNHCR.
UNHCR Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2016. June 2017. Available at http://www.unhcr.org/globaltrends2016/.
UNHCR. Match Resettlement Commitments with Action: UN Refugee Chief. June 12, 2017. Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/news/press/2017/6/593e5c364/match-resettlement-commitments-action-un-refugee-chief.html.
UNHCR Projected Global Resettlement Needs 2018. June 2017. Available at http://www.refworld.org/docid/5948ea944.html.
UNHCR Resettlement Handbook. 2011. Available at www.unhcr.org/resettlementhandbook.