[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.]
The world is facing a global refugee crisis. With more than 65 million people forcibly displaced globally, many of them living in protracted situations of displacement, the work of enhancing, improving and expanding mechanisms to provide durable solutions for forcibly displaced people has rapidly increased in urgency.
The solutions for forcibly displaced people in part depends on the nature of their displacement. As the chart below shows, forcibly displaced persons around the globe can be grouped into four main categories. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) make up nearly two-thirds of the total number of forcibly displaced people. IDPs fled their homes because of violence, but did not cross an international boundary. A little over one-quarter of the world’s forcibly displaced persons, meanwhile, meet the refugee definition set out by the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The convention defines refugees as persons who have a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group and are outside of their country of citizenship or habitual residence. A smaller group of the world’s forcibly displaced persons are asylum seekers, refugees awaiting decisions on their applications to stay in the country to which they have fled. Finally, the more than five million Palestinian refugees globally fall within their own category. Their initial displacement predates the 1951 refugee convention and so the protection mandate of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) does not extend to them. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) addresses the humanitarian needs of Palestinian refugees; since the early 1950s, however, no United Nations agency has actively worked for durable solutions for Palestinian refugees.
As part of its protection mandate, UNHCR explores three types of durable solutions for persons meeting the convention’s definition of refugee: repatriation to one’s home country, local integration into the first country of asylum and resettlement to a third country. This issue of Intersections explores some of the challenges and opportunities of refugee resettlement.
Refugee resettlement is by no means the only durable solution for refugees promoted by MCC, its partners or global organizations. In many countries around the world, MCC works with local partner organizations to support displaced peoples in efforts to return to their homes or to stay closer to their homes. Meanwhile, through peacebuilding, livelihoods, food security, humanitarian response and other programs, MCC and its partners work to prevent the creation of refugees. Given the staggeringly large number of refugees globally and the comparatively limited number of resettlement placements, refugee resettlement cannot be the primary way the international community seeks to respond to the global refugee crisis. Nevertheless, refugee resettlement, alongside voluntary repatriation and local integration into host countries, represents an important tool for addressing the global refugee crisis.
Refugees themselves look at resettlement in different ways. For some, resettlement to a third country can feel like a denial of their true being and identity, which are inextricably tied to the land they left. For these refugees, voluntary repatriation to the land from which they were displaced may be the preferred solution. For others, resettlement appears as the only hope for a future.
In 2003, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR, also known as the UN Refugee Agency) began promoting the “strategic use of resettlement.” A central idea of this approach is that resettlement countries will demonstrate “burden sharing” (now called “responsibility sharing”) with the countries of first asylum who host the bulk of the refugees globally. So, for example, countries like the United States and Canada would share the responsibility of addressing the needs of Syrian refugees, the majority of whom have found first asylum in countries such as Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon.
The results of the “strategic use of resettlement” approach have been mixed. Selection of the most vulnerable refugees is challenging, while the task of integrating vulnerable refugees can be difficult for resettlement countries. Still, resettlement has remained an important part of the response to forced displacement globally. Access to other solutions seems to be dwindling as more conflicts drag on and appear intractable, making prospects of repatriation seem dim, and with host countries like Jordan buckling under the burden of more refugees.
MCC has a long history of supporting refugee resettlement, including support for Mennonite refugees from Europe to the U.S. and Canada. In 1979, in response to the war in Vietnam, MCC Canada became the first agency in Canada to sign a Master Agreement with the government of Canada to sponsor refugees as an organization. More recently, the refugee crisis related to conflict in Syria and Iraq has generated significant interest in refugee sponsorship again. Between September 2015 to July 2017, MCC Canada submitted 2,349 new applications to sponsor refugees, with 2,367 MCC-sponsored refugees arriving in Canada within that same period. This represents more than a tenfold increase in annual arrivals from 2014 to 2016.
Two key issues define the refugee resettlement challenge: selection and integration. While the UNHCR estimates that about 1.1 million of the 22.5 million refugees in the world require resettlement in both 2017 and 2018, only about 10% will have the opportunity for resettlement. These sobering numbers can make selection of refugees for resettlement extremely challenging. Those who do get resettled usually face a range of challenges in becoming integrated into their new home communities.
The articles in this issue examine the challenges of both selection and integration. Barbara Treviranus, who has extensive experience making difficult selection decisions as a UNHCR resettlement officer and as a Sponsorship Agreement Holder representative in Canada, writes about the current challenges in an environment in which the number of refugees is increasing and the number of resettlement spaces appears set to shrink. Nathan Toews explores a unique situation in which a partnership developed by Mennonite churches in Colombia and Canada and facilitated by MCC addressed the resettlement needs of internally displaced Colombians. The remaining articles by Saulo Padilla, Katie Froese, Shalom Wiebe, Stephanie Dyck and Christine Baer examine different dimensions of the challenges and opportunities facing efforts to support resettled refugees as they integrate into their new communities. Taken together, these articles help us think through the opportunities and challenges for Christians in Canada and the United States to respond to the biblical call to welcome the stranger (Matthew 25:35) through refugee resettlement.
Brian Dyck is the migration and resettlement program coordinator for MCC Canada. He is also chair of the Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holder Association.
Epp-Tiessen, Esther. Mennonite Central Committee in Canada: A History. Winnipeg, Manitoba: CMU Press, 2013.
Epp-Tiessen, Esther. “Tensions in MCC Canada’s Resettlement of Vietnamese Refugees.” Intersections: MCC Theory and Practice Quarterly 5/2 (2017): 11-13.
Molloy, Michael J., Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka. Running on Empty: Canada and the Indochinese Refugees, 1975-1980. Montreal & Kingston: McGill Queens University Press, 2017.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The Strategic Use of Resettlement: A Discussion Paper Prepared by the Working Group on Resettlement). June, 2003. Available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/41597a824.html