From Europe to the U.S., and beyond, changes are being made to policies that determine who among the world's roughly 12 million refugees will be able to resettle in a safe third country. Today's transformations will have a critical impact on refugees, from their personal safety to their place of residence and family unity. For many, the outcome will have a long-term effect on their life chances.
Most refugees, fleeing to escape violence or persecution, come to rest in the border regions of neighboring states. Their troubles are rarely over at that point. The conflicts they have fled may pursue them across the border, the host country may threaten to return them to the dangers they have just escaped, or they may face years of bare subsistence cut off from their usual means of livelihood and unable to integrate into the economy and society of the host country. Refugee resettlement is the process by which some refugees are allowed to leave a country of asylum and start life anew in a third country that is willing to receive and protect them on a permanent basis. Resettling refugees are, in this way, distinct from asylum seekers, who arrive without prior authorization to seek refugee status.
Out of roughly 12 million refugees in the world today, only about 100,000 per year have been selected for resettlement in the late 1990s and the early years of this decade. Ten countries -- Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States -- have, since the 1970s, set annual quotas or ceilings for a certain number of resettlement slots, though the Swiss quota is suspended. Since 1998, another eight have started to cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in providing resettlement places. Four additional states -- Belgium, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom -- accept refugees for resettlement on an ad hoc basis. UNHCR normally refers 35-40,000 refugees for resettlement each year, and receiving countries directly select approximately 60,000 more.
The year 2002 has not been a normal year for refugee resettlement around the world, however. The number resettled will be far below the norm of 100,000, particularly because of the impact of the events of September 11 on the U.S. resettlement program. The United States accounted for between 60 and 85 percent of all refugees resettled in 1998-2001. In 2002, security concerns slowed the U.S. resettlement program to the point where no more than 25-30,000 refugees are likely to enter through this channel, against a ceiling of 70,000. The future size and shape of the program is unclear.
At the same time that the U.S. resettlement program is being scaled back, at least temporarily, Western European countries are re-examining their involvement in resettlement. Some individual countries, such as the United Kingdom, are considering the establishment of national resettlement programs. The European Union is also investigating the feasibility of a union-wide resettlement plan that could involve all fifteen member states and expand as more states become EU members. These deliberations are taking place against a backdrop of growing concern about the considerable number of spontaneous asylum seekers arriving in Europe, and the suggestion by some politicians that a tougher line on asylum seekers might be counterbalanced by a more expansive resettlement program. Outside the EU, Australia has become the first country explicitly to reduce resettlement in proportion to unauthorized arrivals of asylum seekers.
UNHCR continues to push for an expansion of resettlement, both by recruiting new participant countries and by urging existing ones to maintain or expand their quotas. First asylum countries hosting large numbers of refugees urge the application of faster and more flexible resettlement procedures to take some of the pressure off their own communities. With all of these pressures, refugee resettlement clearly is going through a period of transition, whose outcome remains to be seen.
The Purposes of Resettlement
Refugee resettlement has multiple personalities within the international refugee regime. It is a powerful tool of protection for individual refugees, a means to secure other rights, a durable solution for those who cannot go home or integrate in the country of first asylum, and a means by which states can share the responsibility for refugees with overburdened host countries and by doing so bolster their commitment to providing first asylum.
For some refugees, the country of first asylum is not safe. Refugees escaping persecution may find that the agents of their persecutors -- the government of the home country, or a rebel group -- operate with impunity across the border, or that there are groups with similar agendas in the place of exile. Afghan women who escaped the misogynistic rule of the Taliban often have found themselves at risk in Pakistan, especially if they transgressed the strictures on female education, work, or dress. Women who do not have the protection of a male relative are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse in that and many other settings.
Refugee camps sometimes fall under the control of one faction in a multi-faceted conflict, as was the case among Cambodian refugees in Thailand and Rwandan refugees in eastern Zaire. In such situations, refugees associated with different factions are often targeted. Ethnic minorities among refugees, like the Roma among ethnic Albanian Kosovar refugees in Macedonia, may be scapegoated, abused, or excluded from assistance.
Very often, local law enforcement is unable or unwilling to intervene when refugees are victimized. UNHCR may conclude that the only way it can guarantee the protection of some refugees is to refer them for resettlement, usually on an individual basis. The United States, Canada, and Australia also accept protection cases identified through means other than UNHCR referrals, but UNHCR remains the main gatekeeper for resettlement as a means of protection.
The ability to move from one place of refuge to another is one of the few means that refugees have to effect the human right to family unity. Refugee families are often separated in the process of flight and may end up in different countries. The countries with the largest resettlement programs (Australia, Canada, and the United States) give some preference to close relatives of refugees already settled in these countries. Resettlement is also used to enable refugees to get vital medical treatment not available to them in the country of first asylum. Some countries with relatively small resettlement programs specialize in these resource-intensive cases.
The search for a durable solution to the refugee's plight can end in one of three ways: repatriation, integration in the country of first asylum, or settlement in a third country. Planned resettlement has an important role to play in bringing exile to an end, not only for individual refugees, but also as part of a comprehensive plan for an entire refugee population. In the aftermath of a peace agreement, for example, as in Angola in 2002, the majority of refugees may choose to return home. Some may prefer and may be allowed to remain permanently in the country of first asylum, eventually assuming citizenship. Zambia is opening this possibility for some Angolans who have lived there for many years. But there are also likely to be some refugees who for some reason are not able to return safely or to integrate locally, and for them resettlement may be the only solution in sight. Several thousand Somali Bantu, a minority group descended from slaves and subject to brutal discrimination by the dominant clans in Somalia, are being processed for resettlement in the United States. Repatriation would place them in renewed danger, and their host country is not willing to have them remain indefinitely.
Beyond providing individual protection and a durable solution for some refugees, resettlement can function as a broader support for refugee protection by assuring countries of first asylum that other countries are willing to share responsibility for refugees. Resettlement can act as a safety valve where the presence of a particular group within a refugee population may cause tensions with the local people or create security concerns. In a few cases, countries of first asylum have demanded resettlement as the price for keeping their borders open to refugees: in Macedonia in 1999 or Southeast Asia in the late 1970s and early 1980s. With such a small number of resettlement places available, there is an obvious danger in this pattern becoming widespread.
Unmet Needs, Unfilled Places, Uncertain Future
The number of refugees seeking resettlement hugely exceeds the number of places available. Paradoxically, and despite this overwhelming imbalance, more than 10,000 agreed resettlement slots expire unfilled in an average year. As Mark Hetfield of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a U.S. resettlement agency, points out, "Over the last decade more than 100,000 refugees in need of resettlement could have been rescued from danger, or been provided with an opportunity to lead productive fulfilling lives, rather than living off handouts in squalid camps or struggling underground as urban refugees." Part of the explanation for the "unfilled seats in the resettlement lifeboat," as Hetfield puts it, lies in the difficulties in identifying who among the millions of refugees worldwide is most in need of resettlement as a means of protection.
UNHCR has established criteria that are supposed to be applied uniformly, but the work of identification is extremely labor-intensive and subject to many pitfalls. The pressures on resettlement staff from desperate refugees can be intense, endangering objectivity. With so precious a resource at stake, fraud and corruption are constant dangers. Refugees often have genuine difficulty in establishing their identity by modern bureaucratic standards, having lost, been robbed of, or never possessed documents recording their birth, residence, and relationships. These concerns have been greatly heightened by post-September 11 security developments.
Refugee resettlement remains an essential tool of protection, solution, and international burden sharing. But with the U.S. resettlement program on an uncertain trajectory, Europe contemplating a new approach, and new countries starting to participate, refugee resettlement at the end of this decade may look very different than it does today.