By Mike Nicholson
Migration Policy Institute
Of the 92,000 UNHCR submissions for refugee resettlement in 2011, 20,000 were from Iraqis seeking refuge primarily in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. (Photo courtesy of EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection.)
Today, more countries than ever are formally participating in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) resettlement program. The number of resettlement countries broadened from 14 states in 2005 to 26 in 2012, with 11 UNHCR programs added since 2007 (in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Paraguay, Portugal, Spain, Romania, and Uruguay). Resettlement initiatives have extended beyond the traditional resettlement provider regions — North America, Western Europe, and Oceania — into Latin America, Asia, and Eastern and Central Europe. Beyond the expansion of resettlement countries, other positive developments have occurred in recent years, including the adoption of the Joint European Union Resettlement Scheme. Nevertheless, UNHCR predicts that resettlement needs, both present and future, will continue to outpace the available slots — making increased participation in resettlement a high priority on the international agenda for some.
Refugee resettlement — whether implemented on a formal or ad hoc basis — is a process by which certain people who have fled conflict, persecution, or other crisis are selected 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. Many of the new resettlement programs remain small and weakly institutionalized and traditional resettlement countries still take in the bulk of UNHCR-sponsored refugees.
Why do countries choose to participate in refugee resettlement? This article investigates the expansion of formal participation in UNHCR's resettlement program by first characterizing UNHCR resettlement at an operational level before proceeding to analyze the recent expansion of UNHCR-sanctioned resettlement initiatives.
Refugees differ from asylum seekers in that the latter flee their country and seek sanctuary without first obtaining prior permission. An asylum seeker who demonstrates a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group gains refugee status, which provides legal protection and material assistance.
Countries may set annual quotas or ceilings for a certain number of resettled refugees; cooperate with UNHCR in providing resettlement places; or accept resettling refugees on an ad hoc basis.
Resettlement is one of three durable solutions to humanitarian crises advocated by UNHCR, and is often seen as a last resort. The other durable solutions are repatriation and local integration. Resettlement may be used as a political tool or burden-sharing mechanism by UNHCR and resettlement countries in order to encourage countries of first asylum to locally integrate asylum seekers or to encourage sending countries to accept repatriated refugees.
Resettlement in Numbers
Overall, three countries — the United States, Canada, and Australia — receive the lion's share of resettled refugees, while 16 European countries provide 8 percent. Today, five Latin American countries receive Colombian refugees, and Japan (which has a long history of closed borders) is the only Asian resettlement country with a small-scale pilot program, established in 2010.
Of the estimated 10.5 million refugees of concern to UNHCR in 2011, the agency submitted 92,000 applications for resettlement. The main countries of birth of those who have sought refuge in another country in 2011 were Myanmar (21,300), Iraq (20,000), and Somalia (15,700). These refugees were unable or unwilling to return to their origin country, and were also living in dangerous situations that could not be addressed in the country where they had sought protection. UNHCR estimates that some 181,000 refugees will be in need of resettlement in 2013, and the top countries of first arrival for refugees needing resettlement will likely be Kenya, Ecuador, Syria, and Turkey.
UNHCR's Resettlement Program at an Operational Level
The UNHCR resettlement program is completely voluntary in nature. UNHCR engages state leaders through bilateral meetings, regular communications, regional strategic planning meetings, and annual tripartite consultations that involve states, international organizations, and NGOs. Through these forums, UNHCR keeps countries informed about the scope and nature of refugee crises and appeals for resettlement assistance. On the ground, UNHCR engages NGOs to build public support for resettlement. Broadly speaking, UNHCR staff spend a great deal of time explaining to states why UNHCR policies must satisfy refugee advocates and explaining to refugee advocates why policies must satisfy countries.
When countries volunteer to formally participate in UNHCR's resettlement program, their leaders work with UNHCR to develop annual numerical quotas for refugee resettlement. Countries have final say over the size and composition of their resettlement programs. Hence quotas, as a percent of resettling states' national populations, vary drastically across countries and even across time. For example, West Africa was the initial focus of the UK program, opened in April 2003 with an annual quota of 500 places, and Liberian refugees were selected that year. Alternatively, in the past decade Chile has accepted Iranian, Afghan, and more recently Colombian refugees.
Prior to resettlement, UNHCR conducts background investigations on asylum seekers in transitional asylum countries and recommends specific individuals for third-country resettlement. Resettling countries then agree to admit UNHCR-sponsored refugees with permanent resident status. Governments retain significant autonomy throughout this process and asylum seekers are typically scrutinized against domestic admissions criteria prior to resettlement. Resettling countries are expected to provide refugees with the same political, economic, social, and civil rights enjoyed by citizens and to protect refugees against involuntary repatriation. Given the difficulties inherent in convincing states to voluntarily repatriate refugees, UNHCR typically considers resettlement only when integration in temporary countries of asylum or repatriation is impossible. Since the Cold War, member states, seeking to gain better control over refugee entries, have pushed UNHCR to adopt a narrow, protection-based definition of refugees. Recommendations for resettlement are typically reserved for the disabled, children, the elderly, or individuals facing critical security and health risks in initial countries of asylum. Many of these individuals have survived physical or psychological trauma.
UNHCR has also upgraded its assessment of resettlement applications over the last decade. To assess asylum seekers' eligibility for resettlement, UNHCR works extensively with NGOs on the ground to conduct individualized assessments of asylum seekers and their communities. In recent years, UNHCR has standardized interview and documentation procedures and implemented an electronic registration database that stores asylum seekers' biometric information, making the asylum process more transparent.
Countries rely heavily on UNHCR's information-gathering capabilities when resettling refugees. Although many countries, such as Canada, operate sponsorship-based refugee admissions schemes that exist alongside UNHCR initiatives, much of resettlement countries' refugee intake consists of UNHCR-sponsored refugees.
Members of UNHCR's Executive Committee (currently made up of 87 members) are not required to participate in resettlement initiatives. In fact, there exists no law requiring states to resettle refugees. Diffusion of participation has been driven largely by UNHCR lobbying efforts. It is also worth noting that UNHCR is dependent on contributions from member states, especially from the United States and the Nordic countries. The agency does not provide material rewards or incentives to states participating in resettlement initiatives. Developing countries that agree to establish programs are offered financial assistance, but this is limited and sometimes insufficient to enable the integration of refugees into their host society, as evidenced by the failure of assisted resettlement programs in Benin and Burkina Faso in 2001.
The Proliferation of Domestic Resettlement Initiatives
Recent years have witnessed an unprecedented expansion of UNHCR-sanctioned resettlement efforts from relatively wealthy countries concentrated in Europe, Oceania, and North America — the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries — to more Western European countries as well as developing states in Eastern and Central Europe. The proliferation of resettlement programs does not seem to fit neatly into any well-defined geographical or developmental pattern. While many have maintained ad hoc resettlement programs in lieu of formal annual quotas, others have opted not to participate in UNHCR resettlement efforts at all. Notably, Japan's pilot resettlement program represents the first of its kind in Asia. The new list includes a mix of countries that have long been destinations for migrants and those which are new immigration states.
While resettlement programs have been announced or established in countries such as Bulgaria, Romania, and the Czech Republic, no such programs have been established in Slovenia and Slovakia, which perhaps have roughly similar capacity to accommodate refugees. Interestingly, Poland attempted to participate in the pilot relocation program the European Union ran in Malta to reduce the strain on the Maltese system by relocating asylum seekers across Europe, even if they don't have a formal resettlement program — albeit with limited success due to lack of interest in moving to Poland. In Latin America, the expansion of resettlement has been confined to the Southern Cone, while countries such as Costa Rica have opted to maintain ad hoc resettlement programs.
Outside of Japan, resettlement initiatives have been almost entirely absent in middle- and high-income countries in Asia and the Middle East. However, it must be noted that some countries receive large numbers of refugees; it is doubtful that UNHCR pressures Thailand or Turkey for example, one of the largest source countries for resettled refugees, to adopt a resettlement program when the country already struggles to absorb hundreds of thousands of Burmese asylum seekers because resettlement is often undertaken as a burden-sharing mechanism to reduce the pressure countries face in hosting such large refugee populations. In Africa, short-lived resettlement programs were established in 1998 in Benin and Burkina Faso to receive refugees resettled from Chad, Equatorial-Guinea, and other African countries, but such efforts have failed to take off elsewhere on the continent.
A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Formal Participation
In negotiating resettlement programs, UNHCR must strike a balance between promoting refugee protection and considering the sovereign prerogatives of its constituent countries. Countries themselves must weigh the reputational and normative benefits of establishing UNHCR-sanctioned resettlement programs against the material and political costs — and benefits — of absorbing refugees.
Refugee resettlement is often a costly undertaking. Countries that establish UNHCR resettlement programs must assume the costs of resettling refugees; the actual costs of running a resettlement program vary from country to country. Resettlement countries may elect to sponsor resettled refugees only to a certain extent upon arrival, and countries do take advantage of this flexibility. For example, until 1996, refugees resettled in the United States who otherwise met the requirements of federal public assistance programs were immediately and indefinitely eligible to participate in them just like US citizens. However, since that year, refugees and other specified humanitarian entrants are subject to time limits and are expected to become self-sufficient within a short period of time. Resettlement countries may elect to resettle refugees with special medical needs (such as Norway), and this incurs higher costs to the resettlement country.
Countries must also pay for refugees' travel to and from their initial country of displacement and for initial medical screenings; they must provide visas, and sometimes temporary lodging. Since many refugees eligible for resettlement are elderly or disabled, resettlement frequently imposes a fiscal burden on destination states' resources. Resettled individuals often are incapable of working to sustain themselves and may require substantial support from the state to receive medical care.
These policies can sometimes be politically costly in countries where anti-immigrant sentiment runs deep. Many governments are under pressure to tighten immigration controls in the wake of recent influxes of asylum seekers (who by definition have not yet been granted refugee status). As migration has intensified over the last decade, anti-immigrant political parties, while sometimes short-lived and opportunist, have expanded their support bases in a number of European countries, notably Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, and the Netherlands. These parties have helped bring debates over the costs and benefits of immigration to the political foreground.
Leaders find themselves under increasing pressure to limit migratory inflows, especially since the global recession that began in 2007-08 which has intensified anti-immigrant sentiment in many countries. A number of countries, notably the United Kingdom, strengthened residency requirements and tests for citizenship. Many states stepped up immigration enforcement — high-profile raids of settler camps were carried out in Calais, France, and in Greece orchestrated by the far-right Golden Dawn party. Some countries, notably Japan, Spain, and the Czech Republic, even went so far as to offer migrants financial incentives to return home. Many of these countries, however, adopted resettlement programs after or during the recession in spite of tightening restrictions on other forms of immigration.
On the flip side, resettling refugees from a particular country can be read as a sign of solidarity or support, or as a show of responsibility in responding to international crises such as violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Northern Africa.
Further Analyzing State Participation in UNHCR Resettlement Initiatives
Some analysts have suggested that countries resettle refugees in order to enhance their international reputation. Many resettlement programs are small and poorly publicized on the international stage, although countries can and have agreed to resettle a small number of refugees in order to claim that they contribute to an international humanitarian effort.
Resettlement countries may take in refugees in a manner consistent with broader foreign policy objectives, that is, to demonstrate solidarity with allies and signal disapproval of their rivals' actions. The United States resettled Hungarian refugees after the Soviet invasion in 1956 and Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon (however the United States opened a UNHCR resettlement program only in 1975).
UNHCR itself may be in part responsible for countries' increasing interest in resettlement due to its apolitical and impartial nature and international moral authority. The agency has the capacity to persuade state leaders to assume the costs of implementing resettlement. Increasingly, UNHCR has sought to influence countries' resettlement efforts via alternative channels, namely through increased action with civil society and judicial activism. The agency intervenes in court cases alongside other organizations as a means to develop protection standards and to maintain consistency in refugee law application. The agency also has access to domestic political channels, especially in countries where domestic human rights and refugee advocacy groups enjoy significant political access and are able to interject refugee rights into political discourse. The agency works closely with NGOs in many countries and urges them to raise awareness of resettlement concerns.
Next, countries may be likely to establish formal annual resettlement quotas when they are enmeshed in multilateral dialogues or consultative processes related to refugees or migration. Leaders may establish resettlement programs when their neighbors and strategic partners do likewise. Countries participating in multilateral forums may increasingly come under pressure to share the burden of resettlement. Such embeddedness may also enhance the international reputational benefits of supporting resettlement. Additionally, these events may raise awareness of the gravity and scope of refugee crises. Finally, leaders involved in international forums may also be well positioned to learn from other states' resettlement experiences, providing valuable information that may reduce the social and fiscal costs of resettlement. Put simply, international embeddedness may alter the costs and benefits of establishing resettlement programs.
Still, while UNHCR efforts unquestionably have contributed to the expansion of resettlement efforts to emerging resettlement countries, it is likely that domestic politics and international considerations ultimately have played the critical role in leaders' policy decisions with respect to refugee policymaking.
It is no coincidence that most of the new resettlement countries are located in Europe and Latin America, regions characterized by a high degree of multilateral discussion and cooperation on refugee issues. In Europe, the last decade witnessed efforts to harmonize European asylum policies and to establish an EU country quota system for resettlement independently of UNHCR. To that effect, numerous multilateral meetings were held. In Latin America, surging refugee flows from Colombia over the last several decades prompted countries, particularly those of the Southern Cone, to create a cooperative infrastructure aimed at facilitating the multilateral management of refugee flows. These efforts include the Specialized Migratory Forum of Mercosur and the Puebla Process/Regional Conference on Migration, among others.
Next, countries may be most likely to establish formal annual resettlement quotas when influential politicians are sympathetic to refugee causes. It is interesting to note that many influential Latin American leaders sought refuge abroad themselves, including Michele Bachelet, the former president of Chile, and Jorge Taiana, formerly Argentina's minister of foreign affairs. When influential leaders were themselves refugees or when members of their family or party were refugees, they may be especially receptive to UNHCR appeals.
Finally, states may be likely to abjure formal resettlement quotas in favor of ad hoc resettlement programs when their leaders are dependent on the political support of large, politically powerful diaspora groups that have ethnic ties to refugee populations. When states establish formal annual resettlement quotas under UNHCR auspices, countries are still free to reject recommended refugees and to allocate their quotas as they see fit. (The United States has not met its resettlement quota for a number of years.) The setting of regional quotas can be a foreign policy tool, showing that a certain country is a priority. And countries, at least those with larger programs, will often leave a certain number of spots unallocated to respond to any new needs that may arise.
Why, and under what political conditions do states assent to the establishment of formal UNHCR-sanctioned quotas for refugee resettlement? There is no clear answer to these questions. It is plausible that countries may introduce formal resettlement programs when NGOs are politically influential, when states are invested in regional dialogues pertaining to forced migration, and when state leaders have been socialized in favor of refugee protection. However, further research and testing are necessary to determine whether these hypotheses bear out.
Further study in this area could have significant policy impact. UNHCR asylum applications have risen dramatically over the last decade. A detailed analysis of the political calculations that influence states' propensity to subscribe to resettlement policy initiatives could help policymakers formulate and advocate policies that are robust and politically viable.
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