After five years of hoping and waiting, Marie*, her husband Simeon* and their three children, refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, finally received a phone call telling them to pack their bags; they would be leaving South Africa for Australia at the end of the month.
Simeon was unconcerned by the short notice. “We’ve been ready for so long,” he told IRIN from the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) offices in Pretoria where the family had just learned the name of the city where they would be restarting their lives in a few days.
“Brisbane,” said Marie, testing the word on her lips for the first time. “Do you know where that is?”
For refugees with no possibility of either returning home or permanently settling in their host country, resettlement to a third country is considered as a last resort. To call Marie and her family lucky is pushing it, after the hardships they have endured, but it is true that only 61,600 refugees were resettled in 2011, a fraction of the 780,000 that UNHCR estimates to be in need of resettlement, and down from the 73,000 resettled in 2010.
“It’s very labour intensive,” explained Shant Dermegerditchian, a regional resettlement officer with UNHCR based in Pretoria. “UNHCR has to make sure there’s integrity in the case, and that refugee status and the need for resettlement is clear.
“As much as we can make the recommendation for resettlement, the places are very limited and it’s ultimately the [resettlement] country that makes the determination if they want to accept a person,” he added.
Just 26 countries have functioning resettlement programmes, with the USA operating by far the largest, followed by Canada and Australia. European countries have collectively offered only 4,000-5,000 annual resettlement places in recent years.
Few resettlement options in Europe
The large number of asylum seekers who independently make their way to Europe has reduced support for resettlement there, said Torsten Moritz, Executive Secretary of the Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe, which is leading a campaign to increase the number of refugee resettlement places available in the European Union to 20,000 by the year 2020.
“The perception is Europe does asylum and the US does resettlement,” he told IRIN. “We’re saying, we can do more. Europe is one of the richest regions, despite the [economic] crisis, and we’re doing very little.”
The EU Council recently agreed to promote a policy of increased resettlement by offering coordinating support and financial incentives to member states which accept refugees for resettlement. “Most of the countries would be keen to get some of the EU funding, but it’s a completely voluntary thing; it’s nothing the EU can enforce,” commented Mortiz. “That’s one of the reasons we felt we needed to put a quota on the table.”
Even within UNHCR, resettlement has its champions and its detractors, according to Amy Slaughter, COO of RefugePoint, a US-based refugee rights organization which deploys its staff to UNHCR offices throughout sub-Saharan Africa to boost their capacity to refer refugees in need of resettlement. “One argument is that it’s a solution for so few and takes up a lot of resources,” she said. “In situations where the needs are vast, it’s pushed to the bottom of the priority list because they’re busy taking care of emergency needs.
|In situations where the needs are vast, [resettlement] is pushed to the bottom of the priority list because they're busy taking care of emergency needs|
“But it’s a vital long-term solution and it has benefits for families in terms of assets gained in countries of resettlement, such as education and finances.”
At the Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement held in Geneva recently, UNHCR High Commissioner António Guterres advocated an increase in resettlement numbers and that local UNHCR offices be held accountable for meeting their resettlement targets.
Slaughter attributed the dip in numbers last year to the deteriorating security situation at Dadaab refugee complex in eastern Kenya which hosts half a million mostly Somali refugees. “A lot of resettlement countries have stopped sending their officials there,” she said.
According to Dermegerditchian of UNHCR, the USA also introduced a new security procedure last year which delayed many cases, particularly those of Somalis and Iraqis, and saw the number of refugees resettled from South Africa drop from 387 in 2010 to just 81 in 2011.
“This year, things are moving much better and we’ve already had 220 departures,” he said.
Until a wave of xenophobic violence against foreigners erupted in South Africa in 2008, the country was considered fairly progressive in its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers and as having little need for resettlement. Since that time, most of the cases that UNHCR refers for resettlement are victims of continued xenophobic attacks, many of them Somalis attempting to run businesses in low-income areas where their presence is viewed as a threat by local traders.
UNHCR’s Resettlement Handbook lists seven categories, at least one of which a refugee must fall under to be considered for submission. The first is a lack of legal or physical protection in the host country. Others include the unavailability of life-saving medical treatment and risks particular to women, children and survivors of torture. A “lack of foreseeable alternative durable solutions” is the seventh category, but in reality too many refugees fall into this category for it to be applied except in rare cases.
|SOUTH AFRICA: Marie, “It’s been a long journey and a painful one”|
Photo: Taurai Maduna/IRIN
|Only one in 10 refugees needing resettlement are eventually resettled|
|JOHANNESBURG, 1 August 2012 (IRIN) - Marie*, her husband and their three children, refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), are about to relocate from South Africa, where they have lived for the past decade, to Australia where they have been accepted into that country’s refugee resettlement programme. Full report|
“It’s still mainly used as a protection tool here in South Africa,” said Dermegerditchian. “There is a lot of managing expectations and we have to be clear that only one in 10 refugees [needing to be resettled] have the possibility for resettlement.”
In a life-threatening emergency, refugees can be resettled in a matter of weeks, but the vast majority of cases take a minimum of six months and more often several years starting with extensive interviews with staff from UNHCR or one of its implementing partners, followed by more interviews, security checks and medical screening by officials from the resettlement country.
“After 9/11, there were lots of added layers of security checks, especially for anyone with an Arabic name,” noted Slaughter.
For a refugee desperate to escape an intolerable situation and make a fresh start, the process can feel endless, particularly if it ends with a rejection. Dermegerditchian said over 90 percent of the cases that UNHCR submits for resettlement in the southern Africa region are accepted, but Marie and her family were rejected by both the USA and Canada before Australia agreed to take them.
Marie is convinced that they were rejected because two of their children suffer from haemophilia, a genetic disorder that impairs the body’s ability to control bleeding, but Dermegerditchian was reluctant to speculate.
“Resettlement countries have their own criteria; they only inform us of the reasons for denial in general terms,” he said. “In some cases UNHCR needs to re-interview the refugee to make sure their stories are consistent. If we can’t find a problem, we resubmit their case to another country.”
After years of joblessness, denial of medical treatment for their children and what they said was constant xenophobia from their neighbours, Marie and Simeon’s relief to be leaving their home of the last decade is palpable.
“The fact that they’re welcoming us [in Australia] - it frees you psychologically,” said Simeon.
*Not a real name