When all else fails for a refugee – when there is no prospect of them being able to go home or integrate in their host country – the UN refugee agency submits their case for resettlement to a third country.
In 2015, it did so for 134,044 individuals, about 61 percent of whom actually departed for one of 30 resettlement countries. The figure is higher than any previous year, but still only represents a fraction of the more than one million people UNHCR estimates are in need of resettlement and less than 0.5 percent of the total refugee population. The other 99.5 percent largely remain in host countries in parts of the world that can least afford to absorb them.
As global refugee figures continue to climb, the UN is pushing wealthier states to significantly increase their resettlement commitments. In the run-up to a summit in September to address large movements of refugees and migrants, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is urging states to take in at least 10 percent of the total refugee population, either through resettlement programmes or other legal channels such as work or study programmes, family reunion, or medical evacuation.
But is such an ambitious target realistic given the current political climate?
Immigration is a major issue in upcoming presidential elections in the United States, which is by far the largest resettlement country (it accepted 62 percent of all UNHCR submissions in 2015). Republican nominee Donald Trump has been very vocal about his opposition to admitting refugees from the Middle East and no significant changes to US policy on resettlement are likely ahead of the elections in November.
In Europe, several countries have announced new or expanded resettlement programmes for Syrian refugees in 2015, but implementation has been slow. A joint EU scheme only resulted in 6,321 out of the intended 22,000 refugees being resettled by May of this year. The right-wing government of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban has launched a referendum campaign to prevent the resettlement of just 1,300 refugees as its contribution to the scheme, and other member states also seem reluctant to fulfil their quotas, citing security concerns in the wake of the Islamist extremist attacks in Paris last November.
The controversial EU-Turkey deal, which includes a provision that one Syrian refugee is resettled from Turkey to Europe for each refugee returned to Turkey from Greece, has so far only resulted in 511 Syrians being resettled.
At a high-level meeting in Geneva in late March, UNHCR also made little headway in convincing countries to take in more Syrian refugees through resettlement and other legal routes.
None of this bodes well for Ban’s 10 percent goal, but UNHCR and civil society groups that support the target insist it’s within the realms of possibility.
“There is momentum at the moment which wasn’t there before,” said Aspasia Papadopoulou, senior advocacy officer with the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE). “There’s a growing realisation that there is no other way – that the number of displaced is the highest since World War II so there has to be bolder and bigger targets.
“The 10 percent figure might not be reached this year, but it might be reached incrementally,” she told IRIN.
Aurvasi Patel, a senior resettlement coordinator with UNHCR, pointed out that the target is realistic “in terms of the needs”.
In a report out this week, UNHCR estimates that by 2017 the need for resettlement will climb to nearly 1.2 million people, just 170,000 of whom will be submitted for resettlement.
The agency makes its submissions based not only on how many resettlement places countries make available but also on its own capacity to process applications. The UNHCR report states that without additional staff and resources, even processing 170,000 applications next year won’t be possible.
“Resettlement is a very labour-intensive exercise, so human resources are very much needed,” said Patel, noting that 200 additional staff were hired to handle submissions for 2016, but that more would be needed for next year.
The report was released to coincide with an annual meeting in Geneva this week in which representatives from UNHCR, NGOs, and resettlement countries discussed – among other technical issues – how procedures could be made more efficient and less labour-intensive.
Currently, different resettlement countries have different requirements: some insist that UNHCR does refugee status determination before referring potential cases while others allow the agency to make selections based on vulnerability.
“There are strong efforts to simplify processes which we’re discussing with states,” said Patel.
The Syria effect
While the Syrian crisis has resulted in some countries launching new or expanded resettlement programmes, it has also had the effect of taking much-needed places away from other regions. In 2015, two out of every five submissions were for Syrians, while the percentage of those from Africa and Asia dropped.
“We’ve seen a trend in Europe where they’ve taken their quotas from other parts of the world and put them into Syria, so that means we get less of other caseloads resettled,” said Patel. “That is a concern, and it was strongly advocated [at this week’s meeting] to have additional places for Syrians and not take places away from other regions.”
A joint statement issued by 35 NGOs on Wednesday supporting the UN’s call for an urgent and dramatic increase in resettlement also stresses the need not to overlook other nationalities of refugees such as Somalis, Afghans, and Rohingya from Myanmar.
The statement points to the EU-Turkey deal as “a bad example” of a resettlement programme. “This deal is nothing more than a shameful one-for-one trading in human beings and implies large-scale returns between countries that do not ensure refugee protection,” said Catherine Woollard, ECRE’s secretary general.
UNHCR’s resettlement report describes the EU-Turkey agreement as having “increased the possibility for Syrian refugees in Turkey to gain access to a durable solution”, but Patel insisted that the agency is not involved in implementation of the one-for-one deal.