Is Refugee Resettlement a Smart Strategy for the Rich Receiving-Nations?

The UN held a high-level summit to address the large movements of refugees and migrants yesterday. The Summit came at a time when conflicts and persecution forced more people from their homes than at any time since the UN Refugee Agency began keeping records. According to the Agency, at the end of 2015, 65.3 million persons were displaced worldwide — slightly over the size of UK population — of whom 21.3 million were refugees.

The outcome document for the summit, however, falls short of what is needed to deal with the refugee crisis. Ahead of yesterday’s summit, negotiators removed a clause asking rich nations to resettle 10% of the world’s refugees each year, thus sharing the burden with the host nations in the developing world. Currently, 89% of refugees and 99 % of internally displaced persons live in the developing world, says a new report by the World Bank. In the past five years, Jordan, with a population of eight million, and Lebanon, with a population of 4.5 million, have opened their borders to approximately 1 million and 1.3 million refugees, respectively.

Until now, these countries have coped surprisingly well with the dramatic change to their population. But there are “signs that Lebanon and Jordan are about to reach their saturation point” warns the Washington Institute. Lebanon already has a 120 percent debt-to-GDP ratio — among the world’s highest. Social and economic pressures could destabilize these countries should the war in Syria and the refugee flows continue.

A display of life jackets worn by refugees during their crossing from Turkey to the Greek island of Chois, are seen Parliament Square in central London, Britain September 19, 2016. Source: REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Similarly, the refugee distribution in Europe is increasingly uneven. Large countries such as the UK, France, and Spain, as well as the Eastern European countries (with the exception of Hungry), have received relatively fewer asylum seekers. Far more refugees and asylum seekers headed to Germany, Sweden, and the smaller countries at the European Union fronts (Greece, Malta, Cyprus, and Bulgaria). Sweden, for instance, has received as many as 190,000 refugees in 2015, according to official estimates, placing unprecedented strains on the country’s immigration services. This is not necessarily only an issue of border control per se, as states that are party to the Refugee Convention are required to carry out refugee status determination for each and every asylum seeker.

Legally, refugees are regarded as asylum seekers until the authorities in the host country establish that the asylum-seeker is unable or unwilling to return to his/her own country of origin due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on one or more of the five grounds — race, religion, nationality, member of particular social group, or political opinion — specified in the Convention. While refugees from Syria are fleeing from an obvious war, many among the asylum seekers who arrived in Europe are fleeing from state persecution and social violence due to their home state’s failure to afford protection for its citizens.

Countries of origin of (non-EU) asylum seekers in the EU-28 Member States, 2014 and 2015 (thousands of first time applicants). Source: Eurostat

Such an exercise requires enormous human resources ranging from case examiners, social workers, interpreters, and reviewers. It also means that many among the new asylum seekers will have to wait years to have an opportunity to present their asylum claims before the authorities, putting them in a protection limbo with few opportunities. A considerable number of the new arrivals are unaccompanied minors who require immediate attention including safe shelter, schools, in-house social workers, as well as psycho-social counselors. A failure to share the burden with Sweden by the fellow EU member states would lead to a systemic breakdown of the Swedish immigration services. This sad reality shouldn't happen, especially to a country that has been so generous to refugees.

Resettlement is one way to address the uneven refugee distribution in both the developed nations like Sweden and Germany and the developing ones such as Jordan and Lebanon. It also saves more resources for the receiving countries since most of the resettled refugees would go through a UNHCR facilitated status determination and are deemed to be the most vulnerable ones. The receiving states could then use those resources for integration efforts such as providing language courses for refugees and/or vocational training to integrate them into their labor force.

Critics might point out that resettlement would not necessarily stop refugees from taking dangerous routes to reach European shores. Long waits for status determination in the countries that received most might deter many asylum seekers. But make no mistake: Asylum seekers might go to the next destination, thus repeating everything that went wrong in the former. A collaborative resettlement target by the EU member states would result in a fairer refugee distribution among them.

Others would bring the question of security to the equation especially a time when anti-immigrant sentiments is surging in many countries in the West. This comes especially after “some of the migrants who entered Europe were linked to crimes, in few cases, attacks planned or inspired by the so-called the Islamic State or other radical groups” says The New York Times. But the most pressing security question is that of social cohesion, or what Barry Buzan would refer as societal security.

The developing world, too, is not immune to such societal insecurity. In Lebanon, where Syrian refugees now constitute a quarter of the population, towns across the small nation have introduced a curfew on “foreign” residents, states the Washington Institute. Human Rights Watch has also reported rising violence against Syrian refugees, and other NGOs have noted an epidemic of sexual and gender-based violence against the community, says the same report.

Currently, some 86 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, for instance, live in poor villages, with little or no opportunity for employment or education. Although many of the refugees do work illegally, their income is 40 percent less than the mandated $448 per month Lebanese minimum wage, reports the International Labor Organization. As a result, tens-of-thousands of refugees risk their lives in search for a better future. A failure to provide refugees with legal routes to the developed world contributed to the decision by over a million asylum seekers to travel to Europe by irregular means in 2015.

A boat carrying migrants in the Mediterranean, February 12, 2015. | Photo: Reuters

Certainly, resettlement alone will not address the plight of refugees trapped in camps. An equally smart aid must parallel with the resettlement, such as increasing the institutional capacity of the hosting states in the developing world. To a large extent, budget deficits in Jordan and Lebanon are the result of insufficient international aid assistance. This means more refugee children will not be able to attend local schools. In addition, both Jordan and Lebanon are struggling with high youth unemployment, making it harder for refugees to get access to the employment market.

In the end, the plight of refugees cannot be ditched by citing state interest or national security; it will indeed become a question of national security for some if the international society fails to collaborate and address the crisis collectively. It is regrettably painful to say resettlement is a strategy as oppose to compassion, but in the end, it is a pragmatic way to solve what could potentially become an immigration services disaster for everyone involved.