Are Refugee Resettlement Services Doing More Harm Than Good?

By Els de Graauw, Shannon Gleeson, and Nicole Kreisberg

Following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, more than 75,000 Afghans have been relocated to the United States. For now, there is broad public support for these Afghan evacuees. However, concerns over the fiscal impacts of resettlement could create backlash, as happened in 1980 when large numbers of Cuban refugees arrived in Florida. While Afghan evacuees have access to limited government support, our research suggests that this falls far short of what is needed for their successful integration.

The political context for refugees arriving to the United States, like those fleeing war-torn Afghanistan, goes back to the 1980 Refugee Act. This federal law established the contemporary U.S. refugee resettlement program, centered on a public-private partnership where the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) funds and collaborates with nine nongovernmental national resettlement agencies to help refugees and their families in securing housing, learning English, and — most importantly — finding employment quickly. While critical to America’s humanitarian responsibility, the U.S. refugee resettlement program suffers from important shortcomings that have left many refugees behind.

“Refugees often struggle with English and have little formal education, yet they are expected to achieve self-sufficiency as quickly as possible.”

Why the U.S. Resettlement Program Fails Many Refugees

Our research shows that despite unique and early access to government-funded and nonprofit-administered employment services, refugees experience employment declines the longer they live in the United States. This runs counter to the U.S. resettlement program’s objectives and threatens refugees’ long-term upward mobility.

The steady decline in federal resettlement funding is partly to blame, which mirrors decades long defunding of the welfare state. Refugees could count on three years of government support during the early 1980s, but today that generally is no more than six months. This is insufficient to help refugees overcome job loss or learn English, pursue an education, and address their physical and mental health, all of which affect job retention and long-term integration.

Further, refugees often struggle with English and have little formal education, yet they are expected to achieve self-sufficiency as quickly as possible. This forces resettlement agencies to funnel refugees to large employers proactively seeking refugee labor for their poultry plants, hotel and restaurant chains, and assembly factories. These are often physically arduous, poorly paid, and dangerous jobs located far from where refugees are housed. In all, these jobs provide little incentive to keep for the long term; better jobs obviously exist, but they are hard to come by.

Finally, refugee support organizations are siloed, with little time and money for coordinating with each other. This makes it challenging for refugees to get the long-term integration assistance needed to thrive, despite the best of intentions. The large network of ORR-funded organizations, including the International Rescue Committee and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, offer critical initial support to refugees but rarely work with the alternatively funded network of smaller community organizations that provide long-term services to a broad range of struggling individuals.

“The focus needs to be on investing in and giving refugees time to learn English, recertify or expand their education, and address their physical and mental health, not flinging them immediately into the precarious and unforgiving low-wage labor market.”

Re-imagining Refugee Resettlement

A re-imagined resettlement system needs to prioritize refugees’ human capital development. This requires ongoing supports over a longer time period, not just in the early months after arrival to the United States. The focus needs to be on investing in and giving refugees time to learn English, recertify or expand their education, and address their physical and mental health, not flinging them immediately into the precarious and unforgiving low-wage labor market. This will allow refugees to build new lives in the United States while caring for themselves and their families with greater dignity and more independence.

Also, government-led resettlement efforts need to integrate a broader array of community organizations. State refugee coordinators, who hold quarterly meetings with relevant stakeholders, can do more to bring different resources together so that refugees can more seamlessly navigate different support services. Refugees are more likely to succeed and lead a dignified life when the government effectively collaborates with a wider array of community organizations. These organizations, however, need ongoing government and philanthropic support to make this happen.

About the Authors

Els de Graauw is an associate professor of political science at Baruch College and of international migration studies at the Graduate Center, CUNY. @edegraauw

Shannon Gleeson is a professor and chair of labor relations, law, and history at Cornell University’s ILR School. @shannonmgleeson

Nicole Kreisberg is a David E. Bell postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Population and Development Studies. @nicokreis

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