For better and for worse, refugee resettlement is finally part of the global debate. What next?
For those who’ve worked on refugee resettlement for many years — including hundreds of IRC staff in 29 cities around the United States — there have always been a few constants that we could rely on. The support of local communities, including diverse religious congregations and community members across the political spectrum. Strong bipartisan support led by a few iconic champions (think Senator Ted Kennedy). And almost no visibility on the domestic or global political stage. The U.S. resettlement program was one that saved lives and restored hope in an apolitical and unassuming space, with domestic resettlement agencies quietly helping refugees integrate in new communities in all 50 states, buoyed by the welcome, support and mentorship of generous community volunteers, church groups, synagogues, and local charitable organizations. Since 1975, the U.S. has resettled well over 3 million refugees fleeing conflict and persecution, hundreds of thousands of them through the IRC. The refugee program enables the world’s most vulnerable people to start over and become proud American citizens.
Until recently, the narrative around resettlement was simple: a life-saving program, a small but important pillar of U.S. foreign policy, a proud legacy reflecting our country’s values that any American could get behind regardless of their party or their views on immigration. But more fundamentally, most Americans simply didn’t know much about resettlement. Who knew that the fellow PTA mom arrived from Laos at the age of 9 through the refugee program? Who knew that the local entrepreneur opening a neighborhood restaurant lived in a camp for Burmese refugees for 18 years? Who knew for that matter that Sergey Brin — the co-founder of Google — came to the U.S. as a refugee at age 6, fleeing religious persecution in the Soviet Union? The resettlement effort flourished in obscurity.
What is resettlement, anyway?
Resettlement is the selection and transfer of refugees from a host country where they have sought protection (like a Syrian refugee who has fled to Lebanon) to a third country (like the U.S.) that agrees to admit them permanently as a refugee. In the U.S., refugees admitted under the resettlement program become permanent residents and have the opportunity to eventually become a citizen.
And then there was 2015. The viral photo of a Turkish toddler, drowned and washed ashore on a Turkish beach, captured the world’s attention and generated unprecedented global sympathies for the plight of Syrian refugees. Here in the U.S., the Aylan Kurdi photo unleashed an outpouring of interest in helping refugees, so much so that the IRC and other resettlement agencies around the country could hardly keep up with the requests: “How can I help?”…“Can we host a needy Syrian family in our home?”…”Can my church help sponsor a refugee?” Monetary and in-kind donations appeared on doorsteps. Community members came to IRC volunteer trainings in record numbers.
But being an election year, this was unfortunately only one side of the story. 2015 was also the year when a small but determined group of anti-resettlement activists got the ear of politicians, gaining particular traction after the Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks (neither involving refugees), and sending politicians on a course of attack against Syrian and Iraqi resettlement. The consequences went much farther than the outrageous, irresponsible, fear-mongering public statements conflating innocent refugee families with terrorists. The House of Representatives passed a bill to shut the door to Syrian and Iraq refugees, prompting a grassroots effort (including a letter-writing campaign by tens of thousands of IRC supporters) to preserve the program and keep America a welcoming place for all refugees.
Fortunately, the bill didn’t pass the Senate, but toxic rhetoric scapegoating Muslim refugees had taken root as a core pre-election narrative. Thirty-one Governors declared a “ban” on Syrian refugees; a few attempted to deny them assistance; Kansas, New Jersey and Texas announced plans to withdraw from participation in the refugee program; and state legislatures in 19 states introduced 52 anti-refugee bills to try to curtail the arrival of refugees or the work of resettlement agencies. (Again, grassroots efforts ensured that 51 failed to pass). The IRC even had to withstand a lawsuit by a Governor in order to continue resettling Syrian refugees in Texas, prompting The Nation to identify the IRC as the “Most Valuable Humanitarians” of the year.
Fortunately, in the face of hateful political scapegoating of refugees, the Obama Administration — spurred by refugee rights, civil liberties and faith voices around the country — didn’t flinch. The U.S. met and exceeded its goal of resettling 10,000 Syrians and the President announced plans to increase admissions of refugees from 85,000 persons in 2016, to 110,000 in 2017. Not exactly a giant leap forward given the scale of the global refugee crisis, but still forward-leaning given the domestic political environment and the operational challenges of scaling up the program. The President also mobilized global attention to resettlement when he convened a September 20th Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, securing tangible commitments to assist refugees from over 50 heads of state as well as 51 private corporations, including a collective doubling of refugee admissions, initiatives to help new countries become resettlement destinations, and mobilization of private sector support to strengthen integration of resettled refugees. These are laudable achievements, particularly when viewed in contrast to the lackluster September 19th UN General Assembly Summit on Migrants and Refugees, which produced little in the way of systemic change or progress towards more equitable responsibility-sharing. But compared with the scope of the need, these achievements can only be a start.
So what next?
UNHCR has said that over 1.19 million refugees are in urgent need of resettlement due to acute protection risks, particular vulnerabilities, and special needs that cannot be addressed or resolved in their host countries. Over 1.19 million refugees — that’s the resettlement “demand.” Yet in 2015, UNHCR was only able to resettle around 82,000 refugees because that’s what the “supply” (in the form of resettlement country quotas) would bear. In this context, a global doubling of resettlement commitments as a result of the President’s Summit can only be seen as “a decent start” which must lead to further exponential increases in refugee admissions to wealthy countries.
Historically, refugee resettlement has always been the most discretionary practice within the implementation of the international refugee regime. States resettle as many or few refugees as they deem convenient and state quotas are easily held hostage to domestic political debates. The era of discretion must come to an end. With the vast majority of refugees living in economically- and politically-fragile states, we will only see more irregular flows towards the West, more political instability in already-fragile regions, and more human suffering if wealthy countries don’t step up to take their share.
Responsibility must not fall only to those countries which happen to neighbor countries in conflict — what some experts have called “responsibility by proximity.” From the IRC’s perspective, a new global framework for true responsibility-sharing will need to include a multi-year, multi-lateral plan to ensure that no less than 10% of the world’s refugees have access to a resettlement solution within a 3 year period — with equitable scale-up of national commitments accordingly. A critical component will be to prioritize resources for post-arrival refugee integration and for public education campaigns that combat xenophobia and Islamophobia.
The bottom line is that wealthy nations no longer have the luxury of viewing resettlement as a charitable thing we do when it’s convenient.
States’ individual resettlement efforts must add up to a whole which guarantees protection and solutions for the most at-risk refugees so that innocent refugee children do not drown at sea, so the most vulnerable refugees don’t fall through the cracks, so that host countries bearing the lion’s share are not destabilized. Despite the toxic political rhetoric of the last year, the IRC’s experience in communities around the United States continues to demonstrate ten times over that most Americans want to help refugees. A year of cynical pre-election fear-mongering does not define our national values. Amid all the noise, American communities have continued a long national tradition of stepping up to welcome refugees. It’s time for governments to do so.
The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 26 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future and strengthen their communities.