Analysis | Displacement diplomacy

In the era of mass displacement, refugee resettlement isn’t just compassionate humanitarianism. It’s also savvy foreign policy.

Emily Crane Linn

This piece is part of ISD’s Fall 2021 blog series, “A better diplomacy,” which highlights innovators and their big ideas for how to make diplomacy more effective, resilient, and adaptive in the 21st century.

Laundry hangs out to dry in a refugee camp, as children walk in the background.
A Syrian refugee camp on in Turkey (Image: Julie Ricard on Unsplash)

Last month, President Biden announced that he would raise the refugee admissions ceiling to 125,000 for Fiscal Year 2022, a 28-year high for the United States. These 125,000 refugees are in addition to the 95,000 Afghan evacuees set to be resettled across the country by the end of next year. This marks a dramatic departure from the Trump administration’s approach, which slashed the admissions ceiling down to 15,000 in his last year in office . The expansion of the resettlement program will provide critical humanitarian protection for the world’s most vulnerable refugees. But refugee resettlement is not merely compassionate humanitarianism; it is also effective diplomacy.

The idea of refugee resettlement as foreign policy is hardly new; during the Cold War, the United States used the refugee resettlement program to reward citizens of communist countries for defying their governments. To this day, the United States maintains a special resettlement program for citizens of former Soviet Union countries facing religious persecution.

That the bureau that oversees the resettlement program is lodged within the State Department seems a tacit acknowledgment of the role of resettlement as a foreign policy tool. However, in an age of record displacement globally, refugee resettlement can be much more than a leftover Cold War tactic to undermine foreign adversaries; it has a wide range of diplomatic uses that the United States and other wealthy democratic countries should leverage as a part of their broader foreign policy.

First and foremost, robust refugee resettlement demonstrates a commitment to human rights and freedoms, and upholds critical international conventions which are central to the rights-based, democratic world order that the United States seeks to advance. Refugee resettlement programs are public endorsements of the freedom of expression, the freedom of religion, women’s rights, minority rights, and democratic ideals. They are a repudiation of repressive autocracies and identity-based discrimination. They allow Western democracies such as the United States to boldly and publicly “practice what they preach,” and give them much greater legitimacy when demanding human rights protections in other countries. If human rights and liberal democracy are central tenets of a country’s foreign policy, refugee resettlement greatly strengthens their position on those issues.

Second, refugee resettlement is a powerful diplomatic tool for managing relationships with refugee hosting countries. Of the 26 million refugees displaced worldwide, more than 10 million are concentrated in just five countries: Turkey, Colombia, Pakistan, Uganda, and Germany. Nearly all the rest are hosted by developing or least-developed countries. In 2020, only 250,000 refugees worldwide returned home and only 35,000 were resettled; the rest remained in their places of displacement, with their host countries bearing the primary responsibility for managing and protecting them.

Infographic: UNHCR

None of the conflicts that produced these massive refugee populations appear easily resolved. Nevertheless, countries have not committed to host displaced people in perpetuity; they expect and require the international community to help secure durable long-term solutions to displacement for the refugees temporarily housed within their borders. Resettlement cannot be the primary solution for the millions displaced, but it could certainly be expanded to great diplomatic effect. Wealthy countries could make resettlement commitments with refugee hosting countries much as they make commitments on foreign aid, security assistance, or trade. Resettlement commitments can strengthen countries’ negotiating positions on other issues and can deepen ties and relationships between countries.

Third, over the medium term, refugee resettlement can establish strong ties with countries emerging from conflict, as diaspora populations, welcomed and integrated into the United States, seek to shape the future of their countries of birth. In the case of Liberia, many prominent members of the diaspora in the United States went on to occupy influential positions in the post-war government. In Afghanistan, as many as 80 percent of cabinet ministers and senior government officials were thought to be former diaspora members before the Taliban takeover this past summer. In some cases, the United States has been able to recruit diaspora members into their own Foreign Service, opening new diplomatic channels with their countries of origin. Diaspora communities can offer the United States additional levers of influence in shaping governance and development strategies in post-conflict countries and can also pave the way for strengthened diplomatic and economic relations with the United States.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken sits at a table at a conference
Secretary of State Antony Blinken participates in a Regional Migration Ministerial on October 20, 2021. (Image: U.S. State Department on Flickr)

Fourth and finally, refugee resettlement is a critical diplomatic tool for negotiating global and regional strategies on migration and displacement. The 2018 Global Compact on Refugees and Global Compact on Migration signal a growing recognition that migration and forced displacement are not phenomena that can be addressed unilaterally or bilaterally, but instead require multilateral commitments and collaborations. Last month, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken convened the first ever regional conference on migration, seeking to increase cooperation on migration and forced displacement across the Western Hemisphere.

The coming decade will only bring an increased demand for multilateral agreements on migration, and refugee resettlement will be a critical component of any such agreements. By increasing their resettlement commitments now, the United States and other resettling countries will strengthen their negotiating positions in these crucial near-future dialogues.

For decades, the United States has been able to more or less ignore the problem of mass displacement: most refugee crises have taken place in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, far away from the U.S. border. This status quo meant that the United States and the world’s other wealthy countries could take a humanitarian approach to resettlement, resettling fewer than 1 percent of refugees per year as an act of charity or goodwill, and supporting humanitarian programs for the rest, out of sight and out of mind.

That status quo is gone. Today, one of the world’s largest displacement crises is taking place in Venezuela, well within reach of the United States. Climate change, corruption and violence are driving Central Americans from their homes in record numbers. Last year, the United States apprehended a historic 1.7 million migrants at its southern border, and these migrants came from a greater diversity of backgrounds than ever before, as more and more refugees and migrants from Africa and the Middle East have chosen to spurn the refugee camps and take their futures into their own hands, crossing the Atlantic and daring the harrowing journey towards the U.S. border overland from places like Brazil.

Refugee resettlement can no longer be viewed as an optional act of charity and must instead take its place as a critical tool for shaping foreign policy and diplomacy.

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The Diplomatic Pouch features insights and commentary on global challenges and the evolving demands of diplomatic statecraft. Views are those of the authors and not necessarily the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy or Georgetown University. Visit isd.georgetown.edu for more.

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