In September 2015, after photos of drowned three-year-old Alan Kurdi made front pages across the world, Britain’s then-prime minister David Cameron announced the UK would welcome 20,000 Syrian refugees from camps in the Middle East. “It is absolutely right that Britain should fulfil its moral responsibility to help those refugees,” he told Parliament.
Refugee advocates welcomed the move, and in 2017, more than 6,000 refugees were transferred to new homes in the UK from other parts of the world — the highest since the country’s resettlement scheme was launched in 2004. At the same time, however, Britain’s policy towards people who arrive as asylum seekers and apply for refugee status in the UK has tightened significantly. The number of people granted protection after applying in Britain has fallen by nearly 80% from its 2000 peak of 31,000.
Britain’s shift is part of an international trend. The number of countries running resettlement programs — in which a government selects refugees from overseas, then brings them to the country — almost doubled between 2005 and 2015. Yet attitudes to “spontaneously arriving” refugees have hardened. The upshot: such schemes may be more effective at burnishing humanitarian credentials than actually helping refugees.
Bring them, don’t let them come
The growth in resettlement schemes is partly the result of determined advocacy from the UN’s refugee agency. During the 1990s, resettlement was less urgent because a large number of refugees were able to safely return home, according to Jeff Crisp, the agency’s former head of policy.
By the end of the decade, however, more protracted conflicts meant that fewer refugees could return to their home countries. That meant they needed new homes, and the developing countries which had hosted them for the short-term were very reluctant to grant any kind of permanent status.
That left only one option for helping refugees, said Crisp: “there was a fairly concerted effort to expand the number of resettlement places available.” Annual consultations between UNHCR, governments and NGOs were launched to share knowledge about how to design and implement resettlement programmes, helping push it up the international agenda.
Governments were receptive to this advocacy because they thought of resettlement as a less politically contentious way of helping refugees.
“You’re deciding to bring people rather than, as with asylum, accepting it after it’s already happened,” said Joanne Van Selm, a co-author of the European Commission’s 2003 feasibility study into resettlement. The managed process also means there is more capacity to plan and consult with the local communities that will receive new residents.
New resettlement programmes also reflect governments’ desire to compensate for increasingly harsh border controls after 9/11, according to Naoko Hashimoto, a researcher at the University of Sussex who formerly worked for the International Organization for Migration. “There is a desire to control who is going to cross the border,” she said, “but countries are still interested in maintaining their international reputation.”
But while the number of resettlement schemes has grown from 16 to 28, the number of refugees getting protection hasn’t increased anywhere near as much, and the large majority of places are still offered by the handful of countries with longstanding resettlement programs. The US, Canada and Australia have typically — until President Trump’s cuts to the US scheme — made up about 85% of all resettlement.
Most new schemes operate on a very small scale. “With the traditional countries, you were talking about tens of thousands,” Crisp said, “and now you’re talking about hundreds.” Thirteen countries, including Japan and Spain, settle fewer than 100 refugees a year, and France’s programme breaks that threshold only thanks to special places for Syrians. Chile last year welcomed 66 Syrian refugees, bringing the total number it has resettled since beginning its program in 1999 to about 500.
That’s partly because the process of selecting, evaluating and transporting refugees is itself complex, and after arrival governments need to figure out how to effectively provide language education, credential recognition and support services, according to Susan Fratzke, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. “It’s quite a logistically heavy process,” she said.
These challenges are compounded, according to Van Selm, because even longstanding resettlement schemes vary significantly in their structure. “There isn’t a one-size-fits-all model for new countries that are looking to do this,” she said. The US program is split into three slightly different categories, for example, while Canada’s is divided between government- and privately-sponsored streams.
Given these difficulties in expanding them rapidly, the new resettlement schemes are unlikely to herald a revolution in how refugees are protected internationally. Instead, Hashimoto suggests in a recent paper, they suggest governments are viewing resettlement as an alternative, rather than a complement, to asylum.
This tradeoff is clear, for example, in the EU’s March 2016 agreement to resettle one Syrian from Turkey in exchange for every asylum seeker returned there from Greece, and a 2011 agreement between Australia and Malaysia (scuppered by a court ruling) had a similar structure.
But expanding resettlement can’t truly substitute for granting asylum, according to Van Selm. “The numbers would have to be so massive to have that kind of impact,” she said, because small programmes make little difference to the incentive to travel and claim asylum.
So is the growth in resettlement really just a branding exercise for governments taking a stricter line on asylum seekers? Not quite, said Hashimoto. “Resettlement is an avenue to open access to protection for extremely vulnerable individuals,” she pointed out, particularly those with medical issues that make it difficult for them to travel of their own accord.
The challenge for policymakers is to convince political leaders to view resettlement and asylum as complementary, not alternatives. Resettlement is often the most politically manageable way of helping refugees, Fratzke conceded. “But that doesn’t mean that having a route for people to spontaneously claim asylum should go away,” she said. “It’s a fundamental part of the international system. You can’t have a protection system that is based exclusively on resettlement.”
(Picture credit: Flickr/John Englart)