Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Surge and Selection: Power in the Refugee Resettlement Regime

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Surge and Selection: Power in the Refugee Resettlement Regime

Article excerpt

There is an Imbalance of power - and a resulting lack of agency for refugees - in the structure of the current resettlement regime. The top-down process of selection also poses ethical dilemmas, as recent surges In resettlement operations show.

Of the three durable solutions, resettlement is often the last option advocated by the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, and the last option desired by refugees. Yet in many conflicts there comes a tipping point at which UNHCR works with states to seek resettlement for a select few refugees. Less than 1% of all refugees receive the option to resettle in a third country.

How does a refugee become one of the few? The answer is: refugees usually cannot choose. The current structure of the resettlement regime requires UNHCR to choose refugees first and then to refer them to states. States then decide whether or not to accept them.

The refugee resettlement regime is designed to identify and protect the 'most vulnerable' refugees. At its core lies the 1951 Convention definition of a refugee, which UNHCR uses to conduct refugee status determinations and register refugees in countries of asylum. Given limited resettlement places offered by receiving countries, UNHCR has developed seven prioritisation categories to identify refugees with more serious or urgent protection needs. UNHCR sorts, filters and prioritises refugees in accordance with these categories to make referrals for resettlement to states. The resettlement referral selection process varies by region and UNHCR office, and protection officers may use participatory assessments, the Heightened Risk Identification Tool, or other referrals to identify the most vulnerable refugees for resettlement.

The UNHCR Resettlement Handbook states that selection "should not be based on the desire of any specific actors, such as the host State, resettlement States, other partners, or UNHCR staff themselves."1 In reality, very few states accept refugees for resettlement on a 'dossier' basis, that is, without further scrutiny of individual cases or additional selection criteria. In fact, most states assert their own specific selection criteria, thus creating the final layer of selection in the resettlement regime. Often underlying these additional criteria are societal and political desires. Some states choose refugees who already speak the local language or have advanced education and professional skills, with an interest in refugees' ability to integrate into society with little assistance. Other states prioritise protecting refugees with urgent medical needs. Some state-specific requirements correspond with political or fiscal calendars in order to meet campaign promises or to match allocated budgets. Some states have resettlement quotas or ceilings, which may be further defined by refugee nationality.

The Handbook also emphasises that UNHCR bases selection on the "refugee's objective need for resettlement and not on their subjective desire for it." That resettlement is not a right is often repeated to help convey this message, perhaps so as to reassure states of their sovereignty and to temper the expectations of refugees themselves. Refugees themselves have very little choice in the resettlement system. Refugees usually cannot proactively apply for resettlement. Even refugees selected for resettlement cannot choose to which country they will be resettled. Ultimately, the only agency that refugees possess in the resettlement regime is the choice not to resettle if they have been offered resettlement.

As a result, the resettlement regime currently empowers UNHCR and states and leaves refugees without much agency in the decision, despite UNHCR's promotion of self-reliance as a core goal of durable solutions.2 This imbalance of power requires more scrutiny, a need that became even more evident in recent efforts for Syrian refugee resettlement.

Surges in resettlement of Syrians

Since 2013, UNHCR has referred over 242,000 Syrian refugees for resettlement or other forms of admission to third countries3 and has employed various strategies to quickly meet states' pledges to resettle Syrians. …

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