Why Are Some Refugee Flows Easier to Absorb than Others? Four Examples

By David North on December 20, 2023

In view of the fact that the world is about to face a grim refugee situation in Gaza — where most of the residences are unusable and where there seems no place for the displaced Palestinians to resettle — why are some refugee groups easier to resettle than others?

We are thinking of: 1) Ukrainians; 2) Syrians; 3) Rohingyans; and 4) Palestinians, including those in Gaza. 

We have listed them in order of the apparent ease of resettlement, with the Ukrainians the easiest to handle, and the Palestinians least. (There is no known metric for this variable and these are my judgments; reasonable people can disagree about the sequence, particularly about the last two places.) Before joining CIS I spent several years working on Office of Refugee Resettlement research projects. 

Clearly, the resettlement of the Ukrainians is going smoothly; the now largely finished outflow of Syrians has gone reasonably well (perhaps largely because of EU money spent on Turkey); we often hear of the plight of the Rohingyans, a Muslim ethnic minority in Buddhist Burma (Myanmar), and we are about to pay attention to the residents of Gaza, a small enclave adjacent to Israel and Egypt; they are a subset of the Palestinians who have been in tension with the Israelis since the end of World War II.

What forces are governing these movements? My sense is there are four over-lapping factors at work here:

  1. the prosperity/poverty levels in the resettlement areas;
  2. ethno-religious considerations; 
  3. geography, and 
  4. political variables. 

I hesitate to offer a fifth explanation, because it is so sweeping, that is that nations in the West are simply more likely to welcome refugees than those in the East, with Turkey playing the role of a more or less Western nation. 

Clearly a wealthy country (Canada and the U.S. are good examples) can absorb refugees more easily than a poverty-stricken one (like Bangladesh). It is also obvious that it helps if the refugees look and think like the residents of the receiving nation. Sometimes geography plays a role, as it does with the residents of Gaza, and then there are the political factors, like Americans regarding the Vietnamese as our defeated allies in the war with communism. 

These variables interplay in various combinations to make the movement of some refugee groups easier to handle than others. In the case of the Ukrainians, all four of these factors coalesce to make the movements smooth, while in others, such as that of the Rohingya, everything colludes against them. Let’s look at how these four factors work on the four populations.

Those in the refugee-resettlement business must be regarding the Ukrainians as a dream population; if you are going to have to work with refugees these people have an enviable combination of characteristics. They are from a reasonably prosperous country (by world standards), adjacent to other reasonably prosperous nations. They are largely Christians living near other Christian nations. Many are blond and blue-eyed, as are many of their neighbors.

Geographically, they are adjacent to friendly nations. You can probably take a scheduled train to Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova – as well as to less-friendly Hungary. There is also a long seacoast but we rarely hear of Ukrainians using it. 

Politically, again with the partial exception of Hungary, people in all the European nations are generally opposed to Russia and its authoritarianism. It’s a perfect mix for the Ukrainians. 

Next on the list are the Syrians. Millions of them managed to get to prosperous or reasonably prosperous European nations before their sheer numbers began to work against them. Most of the nations adjacent to Syria (the exception is Israel) are not only Muslim ones, but also Sunni, and large numbers of Syrian refugees are in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. 

Compared to the lot of the Gazans, it is relatively easy to get out of Syria and for the minority Kurds, they live next door to semi-independent Kurdistan in Iraq. As a matter of fact, we rarely hear of Kurdish refugees from Syria, though there must be some of them. While they are victims of a long-run civil war, the combination of elements works reasonably well for Syrians seeking to leave that nation. 

The Rohingyans suffer from a number of disadvantages in addition to the Burmese military’s apparent aim to run them out of the country. Until a year or so ago, no one had even heard about this group. Further, unlike other minorities in Burma, such as the Karens and Shins, they had not formed militias to protect themselves, nor had they joined with those groups in common action against the central government. 

The nearest Muslim country to which many of them fled is poverty-stricken Bangladesh, which has put this population into some of the most unpleasant camps in the world. Some others have made it to a more distant Muslim country, Malaysia. The wealthy Arab countries have done nothing, or nothing visible, to help them despite their common religion. 

Most Rohingyan refugees we hear about it have taken to the sea, often with unhappy results. They have few friends in high places anywhere on the globe. (For instance, the spellcheck on my computer does not recognize them.) 

This brings us to the Palestinians in Gaza. They are perhaps the most trapped refugees in the world, with the Israeli Army on one side, the Israeli Navy on another, and an adamant Egypt to the South. They are Sunni Muslims, with many other Sunni Muslim states nearby, but I have no sense that these other nations have sought to resettle the Palestinians – an experience that goes back to Israel’s founding generations ago. 

What some of the Arab states have done is to use the Palestinians as guest workers, but not as immigrants. What they have also done is to continue the policies of not resettling this population as a tool against Israel. 

Meanwhile, I wonder why the ones in Gaza have not torn down the fence that separates them from Egypt – that’s a question that I have not seen in print.

Do they fear that their fellow Arabs, fellow Muslims, in the Egyptian Army would gun then down? Or is there a near suicidal devotion to the idea that they – even if they get killed in the process – must continue to be victims of Israel’s bombs rather than trespassers on the Sinai? 

  1. they will not knock down that fence, and
  2. their Arab neighbors won’t resettle them and 
  3. Israel won’t stop the bombing. 

They only seem to notice the third point. 

The war will end one of these days, and the whole world will be asked to resettle the Gauziness. 

It is a sad, sad situation.

Topics: Refugees