For Most Refugees, Resettlement Is Not a Matter of Life and Death

By Nayla Rush on July 25, 2018

The UN refugee agency tweeted this week that resettlement is a "lifeline" available to the most vulnerable refugees, such as those in need of urgent medical care, women and girls at risk, children at risks and survivors of violence and torture.

Except that it is not necessarily the most vulnerable and urgent cases that are submitted for resettlement.

According to recent data from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), almost all refugees submitted for resettlement in 2017 (75,200 in total) were in "normal" circumstances "where there are no immediate medical, social, or security concerns which would merit expedited processing".

UNHCR gives a breakdown of its 2017 resettlement submissions by priority levels:

  • Emergency: 1.1 percent
  • Urgent: 6.4 percent
  • Normal: 92.5 percent

It also classifies its 2017 resettlement submissions by categories. Let's look at the four categories listed in the tweet above:

  • Survivors of Violence and/or Torture: 27.4 percent
  • Children and Adolescents at Risk: 9.9 percent
  • Women and Girls at Risk: 7.3 percent
  • Refugees with Medical Needs: 3.5 percent

These categories add up to less than half (48.1 percent) the total number of refugees UNHCR referred for resettlement. Hence, UNHCR's claim that "[a]ll refugees referred for resettlement must fit at least one vulnerability category" is not a fair depiction of reality, unless every refugee, according to them, is deemed "vulnerable". If that were the case, shouldn't every single one be given the opportunity to be resettled?

A closer look at the "Survivors of Violence and/or Torture" category confirms the broad scope of UNHCR's categories. The refugee agency encourages a broad definition of "violence" when considering resettlement:

Violence itself is an extremely diffuse and complex phenomenon, and defining it is not an exact science. Notions of what is acceptable and unacceptable in terms of behaviour and what constitutes harm, are culturally influenced and constantly under review as values and social norms evolve. [Emphasis added.]

Moreover, a refugee may have experienced violence directly or indirectly: "Refugees may have themselves survived or witnessed other forms of extreme violence in their country of origin or their country of asylum." But weren't most (if not all) refugees who fled a country of war confronted by violence one way or another? Are all, then, in urgent need of resettlement?

The UN refugee agency and other refugee advocates capitalize on emotional appeals such as the tweet above to convince the American public that the resettlement program is designed to save the lives of the "most vulnerable" refugees. But, as I keep pointing out, refugees with no specific vulnerabilities or urgent needs are being resettled in the U.S. Most were not in danger in their country of first asylum. Many were undoubtedly suffering from unemployment, destitution, and despair – but so are thousands, perhaps millions, of their compatriots stuck in neighboring countries.

There are two reasons for these misleading pleas. First, refugee advocates need to keep stirring public sentiments as they push for higher resettlement admissions amid calls to #welcomerefugees. Second, if they were to admit to the absence of specific selection criteria, they would have to justify the moral injustice of picking a "lucky few" for resettlement while leaving others behind.

Topics: Refugees