The Real Moral Dilemma of Refugee Resettlement

If not only the most vulnerable, then whom do we pick?

By Nayla Rush on March 23, 2018

The moral aspect of the refugee resettlement program was addressed on March 21 by my colleague Mark Krikorian in a panel discussion on the program's impact on states and localities.

Krikorian reminded the audience that only 0.4 percent of the 134,044 refugees referred for resettlement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2015 fell under UNHCR's "emergency" submission priority; 11 percent were under the "urgent" priority and the remaining 88.6 percent, were "normal" priority submissions (see this UNHCR report: "UNHCR Projected Global Resettlement Needs 2017"). For 2016, also following UNHCR's submission priority categories, the figures were:

  • Emergency: 0.3 percent;
  • Urgent: 4.7 percent;
  • Normal: 95 percent.

I elaborated on the implications of these priorities in a detailed report last year, and noted that UNHCR itself acknowledges that almost all refugees submitted for resettlement are under normal circumstances "where there are no immediate medical, social, or security concerns which would merit expedited processing."

But we have been told over and over again by U.S. officials and refugee advocates that the resettlement program is an indispensable humanitarian tool to assist those who are, in the State Department's words, "especially vulnerable; those who fled violence or persecution and cannot safely stay where they are or return home", such as "single mothers, survivors of torture, people who need urgent medical treatment, religious minorities, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI) persons, or others imperiled by violence and persecution."

The refugee resettlement program's main reason for being is said to be giving especially vulnerable refugees who can't stay where they are the opportunity to relocate to Western countries and start a new life.

But is it really?

As we just noted, it is not necessarily the most vulnerable and urgent cases that are submitted for resettlement. In fact, refugees with no specific vulnerabilities are being resettled in the United States. So, as I asked in a previous blog, why them and not others? How to pick a "lucky few" out of millions who are undergoing common hardships?

Not only have my queries remained unanswered, but, to my knowledge, no one else is even asking.

Nonetheless, a new development caught my attention: The official story line about "resettling the most vulnerable refugees" has been adjusted to a less embellished yet more truthful one, "resettling not only the most vulnerable refugees".

In an interesting shift from past official statements, Lawrence E. Bartlett, the former director of refugee admissions at the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), presented what sound like the new talking points: "The lucky person who has the opportunity to be resettled" is not necessarily the "most vulnerable"; vulnerability is just one component of the decision to resettle to the United States. The resettlement program is an important foreign policy tool, not just a humanitarian one.

Unprecedented scrutiny (and a new Trump administration) may very well have encouraged those in charge to drop their emotional appeal to save the "most vulnerable" refugees and finally admit to more practical selection criteria.

This acknowledgement is refreshing.

Still, refugee advocates who are quick to act as America's moral compass while calling for more resettlement seem less inclined to inquire about the selection process for refugees, let alone challenge its fairness.

For them, it is un-American, even immoral, to lower the number of refugees resettled in the United States. Virulent condemnations followed President Trump's decision to cut down admissions to 45,000 in FY 2018. Federally funded resettlement contractors called it a "shameful approach" and a "sad day for America". Some members of Congress went so far as to claim the decision undermined America's core values.

When it's not used as a political tool, the refugee resettlement program is branded as a conscience alleviator, supported by hashtags such as #WelcomeRefugees and #BringThemHere

But in the absence of extreme vulnerabilities or imminent dangers, isn't choosing to offer some refugees a better life in the United States while leaving others behind akin to playing God? How is this ethically right?

Currently, this absolute power lies in the hands of a few staff members of the UN refugee agency the United States relies on for refugee resettlement referrals. But even if U.S. officers were to carry out this huge responsibility, the question remains: How are the "lucky few" chosen out of millions of refugees with similar backgrounds, broken livelihoods, foreign policy implications, and potential to adapt to Western societies?

Refugees should not be randomly picked to come here or stay behind. This is the real moral dilemma, not the numerical ceilings on refugee resettlement.