Recent data from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) shows that, for most refugees, resettlement is not a matter of life and death. When under scrutiny, misleading emotional appeals such as ones portraying resettlement as a "lifeline" for especially vulnerable refugees are less and less convincing.
Hence, a shift in the discourse of refugee advocates I started noticing a year or so ago. The new talking points are now along these lines: The refugee resettlement program is not solely a humanitarian tool; it is also a foreign policy one. But if this were the case, does it mean that the UN's refugee agency – which the U.S. relies upon for resettlement referrals – is now entrusted with the implementation of part of U.S. foreign policy?
Refugee advocates' new justification: Resettlement is a foreign policy tool
In anticipation of a possible decision by the Trump administration to further lower the refugee ceiling for fiscal year 2019, the senior vice president of public affairs at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), Melanie Nezer, told Politico: "The refugee resettlement program is about so much more than just saving lives. It's also a diplomatic tool, it's a foreign policy tool, it stabilizes countries that are hosting the refugees." (Emphasis added.)
Some background about HIAS. It is one of the nine voluntary agencies (or volags) who work with, and are mostly funded by, the Department of State to resettle refugees inside the United States. In a clear conflict of interest, HIAS is also one of the State Department-funded Resettlement Support Centers (RSC) abroad in charge of the prescreening of refugees. The equation is simple: lower resettlement admissions means less money for HIAS.
Kay Bellor, vice president with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (another volag), also worried about the consequences of lower resettlement numbers on hosting countries; in the words of the Politico report, Bellor feared that "refugees could be stranded in host countries such as Turkey and Lebanon if the U.S. doesn't open its doors." She believes, like Nezer above, this sends a "terrible signal" to host countries: "It's hard to imagine how this might impact their response." [Emphases added.]
What is hard to imagine is the following: How is resettling a few thousand out of millions of "stranded refugees" going to significantly impact hosting countries, not to mention "stabilize" them?
Resettlement, a few drops in the ocean
Let's focus on the region Bellor refers to, host to millions of Syrian refugees. In fiscal year 2016, the Obama administration resettled 35,555 refugees from the Near East/South Asia region (a region that includes Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan). Of those, 12,587 were Syrians. (See Refugee Processing Center numbers for October 1, 2015 to September 30, 2016.)
Most registered Syrian refugees in the region are hosted in the following countries, according to UNHCR data: 3.5 million in Turkey, close to 1 million in Lebanon, and close to 700,000 in Jordan. Estimates of the total refugee presence (including those not registered) are much higher.
So, in FY 2016, at the height of Syrian refugee admissions under President Obama, the United States resettled 0.2 percent of the 5.2 million there. Yet refugee advocates want us to believe that such small-scale resettlement (or the lack thereof) is a foreign policy game-changer. Even if these numbers were to double, triple, or more, the reality is that the effect of resettlement – both real and symbolic – on host countries is minimal, akin to rain drops in the ocean.
Oxford economist Paul Collier concurs:
Migration to the West is a peripheral aspect of what to do when there's a conflict ... Look, the refugees overwhelmingly are and are going to continue to be in countries that border the areas of the conflicts, so the fate of refugees does not really depend on whether a few thousand more come to the rich societies. What matters is what happens to the millions. [Emphasis added.]
Concerns of hosting states: Help the millions here and set the pace for refugee return
Following the Syrian refugee crisis that affected millions, Collier and a colleague, Oxford refugee scholar Alexander Betts, wrote about a failing international refugee policy:
To properly care for the displaced, policymakers must first understand the concerns of the states that host them. An effective refugee policy should improve the lives of the refugees in the short term and the prospects of the region in the long term, and it should also serve the economic and security interests of the host states.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun is clear about what his country needs, and it's not resettlement of a handful of the refugees hosted by his country to the West. Aoun saw Lebanon's unemployment rate climb to an unprecedented 46 percent with the presence of 1.86 million Syrian refugees on its soil. (The number is Aoun's estimate.) "Today, The United Nations thanks us for our humanity in dealing with the Syrian refugees," Aoun said. But as he told EU official Johannes Hahn, such thanks "do not feed bread" to the refugees. "You have to resolve the refugee case before we ourselves become refugees," he said. Syrian refugees now make up over a quarter of Lebanon's population.
Lebanon has been pushing for Syrian refugees to return to safe areas in Syria, a move UNHCR deems unsafe. The relationship between Lebanese officials and UNHCR turned sour lately, with Lebanon accusing the UN refugee agency of purposely discouraging Syrian refugees from returning home.
Gratitude and/or resettlement have little bearing on hosting countries. What the Lebanese government (and most likely other host governments in the region) wants is financial aid to ease the impact of refugee presence on their economy, education, environment, health system, etc. The top priority remains working towards refugee return.
Trump: A more efficient refugee policy to help millions and their hosting countries
In his first address to the UN General Assembly, President Trump explained the U.S. approach to the current refugee crisis:
The United States is a compassionate nation and has spent billions and billions of dollars in helping to support this effort. We seek an approach to refugee resettlement that is designed to help these horribly treated people and which enables their eventual return to their home countries to be part of the rebuilding process... Out of the goodness of our hearts, we offer financial assistance to hosting countries in the region and we support recent agreements of the G20 nations that will seek to host refugees as close to their home countries as possible. This is the safe, responsible, and humanitarian approach.
The United States is, according to a government fact sheet, the "world's leading donor of humanitarian assistance for the Syria crisis, providing nearly $7.7 billion throughout Syria and the region since the start of the conflict in March 2011."
Even as the resettlement ceiling was lowered, President Trump has always been an advocate for proximity help, as he told Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri last year: "Our approach, supporting the humanitarian needs of displaced Syrian citizens as close to their home country as possible, is the best way to help most people."
Trump is also said to be considering plans for the safe return of Syrian refugees to their country.
Lastly, if we were to concede to refugee advocates that resettlement is a foreign policy tool, does this mean that UNHCR, already entrusted with resettlement referrals, is now also in charge of implementing U.S. foreign policy and "stabilizing countries that are hosting the refugees"? As the French would say, rien que ça! (is that all?)