U.S. Resettled More Refugees than Any Other Nation in 2017 and 2018

By Nayla Rush on March 14, 2019

New data released by the UN refugee agency on its 2018 resettlement activities shows that the United States remained the top country for refugee resettlement. What's more, the vast majority of refugees whom the UN referred to third countries for resettlement are neither the most vulnerable nor in urgent need of relocation.

This report was released last month by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and gives a statistical snapshot of the agency's resettlement activities from January to December 2018. It shows that, of the 1,195,349 refugees that UNHCR considered to be in need of resettlement globally in 2018, only 55,692 (4.7 percent) were resettled. This was the basis for a recent UNHCR claim that "less than 5 per cent of global refugee resettlement needs" were met last year.

But that percentage is misleading. What we should be looking at is how many refugees were actually resettled out of those submitted for resettlement. This may sound redundant, but for refugees to be considered for resettlement, they first need to be referred (or "submitted") by UNHCR to potential resettlement countries. In fact, UNHCR submission capacities are limited. As State Department official Kelly Gauger underlined some time ago, "the notion that we [the United States] could get to 100,000 refugees when UNHCR doesn't have nearly the capacity to send us referrals for 100,000 refugees just isn't possible." Admissions, therefore, have more to do with the number of submissions than they do with actual needs. Let us then calculate the following: Out of those refugees submitted for resettlement by UNHCR, how many were actually resettled in the last five years? (See Table 1.)

Table 1. Resettlement Submissions
and Departures, 2014-2018

Global Projected
Departures as
Pct. of Total
2014 690,015 103,890 73,608 71%
2015 958,429 134,044 81,891 61%
2016 1,153,296 163,206 126,291 77%
2017 1,190,519 75,188 65,109 87%
2018 1,195,349 81,310 55,692 68%

So, despite UNHCR claims that many more refugees were in need of resettlement, the vast majority of those whom UNHCR actually submitted for resettlement were resettled.

The recent fact sheet also provides us with a wealth of other information about refugees submitted by UNHCR for resettlement in calendar year 2018, including top countries of origin of the refugees, the top countries of asylum (usually neighboring countries to which the refugees initially fled), and the top destinations, as well as submission priority levels and categories.

Table 2. 2018 in Review

UNHCR Total Submissions: 81,310
Total Departures: 55,692 (68%)
Submissions by Country of Origin
Syria 28,174 35%
Dem. Rep. of the Congo 21,806 27%
Eritrea 4,288 5%
Afghanistan 3,992 5%
Somalia 3,066 4%
Other 19,984 25%
Submissions by Country of First Asylum
Turkey 16,042 20%
Lebanon 8,393 10%
Tanzania 6,493 8%
Jordan 6,387 8%
Uganda 5,478 7%
Other 38,517 47%
Submissions by Destination
United States of America 29,025 36%
Canada 14,265 17%
United Kingdom 6,272 8%
Sweden 4,961 6%
France 4,926 6%
Other 21,861 27%
Departures by Destination
United States of America 17,113 31%
Canada 7,713 14%
United Kingdom 5,702 10%
France 5,109 9%
Sweden 4,861 9%
Other 15,194 27%

Despite refugee advocates' constant criticism of the Trump administration's refugee policy, the United States accepted more refugees for resettlement in 2018 than any of the other 29 nations who did so. The United States was, in fact, the top resettlement submission and destination country in 2018 and 2017 (see Table 3 for the 2017 data). Worthy of note as well, the United States remains a strong supporter of the UNHCR; in fiscal year 2018 alone, the U.S. contribution to the UNHCR "reached a historic high of nearly $1.6 billion to support UNHCR's response to historic levels of displacement and humanitarian need."

UNHCR's 2017 resettlement data shows the following:

Table 3. 2017 in Review

UNHCR Total Submissions: 75,188
Total Departures: 65,109 (87 percent)
Submissions by Country of Origin
Syria 37,332 50%
Dem. Rep. of the Congo 12,936 17%
Myanmar 5,346 7%
Iraq 3,040 4%
Eritrea 2,947 4%
Others 13,587 18%
Submissions by Country of First Asylum
Turkey 17,166 23%
Lebanon 13,830 18%
Jordan 8,466 11%
Tanzania 4,821 6%
Malaysia 3,285 4%
Others 27,620 37%
Submissions by Destination
United States of America 26,782 36%
United Kingdom 9,218 12%
Sweden 5,955 8%
France 5,207 7%
Canada 4,118 5%
Departures by Destination
United States of America 24,559 38%
Canada 8,912 14%
United Kingdom 6,202 10%
Australia 4,027 6%
Sweden 3,346 5%

2018 Resettlement Submissions by Priority

UNHCR resettlement submissions are divided by three priority levels: emergency, urgent, and normal. Each priority level is explained in UNHCR's Resettlement Handbook:

Emergency. "[C]ases in which the immediacy of security and/or medical condition necessitates removal ... within a few days, if not within hours."

Urgent. "Refugees who face conditions requiring their expeditious resettlement ... within six weeks of submission."

Normal. "The majority of cases fall within this category. This level applies to all cases where there are no immediate medical, social, or security concerns which would merit expedited processing. UNHCR expects decisions and departure within 12 months of submission." (Emphasis added.)

Almost all refugees (83 percent) submitted for resettlement in 2018 were in "normal circumstances" where, therefore, "there are no immediate medical, social, or security concerns which would merit expedited processing." Only 17 percent were urgent or emergency submissions. For comparison, in 2017 (see the "UNHCR Projected 2019 Global Resettlement Needs" report), 7.5 percent of all submissions were urgent or emergency ones and 92.5 percent were "normal".

Resettlement, therefore, is usually not "a life-saving solution for the most vulnerable refugees in the world" as UNHCR likes to claim.

2018 Resettlement Submissions by Category

UNHCR also classifies its resettlement referrals by category:

Legal and/or Physical Protection Needs. Refugees facing "one or more of the following conditions: immediate or long-term threat of refoulement [return] to the country of origin or expulsion to another country from where the refugee may be refouled; threat of arbitrary arrest, detention or imprisonment; threat to physical safety or fundamental human rights in the country of refuge, rendering asylum untenable."

Survivors of Violence and/or Torture. Refugees who have experienced torture and/or violence in their country of origin or country of asylum "may not be easily identified unless they show clear signs of trauma, or inform UNHCR of their experiences."

UNHCR encourages a broad interpretation of the definition of "violence" and "torture" when considering resettlement: "Violence itself is an extremely diffuse and complex phenomenon, and defining it is not an exact science." It relies on the definition produced by the World Health Organization where "violence can be threatened or actual, against oneself or another person ... which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation." (Emphasis added). Moreover, a refugee may have experienced violence directly or indirectly.

Lack of Foreseeable Alternative Durable Solutions. The category was previously known as "refugees without local integration prospects" and is described this way: "This submission category focuses on refugees who do not require resettlement for immediate protection needs, but who require an end to their refugee situation — a durable solution. These refugees are unable to return home in the foreseeable future, and have no opportunity to establish themselves in their country of refuge. In many cases, these refugees are in protracted refugee situations." (Emphasis added.)

A "protracted refugee situation" is any situation: "[I]n which refugees find themselves in a long-lasting and intractable state of limbo. Their lives may not be at risk, but their basic rights and essential economic, social and psychological needs remain unfulfilled after years in exile. A refugee in this situation is often unable to break free from enforced reliance on external assistance."

But aren't almost all refugees in that situation? Weren't most (if not all) who fled a country of war confronted by violence one way or another? Aren't most struggling in their host countries, suffering from unemployment, destitution, and lack of opportunities?

Family Reunification. This applies to cases "when resettlement is the only means to reunite refugee family members who, owing to refugee flight or displacement, are separated by borders or entire continents."

Other, more sensitive, categories include "Medical Needs, in particular life-saving treatment that is unavailable in the country of refuge; Women and Girls at Risk, who have protection problems particular to their gender; [and] Children and Adolescents at Risk, where a best interests determination supports resettlement."

The largest number of submissions in 2018 — 28 percent — fell under the "Legal and/or Protection Needs" category (they were 36 percent in 2017). They are followed by the "Survivors of Violence and/or Torture" category, with 27 percent (27 percent in 2017), and the "Lack of Foreseeable Alternative Durable Solutions" category, with 20 percent (15 percent in 2017), and the "Women and Girls at Risk", with 13 percent (7 percent in 2017).

Most refugees submitted for resettlement, therefore, did not belong to the most vulnerable categories. Just like most submissions priority levels were far from urgent.

Away from politicized discourses, data speaks for itself: Those who are submitted for resettlement are not those facing the most danger, and the United States remains the top nation in refugee protection, including resettlement.