U.S. Was the Number-One Refugee Resettlement Country in the World in 2019

And most likely will be in 2020, as well

By Nayla Rush on February 27, 2020

New data released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on its 2019 resettlement activities shows that the United States remains the top country for refugee resettlement. Furthermore, just like in previous years, the vast majority of refugees referred by UNHCR for resettlement in third countries in 2019 were not the most vulnerable or in urgent need of relocation. This contradicts the UN refugee agency's constant claims that resettlement is a "life-saving tool", a "critical lifeline" for refugees that needs strengthening. This also casts some doubt on UNHCR referral processes.

Alarmed by what it considers to be a "tremendous gap" between "resettlement needs and the places made available by governments around the world", the refugee agency has been calling for more resettlement spots in accordance with the Global Compact on Refugees, which pushes for increasing refugee resettlement opportunities. Of the 1.4 million refugees UNHCR estimated "in urgent need of resettlement" in 2019, only a small percentage (4.5 percent) were actually resettled. But such assessments (or gaps) are misleading since not all in "need of resettlement" are actually submitted for resettlement (UNHCR's referral capacities are indeed limited). In 2019, UNHCR submissions totaled 81,666 refugees (and not 1.4 million). Out of those, 63,696 or 78 percent were actually resettled. Actually, throughout the years, the vast majority of refugees submitted for resettlement by UNHCR were successfully resettled.

What happens to the hundreds of thousands (even millions) who are deemed in "urgent need of resettlement" but are not resettled (most were not even submitted for resettlement) and remain in life-threatening conditions according to UNHCR? One wonders, for instance, about the well-being of the 1,337,000 refugees who were in "urgent need of resettlement" in 2019 but were not resettled; those who, by UNHCR's appraisal, "remain at risk" where they are. Are they receiving special care, will they be resubmitted for resettlement in 2020? In fact, shouldn't we pay more attention to those who remain behind instead of always concentrating on those we resettle, those who are the tip of the iceberg of the refugee protection?

The United States Remains the Top Resettlement Country in the World in 2019

The statistical snapshot provided by UNHCR on its 2019 resettlement activities (figures are for the calendar year) has the United States as the top resettlement submission and destination country in 2019 (as it was in 2017 and 2018 under the Trump administration, see here and here):

Submission by Destination (top five countries)

United States 24,810
Canada 14,650
Germany 9,640
Australia 7,048
Sweden 5,408
Other 20,110
Total Submissions 81,666

Departures by Destination (top five countries)

United States 21,159
Canada 9,040
United Kingdom 5,774
Sweden 4,953
Germany 4,622
Other 18,148
Total Departures 63,696

The United States resettled more refugees in 2019 than any other country. According to a UNHCR press release earlier this month: "The largest number of UNHCR-facilitated resettlement departures last year were to the United States, followed by Canada, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Germany."

In an October post, I refuted claims about Canada resettling more refugees than the United States in 2018. As I explained then, such a "lead" could only be reached by including "private sponsorships" (a process that is outside the UNHCR resettlement process, one that UNHCR calls "alternatives pathways" for refugee admissions) into the equation. "Private sponsorships" are accounted for within Canada's refugee resettlement program, but not the U.S. program. Refugees who came to the United States under any of the other "alternative pathways" are not counted in the U.S. government resettlement program.

As a reminder, the United Nations Global Compact on Refugees, which was adopted in 2018, not only advocates for increases of resettlement admissions; it "pushes for faster and more flexible means of resettlement processing" and "encourages other pathways for admission as 'complements' to resettlement" through private sponsorship programs (such as student scholarships, employment opportunities, etc.). The United States under the Trump administration chose not to endorse this refugee compact, but Canada did.

In its Projected 2020 Global Resettlement Needs, UNHCR explained how it started working with the Canadian government and private organizations in the country to help promote the resettlement of refugees through "private sponsorships":

Throughout 2018 and 2019 UNHCR has continued to engage in a number of strategic partnerships that aim at expanding resettlement opportunities for refugees. During 2018 UNHCR strengthened its partnerships with non-traditional actors to expand resettlement by engaging with academia, private sector, and other relevant stakeholders. UNHCR continued its active involvement in the GRSI, an innovative partnership model — involving the Government of Canada, the Open Society Foundation, UNHCR, the University of Ottawa and the Radcliffe Foundation — to promote and support the establishment of community-based sponsorship programmes.

Actually, most refugees resettled in Canada in the past years were through "private sponsorships" (i.e. referred and financially assisted by private sponsors).

Despite "Private Sponsorships", the United States Resettled More Refugees than Canada in 2019, and Probably Will in 2020

According to UNHCR's recent Factsheet and Resettlement Data Finder, 21,159 refugees were resettled in the United States in calendar year 2019 and 9,040 in Canada. These figures do not include private sponsorships and are close to government records. The UNHCR resettlement tool that includes "private sponsorships" has no data for 2019 yet.

The number of refugees resettled in the United States in calendar year 2019 (January 1-December 31, 2019) according to the official U.S. government Refugee Processing Center portal totaled 25,782 refugees. It was 30,000 during fiscal year 2019 (October 1, 2018 - September 30, 2019).

In 2019, Canada's preset targets were to resettle 9,300 refugees through its "Government-Assisted" program and 19,000 refugees through its "Private Sponsorship" program.

Canada has three different resettlement programs:

  1. Government-Assisted
    • Refugees referred by: UNHCR
    • Financial assistance: From the federal government for one year
  2. Private Sponsorship
    • Refugee referred by: A private sponsor
    • Financial assistance: From the sponsor for the first year
  3. Blended Visa
    • Refugees referred by: UNHCR
    • Financial assistance: Six months from sponsors, six months from government

An official Canadian government report, the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) "2019 Departmental Overview", gives us valuable information about its refugee resettlement program's achievements and targets for 2018-2021:

Government-Assisted Refugees

2018 Admissions 8,156
2019 Planned Admissions 9,300
2020 Planned Admissions 10,700
2021 Planned Admissions 10,700

Privately Sponsored Refugees

2018 Admissions 18,763
2019 Planned Admissions 19,000
2020 Planned Admissions 20,000
2021 Planned Admissions 20,000

Blended Visa Office-Referred Refugees

2018 Admissions 1,157
2019 Planned Admissions 1,650
2020 Planned Admissions 1,000
2021 Planned Admissions 1,000

  2018 2019 2020 2021
Total Refugees 28,076 29,950 31,700 31,700
Government-Assisted Refugees 8,156 9,300 10,700 10,700

The United States resettled 22,491 refugees in fiscal year 2018 (October 1, 2017-September 30, 2018); 22,874 refugees if we use the calendar year (January 1-December 31, 2018). In FY 2019 (October 1, 2018-September 30, 2019), a total of 30,000 refugees were resettled in the United States; 25,782 refugees during the calendar year (January 1-December 31, 2019).

On both counts, the United States resettled more refugees than Canada through government channels, thus remaining the number-one resettlement country worldwide. And it could very well keep that spot in 2020 since the United States refugee resettlement target for 2020 was set at 18,000 vs. 10,700 for Canada.

The Vast Majority of UNHCR Resettlement Submissions Were Met in 2019

Based on the statistical snapshot of UNHCR's resettlement activities in 2019, UNHCR called for additional resettlement spots since "[o]ut of 1.4 million refugees estimated to be in urgent need of resettlement worldwide, only 63,696 [4.5 percent] were resettled through UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, last year." (Emphasis added.) But such calculations are misleading, as I pointed out last year: For refugees to be considered for resettlement, their cases need first be submitted by UNHCR to potential resettlement countries. But UNHCR submission capacities are indeed limited. For example, in its 2017 in review factsheet, UNHCR stated the following: "Of the 1.19 million refugees in need of resettlement, UNHCR had planned to submit close to 170,000 in 2017. However, the absence of sufficient quotas provided by States resulted in a lower number of resettlement submissions in 2017."

The question we should be asking, therefore, is how many refugees were actually resettled out of those UNHCR actually submitted for resettlement. The answer is, the vast majority: 78 percent in 2019, 68 percent in 2018, 87 percent in 2017, and 77 percent in 2016.

Most 2019 UNHCR Resettlement Submissions Were Under a "Normal Priority Level"

In a press release earlier this month to address the 2019 resettlement admissions, UNHCR's Director of International Protection, Grainne O'Hara, declared: "Resettlement is not a solution for all the world's refugees but it is a life saving measure to ensure the protection of those most at risk and whose lives often depend on it." (Emphasis added.)

Resettlement, we are reminded, "which involves the relocation of refugees from a country of asylum to a country that has agreed to admit them and grant them permanent settlement, is a life-saving tool to ensure the protection of those most at risk or with specific needs that cannot be addressed in the country where they have sought protection." (Emphasis added.)

But if we look at UNHCR's 2019 resettlement submissions by priority (UNHCR resettlement submissions are divided by three priority levels: emergency, urgent, and normal), we find the following: Almost all refugees (82 percent) submitted for resettlement in 2019 were in "normal circumstances" where, therefore, "there are no immediate medical, social, or security concerns which would merit expedited processing." Only 18 percent were urgent or emergency submissions. For comparison, in 2018, 17 percent were urgent/emergency cases, 83 percent "normal". In 2017, 7.5 percent of all submissions were urgent or emergency ones and 92.5 percent were "normal". In 2016, 7 percent of all submissions were urgent/emergency ones and 93 percent were "normal".

As I've said many times (see here and here), resettlement, for the most part, is not being used as a ticket out for those who are genuinely at risk in the countries they've fled to.

What Happens to the Hundreds of Thousands Who, According to UNHCR, Are in "Urgent Need of Resettlement", but Are Left Behind?

For the sake of the argument, let's agree with UNHCR's estimate of 1.4 million refugees "in urgent need of resettlement worldwide last year." (Emphasis added.) The question remains, since only 63,696 were successfully resettled, what happened to the other 1,336,304? Did their situation worsen, were they given special care? Will they be added onto next year's "urgent" UNHCR resettlement submissions list?

To try and understand how this process works, let's go back a couple of years. In 2018, only 55,692 of the 1.2 million purportedly in need of resettlement were resettled. Were those 1,139,657 refugees who "needed" to be resettled in 2018 but weren't included in 2019's 1.4 million count? In 2019, only 55,680 of 1.4 million said to be in need of resettlement were actually resettled. Will the 1,337,000 refugees left behind make it to the 2020 submissions count?

Actually, how does the system work? Are UNHCR submissions cumulative? More importantly, what happens to the millions who are not resettled? How are they helped when they don't make it to a resettlement country? Does UNHCR keep a list of everyone, check up on them, make sure they receive special care?

These are points worth looking into — points that seem to be of very little importance to refugee advocates, whose main focus is the tip of the iceberg, resettlement.

Topics: Refugees