'Vulnerability' Is No Longer the Key to Selecting Refugees for Resettlement

But we knew that already.

By Nayla Rush on October 23, 2017

The refugee resettlement program is a protection tool available to the most vulnerable refugees, such as victims of torture, gender-based violence, or extreme trauma, or those in need of special care they cannot find in their country of refuge. Or so we were told over and over again by U.S. officials, United Nations officers, and refugee advocates. But contrary to those claims, it is not necessarily the most vulnerable and urgent cases that are submitted for resettlement.

As I watched refugees with no specific vulnerabilities being resettled in the U.S, I couldn't help but ask, why them and not others? Why pick a "lucky few" out of millions who are undergoing common hardships?

While my queries remained unanswered, a recent shift in the official discourse caught my attention. The selling point "resettling the most vulnerable" was adjusted to "resettling not only the most vulnerable". The new talking points are now along those lines: Vulnerability is just one component of the decision to resettle. The resettlement program is not solely a humanitarian tool; it is also used for foreign policy purposes. Another selection criterion is assimilation, those who can assimilate the best need to be resettled here.

When under scrutiny and with the advent of a new administration under President Trump, those in charge of the refugee resettlement program dropped their emotional appeal to save the "most vulnerable" refugees to finally admit to more practical selection criteria. What is also telling is the introduction of the assimilation factor to the conversation. Selecting refugees who are more apt to adopt the American values is now part of the resettlement discussion. This is a clear shift from former debates that often revolved around admission numbers — how many should be allowed in — while largely ignoring other issues such as assimilation.

For a sample of this new line of argument, listen to Lawrence E. Bartlett, the Director of Refugee Admissions at the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) explain at an event organized by the Heritage Foundation last month how vulnerability, foreign policy, and assimilation are all to be taken into account when picking "the lucky few" who are resettled in the U.S.

Excerpts below are from my personal transcription of the event. (All emphases in quotations in this posting are mine):

Resettlement is a very small tool used and really has to be used judiciously because the vast majority, 99 percent of the refugees in the world, never have an opportunity to be resettled. So it's incumbent upon us as a resettlement country and incumbent on UNHCR [the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] to use this tool correctly. One of the debates that's happening now or discussions happening now is who should those refugees be? Who should be, I'll say, the lucky person who has the opportunity to be resettled either to the U.S. or to one of the other 29 countries in the world that resettle refugees.

…We speak about criteria of vulnerability of selection and again, people come as families. Not everybody in the family has the same level of vulnerability. This program is used for foreign policy purposes as well. You know when we think about the case of the Bhutanese. Arguably not every, I mean people weren't highly vulnerable, they were simply stuck forever frankly in a stateless situation...

So again, the idea that everybody is the most vulnerable and everybody has the same types of fragility or difficulties is wrong. Again part of our interest we share with UNHCR is to really look at vulnerability as one of the key factors that we consider and I think it's an open question as to again what makes the best person in terms of assimilation...

Look at the underpinnings of this program which is based on humanitarian principles, based on foreign policy principles, but while still helping people make that movement to assimilation, make that movement to not just job security and economic security but, you know, adopting American values.

And so what we have done in our program is really look at vulnerability and look at those people who even in a country of first asylum like Jordan, a Syrian in Jordan, is not doing well, is in a precarious situation and needs a more permanent solution. So that's one way to look at it.

Another is to look at refugees who are in protracted situations...So we're trying to look at those populations to see how we use this tool.

One of the things we're not doing but again it's a point of discussion, is to really look hard at who's the best person in terms of assimilation...

We're primarily using this as a humanitarian tool coupled with foreign policy interests. So again, trying to alleve [sic] or relieve Jordan of some of the refugees that they are currently hosting we see as an important foreign policy tool and certainly an important piece of our bilateral relationship with Jordan…

We want people to become an American. We certainly want them to adjust status and become a citizen but trying to define what that is in terms of American in such a complex society that we have with all different ethnic groups and people from different backgrounds is an interesting question and probably open for debate but it's one of the things that the current administration is really interested in. And so we've already been having discussions at pretty high levels about what additional programs we can provide to help people make this transition. The idea is that they have a limited amount of Federal support to make the transition, it usually only goes up to about eight months, people do have access to other programs that other Americans might have access to but for the most part we want them to take this opportunity and for the most part they do, to have a new opportunity for life, for their families, for their kids.

We see that refugees do very, very well...

The other piece that we've seen great success in is that refugees who by and large have not had a lot of access and their children to education for some years, who have not had access to legal work for many years especially in their profession, often times take very entry-level jobs in the U.S. and we've been working really hard for some years with employers to make that possible and to help people transition through some kind of a career ladder to higher levels of employment.

It's pretty traditional that the hotel industry, the meat packing plants, other entry-level jobs have been widely open to refugees and in fact refugees really aren't competing with Americans for many of these jobs, they're taking jobs that are otherwise unfilled. And refugees frankly do quite well. And we've been even petitioned by some industries to resettle more refugees in their locations because they find refugees to be such good workers.

We have also been tasked with doing cost studies on what is the cost to resettle refugees to the U.S. and how does that compare to the cost of providing assistance overseas. Those studies are not yet finished...

Larry Yungk, Senior Resettlement Officer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), also spoke at the Heritage event, and also stressed the limited impact of vulnerability on the selection process:

Another element on the assimilation side is ensuring that you have a sustainable mix of refugeesIf you take all just vulnerable cases…if everybody is tortured, medically needy... So having a bit broader mix sometimes also I think provides for a more sustainable community. For us as we're trying to do, you know looking at who needs resettlement, those are the things that run through our mind because you do have to have sustainable family units, sustainable communities, you want functional particularly for people who are coming out a very non- functional area.

This discourse is a definite shift from past official statements where refugee resettlement was portrayed as this indispensable humanitarian tool put in place to assist the most vulnerable refugees and where foreign policy and assimilation considerations were nearly absent.

Let's revisit some of those past statements – some are from former U.S. officials but also current ones who also served under President Obama (such as Lawrence Bartlett I cited above and Simon Henshaw cited below).

Bartlett testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest in 2015:

A small number of refugees may be allowed to become citizens in the country to which they fled, and an even smaller number – primarily those who are the most vulnerable – will be resettled in a third country.

The former Assistant Secretary for PRM, Anne C. Richard, testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in 2015:

Resettlement is offered to refugees who are among the most vulnerable — people for whom a return to Syria someday would be extremely difficult, if not impossible — such as women and girls at risk, survivors of torture, children and adolescents at risk, and refugees with medical needs, disabilities, and/or physical or legal protection needs.

Anne C. Richard also testified before the Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security in 2015:

The people who we are bringing [resettling] ... are also referred to us in the first place [by UNHCR], because the UNHCR knows the type, the profile, of refugee that we want to help. And so we are looking at people [to resettle] who have been tortured, who are burn victims from barrel bombs, people who are widows and children, also the elderly, families that have been ripped apart as members have been murdered in front of their eyes." [Emphasis added.]

Simon Henshaw, the current Acting Assistant Secretary of PRM, testified as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of PRM before the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest in 2016:

The United States remains deeply committed to safeguarding the American people from security threats, just as we are committed to providing refuge to the world's most vulnerable people...

In the Near East, the United States recognizes that the possibility of third-country resettlement must be available to the most vulnerable Iraqi and Syrian refugees...

Our dialogue with local community members and authorities ensures that US Refugee Admissions Program remains a robust and sustainable solution for truly vulnerable refugees and an American tradition of which we can all be proud.

The U.S. State Department released a Factsheet on January 20, 2017:

The U.S. resettlement program serves refugees who are especially vulnerable; those who fled violence or persecution and cannot safely stay where they are or return home... Over 72 percent of the resettled refugees are women and children. Many are 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.

Finally, a couple of statements from UNHCR, the agency the U.S. relies upon for refugee resettlement referrals. On February 24, 2017:

Resettlement programmes in the United States and other developed countries are designed to offer a lifeline to the most vulnerable refugees, including children at risk, survivors of torture and those with medical needs.

On February 16, 2017:

UNHCR field staff identify and refer the most vulnerable refugees for resettlement, such as people needing medical assistance, survivors of torture and women and children at risk.

To conclude, this recent shift in discourse is more than welcome. But it still doesn't answer my question: How are these "lucky few" chosen? How are they picked out of hundreds of thousands (even millions) of refugees with similar backgrounds, broken livelihoods, foreign policy implications and potential to adapt to western societies? Why them and not others?

The real moral dilemma lies here, in my opinion, not with the numerical ceilings on refugee resettlement.

Numerous condemnations followed President Trump's decision to cut back the number of refugees resettled in the U.S. to 45,000 in FY 2018: a "shameful approach", one federally funded resettlement contractor called it, while another said the decision was a "sad day for America".

But isn't choosing to offer some a better life in the United States and leaving behind others who are in similar circumstances akin to playing God? How is this huge moral responsibility taken in the absence of extreme vulnerabilities or imminent dangers?

And why is no one else wondering?

Topics: Refugees