26th Annual National Legal Conference
on Immigration and Refugee Policy
Executive Director, Migration and Refugee Services,
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
April 4, 2003
Estimates place the number of refugees in the world at between 12 million and 15 million,i yet in 2001, less than 92,000 refugees were resettled to third countries.ii In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, even fewer refugees have been resettled to third countries in 2002 and 2003. This trend is occurring, unfortunately, at a time when the worldwide refugee population and need for resettlement remain as great as ever. As a consequence, a growing number of refugees without viable options, in the form of returning to their homes or settling in asylum countries, waste away in the squalor of refugee camps or worse.
With so many refugees without other durable solutions, why are so few refugees provided an opportunity to resettle? This paper attempts to answer this question and offers suggestions for expanding resettlement opportunities, especially for those refugees in need of protection or who have no other durable solutions.
The International Community’s Responsibility for and Response to Refugees
Established in 1950, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has responsibility, on behalf of the international community, for two major functions: protecting refugees and pursuing durable solutions for them. UNHCR’s Statute describes the UNHCR mandate as follows:
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, acting under the authority of the General Assembly, shall assume the function of providing international protection, under the auspices of the United Nations, to refugees who fall within the scope of the present Statute and of seeking permanent solutions for the problem of refugees by assisting governments and, subject to the approval of the governments concerned, private organizations to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of such refugees, or their assimilation within new national communities.iii
Over time, “permanent solutions” became known as “durable solutions” and UNHCR defines these as (1) voluntary repatriation to the country of origin, (2) integration within a country of asylum, or (3) resettlement to a third country.
Historically, the U.S. government’s response to refugees has provided important leadership and support within the international community. The U.S. provides significant financial support toward UNHCR, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Organization for Migration, the World Food Program and other international organizations providing protection and assistance to refugees.iv Additionally, the U.S. leads the international community in the provision of resettlement opportunities for refugees. Of the nearly 92,000 refugees resettled to third countries in 2001, just under 70,000 were resettled in the United States.v
UNHCR’s Resettlement Efforts: The Gap between Policy and Practice
With regard to the resettlement option, UNHCR’s Resettlement Handbook describes it this way: [resettlement is a] “vital instrument of protection and durable solution … and for many refugees, resettlement is, in fact, the best -- or perhaps, only -- alternative.”vi
In practical terms, however, the pursuit of resettlement as an instrument of protection and a durable solution has actually declined in recent years and, some would argue, has fallen out of favor within the international community. In fact, today only a fraction of one percent of the world’s refugees are resettled to a third country. There are hundreds of thousands of refugees for whom resettlement is the best or only option, yet very few of these refugees are even being considered for resettlement, much less referred to resettlement countries, by UNHCR.
To illustrate this point, a delegation of Catholic bishops visited four camps in East and West Africa in late 2002 to observe the situation of refugees and the efforts underway for achieving durable solutions on their behalf. The combined population of the camps visited was more than 250,000 refugees, many of whom have been languishing in deteriorating camp conditions for ten and more years. The bishops estimated that of these refugees, nearly half would be prospective candidates for resettlement due to their either having no prospects for other durable solutions and/or their being in need of the protection that resettlement offers. Yet, the international community’s resettlement efforts are currently designed to consider for resettlement no more than 25,000 of these refugees. (It should be noted that of these 25,000 refugees, approximately 12,000 are Somali Bantu, who are part of a U.S. resettlement effort.)vii
The current leadership of UNHCR appears committed to enhancing resettlement as a tool of protection and durable solution. Not long after becoming the UNHCR, Rudd Lubbers began promoting the concept that resettlement countries should accept for resettlement a number of refugees each year equal to a fixed proportion of their resident populations. For the U.S., this translated to a target of about 280,000 refugees per year to be resettled, considerably more than had ever been admitted in any one year.
Additionally, UNHCR recently launched a number of management initiatives designed to operationalize this greater emphasis on resettlement. The stated goal of this effort is to enhance the role of resettlement as a durable solution and protection tool. There is a working group within UNHCR headquarters tasked with developing mechanisms to operationalize this goal. Evolving from this work group, for the first time, resettlement is now being proactively integrated within the agency’s overall planning process. A management tracking system is being developed to monitor field efforts toward resettlement and to track outcomes. Specific resettlement targets are being developed at the regional and country levels. Additional resources, much of which are provided by the U.S. government, are being directed to resettlement efforts. As an initial step, UNHCR has established “resettlement hubs” in East and West Africa, whose purposes are to provide direction, support and oversight of UNHCR country- and camp- level resettlement efforts. And, UNHCR is attempting to expand its infrastructure for identifying refugees in need of resettlement and referring them to resettlement countries.
The UNHCR should be applauded for these efforts, for the potential impact these initiatives will have for future resettlement is considerable. In the meantime, though, UNHCR’s capacity and infrastructure on-the-ground for pursuing more aggressively the resettlement option is inadequate to meet demands. This is particularly the case as it attempts to respond to the most vulnerable and at-risk refugees. Furthermore, there is often a disconnect between UNHCR’s policies and procedures and the operational realities on the ground. At the operational level in the camps, resettlement is not often perceived as either a tool of protection or a viable durable solution. During a number of visits to refugee camps in Africa over the past several years, I have encountered UNHCR staff and UNHCR’s implementing partners who are not even aware of the resettlement option or are unclear about its applicability for certain groups of refugees. The following examples illustrate this problem.
After several years of attempting to trace Nyandeng’s parents in Sudan, the UNHCR protection officer in a camp in Northern Kenya concluded that the young girl’s family had perished and that repatriation was not a viable option in her case. Having concluded this, the protection officer decided to recommend resettlement, citing the conditions in the camp as inappropriate as a long term solution and that there were no prospects for local integration.
While this may sound like a good example of how resettlement was intended to serve as a viable tool of protection and a durable solution, unfortunately, there is more to this story.
At the time that the UNHCR protection officer determined that resettlement was the most viable solution for her, Nyandeng was sixteen years old. Not knowing that resettlement of unaccompanied refugee minors was an option, the protection officer recommended that Nyandeng be considered for resettlement once she turns eighteen -- two years hence! This, after Nyandeng had been in the deplorable camp conditions for more than five years already.
During their recent visit to refugee camps in Africa, the representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops learned through discussions with UNHCR field staff and staff of the implementing partner organizations that the resettlement option was misunderstood. In Guinea, for instance, a country where UNHCR has identified 5,000 unaccompanied refugee minors (URMs), no URMs are being considered for resettlement, irrespective of family tracing outcomes, length of time in the camps, or potential for other durable solutions. The bishops also heard from a number of NGOs of vulnerable refugee cases who had been referred to UNHCR for resettlement consideration, but that no follow up had resulted, even after many months had elapsed.
Closing the Gap between Policy and Practice
The recent UNHCR management initiatives mentioned above, including making resettlement an integral part of planning and performance evaluation at all levels of the organization, should be encouraged and supported. To close the gap between the vision underpinning these initiatives and actual resettlement outcomes, considerable additional effort is required to ensure UNHCR field operations embrace resettlement and aggressively pursue this option for those refugees in need. The following activities should be part of a comprehensive implementation strategy employed by UNHCR.
- Development and dissemination of procedural guidelines designed for use by UNHCR line staff and implementing partners. These guidelines would translate UNHCR’s resettlement-related policies into practical application at the field level, clarifying under what circumstances resettlement should be pursued and what specific steps are to be taken on behalf of a prospective resettlement candidate.
- UNHCR must deploy additional “resettlement officers” in all or most of the regions where refugees exist. These positions would be responsible for ensuring that other UNHCR and implementing partners’ staff are fully versed in the resettlement option and have in place proper procedures for pursuing this option. These resettlement officers could also be a resource to assist in case determination, as necessary. Where “regional resettlement hubs” exist, the resettlement officer should be directed by the regional office.
- Ongoing training of line staff, ideally in an in-service environment with very practical, hands-on instruction, is critical to sustaining the emphasis on resettlement.
- UNHCR should expand its partnerships with NGOs, to include those with specific resettlement expertise, to strengthen its capacity for identifying refugees in need of resettlement and making referrals to resettlement countries.
U.S. Commitment to Resettlement: New Approaches Needed to Reverse Decline
Over the past ten years, and particularly in the past two years, refugee admissions to the United States have dramatically declined. In FY1993, nearly 120,000 refugees were admitted for resettlement in the U.S., while in FY2003, though the U.S. government is projecting 50,000 refugees will be admitted, actual admissions will likely be no more than 25,000.viii
Moreover, in each of the last ten years the number of refugees admitted to the United States has ranged between 7% and 64% below the levels authorized for admission by the President. Had the U.S. government fully utilized the admissions authority during this period, more than 185,000 additional refugees could have been resettled. If the admissions statistics for the period following September 11, 2001 (FYs 2002 and 2003) are taken out of the equation, nearly 100,000 refugees could have been resettled between FY1993 and FY2001, but were not.ix
With the population of refugees in need of resettlement far exceeding resettlement opportunities, this chronic underutilization of capacity in the United States has taken an awful toll on both the refugees longing for a durable solution and the international community’s efforts on their behalf.
Today’s refugee reality and the requirements of the U.S. admissions program are quite different from those of the “cold war” era. In the 1960s through the 1980s, for example, the U.S. government’s primary focus was on refugees fleeing communist countries. Large-scale resettlement processing posts were developed to handle large numbers of refugee applicants, from such countries and regions as Czechoslovakia, the former Soviet Union, Cuba, and Southeast Asia. Refugees today are found in many more regions of the world, often in remote areas and in groups with relatively smaller numbers. Additionally, in the post-9/11 era, heightened security precautions have presented new and, in some cases, formidable challenges and even barriers to making resettlement available to needy refugees.
Therefore, the capacity and infrastructure designed to identify and process refugees ten or more years ago is simply inadequate to today’s demands. Creative and dynamic approaches are necessary.
Strategies for Accomplishing U.S. Resettlement Goals
Refugee admissions to the U.S. continue to be significantly below authorized and budgeted levels and the pipeline of prospective future arrivals suggests continued low admissions levels into the foreseeable future. Yet, there are some encouraging signs that point to an improved and more responsive U.S. refugee admissions program in the future. A sampling of some initiatives that have potential for positively affecting the admissions program include:
- The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) is investing considerable financial and human resources to shore up the capacity of both UNHCR and the U.S. government to make resettlement available to more refugees. For instance, PRM recently earmarked special funding to support UNHCR efforts to expand resettlement capacity in Africa, resulting in additional UNHCR resettlement officers in the region. Hopefully, these and other efforts underway or planned will produce a significant increase in referrals from UNHCR of resettlement candidates.
- PRM is more aggressively pursuing the identification of prospective resettlement candidates among refugee populations around the world and putting in place the infrastructure necessary to process those refugees for resettlement. This positions the U.S. government to directly process more refugees of concern.
- Recently, PRM initiated a modest program of outreach to NGOs working with refugees in East Africa to encourage direct referrals of prospective resettlement candidates from those organizations.
- PRM has recognized the need for and has invested in sustaining domestic capacity to resettle future arrivals to the United States.
- PRM has seconded and otherwise augmented staff involved in processing Security Advisory Opinions and other aspects of the security screening necessary for refugee applicants.
Demonstrated Political Will
A strong argument can be made that the deterioration of the U.S. refugee admissions program in recent years has been, at least partially, due to a lack of political commitment, within both the Administration and the U.S. Congress.
Because of the nature of our democratic government, political will to sustain our historical commitment to refugees must be demonstrated in concrete terms. There are voices, particularly in the post-9/11 period, who believe that the recent trend of fewer refugees being admitted is exactly the right policy for our country. These voices are in the minority, but where are the voices of the majority?
A couple of weeks ago, a bipartisan refugee caucus was launched in the House of Representatives. Its mission is to be a voice for refugees. This is a welcomed and encouraging development, because the Caucus will be a vehicle for promoting the interests of refugees through interventions with the Administration and through legislation, as necessary.
Prior to the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, the Administration indicated its intention to increase refugee admissions by 5,000 per year. The new leadership within the State Department’s refugee bureau endorsed this goal and has been attempting to accomplish this expansion. However, sustained attention and support on the part of the White House will be necessary to demonstrate the Administration’s commitment to expanded refugee admissions. Those within the government with responsibility for managing the refugee admissions program must be held accountable for results that are in keeping with the will of the American people.
Enhanced Capacity and Infrastructure
We have not fully made the transition from responding to refugee crises during the cold war era to today’s refugee realities. No longer can we operate a few large-scale processing posts, moving large numbers of refugees, such as was the case in the former Soviet Union, Cuba, and Southeast Asia.
A significant impediment to taking full advantage of U.S. admissions authority has been the inadequacy of the worldwide infrastructures designed to identify and process refugees for resettlement. Today we need a more dynamic, mobile, and geographically diverse processing capacity. Elements of such an expanded and enhanced system include:
- Less dependence upon UNHCR as a major source of referrals of refugees in need of resettlement, even as continued support for UNHCR’s efforts to expand its capacity is critical.
- Comprehensive partnerships with NGOs to assist in the identification and referral of prospective U.S.-eligible refugees in need of resettlement and creation of formal mechanisms through which NGO-referred refugees receive consideration from U.S. authorities. This concept is different from the (Joint Voluntary Agency( (JVA) arrangements currently in place in at least one significant way. Under these arrangements, the NGO partners would identify and refer prospective refugees, but would not be involved in the processing typically done by JVAs and Overseas Processing Entities (OPEs).
- The US should look anew at whom it collaborates with for the overseas processing functions and the roles of these organizations. As the State Department has moved away from the U.S.-based voluntary resettlement agencies to perform traditional JVA functions, it has lost an important advocacy voice and has adversely affected the important resettlement continuum that begins overseas. Likewise, the scope of these overseas operations involving NGOs has narrowed to processing cases referred by UNHCR or other sources. The JVA or OPE function should also be directly involved in assisting in the identification of prospective refugees in need of resettlement.
- UNHCR's capacity to identify and refer for U.S. consideration refugees in need of resettlement requires expansion. One dimension of this needed expansion could be the strengthening of the so-called (deployment( program, through which NGO personnel are seconded on temporary assignments to augment UNHCR personnel in various resettlement-processing regions of the world. With more resources and program management enhancements applied to this effort, a greater number of NGO personnel can be added to expand the international capacity to identify and process refugees for resettlement.
- UNHCR personnel with responsibility for identifying and processing prospective resettlement applicants require additional and ongoing training. This is especially true when the UNHCR personnel responsible for this activity also have other pressing responsibilities, such as that of Protection Officer.
- The US government should work with UNHCR to have it more clearly acknowledged that resettlement is an important tool of protection. Sensitization on the role of resettlement in protecting larger numbers of refugees is needed, particularly with UNHCR staff who make budget and programmatic decisions related to protection.
- Create dynamic infrastructures for identifying and processing refugees that can be more proactive and responsive to urgent developments around the world. One approach to this is through the establishment of formal partnerships with NGOs for the deployment of "mobile rapid response teams." Some of the functions of such teams could include:
- ongoing monitoring of refugee situations around the world, with a view toward identifying those refugees whose only viable option is third country resettlement;
- assisting UNHCR, especially in emergent and newly created refugee situations, to register refugees and, for those in need of resettlement, develop biographical profiles and prepare documentation for resettlement consideration by the USG;
- establishing or augmenting, on a temporary basis, an overseas processing operation, especially in response to urgent developments requiring quick responses or more staff resources than can be directed to the situation by the existing processing entities; and
- assisting with training and technical assistance to UNHCR and other processing entities.
- ongoing monitoring of refugee situations around the world, with a view toward identifying those refugees whose only viable option is third country resettlement;
Inadequacies in the management of refugee admissions have also contributed to the annual admissions shortfalls.
- Efforts to identify prospective U.S.-eligible refugees in need of resettlement are neither comprehensive nor aggressive enough. Refugees with special needs, such as unaccompanied minors, at-risk women, the unaccompanied elderly, and others with special medical conditions, and those with urgent protection requirements, should receive priority consideration for U.S. admissions. Likewise, the growing population of refugees who have languished for years in refugee camps for lack of an alternative durable solution should receive special attention.
- Development of "admissions pipelines" has not been proactive nor forward-looking enough, resulting in not only admissions shortfalls, but the creation of end-of-year surges (bulges) in arrivals. The facilities and staffing of OPEs and the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) refugee adjudications need to be augmented to ensure at least a three-month pipeline of travel ready (not just approved) refugees at all times.
- Processing priorities applied to refugee groups have been restrictive and sometimes too narrowly defined. The US government no longer designates nationalities for presumptive eligibility for application to the resettlement program. Opportunities for family reunification have been severely limited. And, in recent years, of the six processing priorities, only three have been applied in most refugee situations. The U.S. government should lift the restricted application of the processing priorities and restore the importance of family reunification as one of the criteria for determining which refugees should be admitted to the US. For example, this year the processing priority for close family members is only available to refugees from 4 countries. In 1999, this priority 3 category was available to refugees in 21 countries.
- Processing Priority II has been under-utilized. Currently, Priority-2 consists of religious minorities in Iran, the former Soviet Union, the Vietnamese program, the Cuban program, Somali Bantus in Kenya, and Armenian Baku in Russia.
- Adjudications often result in inconsistent approval rates and coordination between the INS and DOS/BPRM has in the past been inadequate to ensure responsive oversight and timely interventions when negative trends appear. It remains to be seen whether coordination between DHS and BPRM will be adequate.
- DOS/PRM lacks comprehensive and viable contingencies when logistical impediments interfere with the creation and processing of "admissions pipelines." Responsive alternative arrangements are necessary when unexpected impediments to refugee processing are encountered.
The challenges faced by the international community in providing resettlement opportunities for needy refugees are formidable. Fortunately, through important leadership within UNHCR and the U.S. government, steps have been taken and more are planned to address these challenges and to reverse the downward trends of recent years. The people and institutions involved in these efforts to enhance the resettlement option deserve support and encouragement.
At the same time, there is a growing sense of desperation and frustration over the declining resettlement opportunities available to refugees. The condition of the growing numbers of refugees languishing for years in squalid camps is deteriorating.
Resettling refugees is nothing short of a rescue mission. People’s lives often hang in the balance. As a people of good will and as a nation strong enough to protect ourselves from threats, while maintaining our heritage as a refuge for the oppressed, we must not be complacent. Providing resettlement opportunities to refugees with no other options is often a matter of preserving life, thus we cannot afford to be patient. We simply must do everything possible to reverse the horrible trends seen in recent years in refugee admissions levels.
i UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2001, October 2002 and World Refugee Survey 2002, U.S. Committee for Refugees. Note: UNHCR statistics do not include Palestinian refugees.
ii UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2001, October 2002.
iii UN General Assembly Resolution 428(V), December 14, 1950.
iv Congressional Presentation Document, U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, FY2003.
v See attached chart titled, U.S. Refugee Ceilings and Admissions by Fiscal Year.
vi UNHCR Resettlement Handbook, Division of International Protection, Geneva, July 1997.
vii Seeking Durable Solutions: The 2002 Africa Mission: A Report of the USCCB Committee on Migration, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C.
viii Attached chart, U.S. Refugee Ceilings and Admissions by Fiscal Year