The future of refugee resettlement: Will the September summits make any difference?

Refugee resettlement is currently high on the international political agenda. In this post I explore the significance for resettlement of the recently held United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants and Leaders’ Summit on Refugees. Drawing on the power-focused approach Kristin Sandvik, Liliana Jubilut and I recently presented on this blog, I first address a few major issues for the future of refugee resettlement, namely the gap between resettlement needs and available places, political hostility to refugees, lack of international cooperation and fraught resources allocation, before comparing both summits’ resettlement-related outcomes in this respect.

Key issues

As forced displacement is at its worst since the Second World War and in the context of the Syrian crisis, demands for a substantial increase of resettlement places have become more pressing. Scarcity of places generates year-long waits for refugees. Research has shown that lack of availability of resettlement, or other legal mobility options, is an incentive for some to try reaching safer shores by their own means in dangerous conditions. Yet demands for a resettlement expansion have been met with domestic political hostility by governments, the most blatant example of this being the organization of an anti-resettlement referendum in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary; by voters, as in Germany where Chancellor Merkel’s party took a beating at municipal and state elections which saw a significant portion of voters turning to the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD); finally, by prominent political figures such as US presidential candidate Donald Trump falsely claiming that Syrian refugees were not vetted before resettlement to the US.

Domestic political hostility has challenged international cooperation on refugee resettlement. The European Commission’s plan to relocate refugees who arrived to Southern and Eastern Europe within the EU in accordance to member states’ demographic and economic weight was refused by several EU governments. In response, the Commission not only shelved the relocation plan but also suggested to bind the offering of resettlement places to cooperation regarding migration control in refugee-hosting countries. Lack of international cooperation on other issues has itself challenged refugee resettlement. For instance Turkey, which currently hosts the world’s largest refugee population and has entered a controversial deal with the EU on resettlement and migration control, has refused to approve the resettlement of skilled Syrian refugees to the EU and the US. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government faces US criticism over the role of Turkey in the Syrian crisis as well as regarding the long-hoped visa liberalisation to the EU for Turkish citizens.

Nevertheless, some countries increased resettlement in response to the Syrian crisis. The US welcomed 10,000 resettled Syrian in 2016, albeit implementation was painfully slow until acceleration during the summer. Australia’s promised increase of Syrian refugee resettlement also remained far below targets for most of the year and was accused of prioritising Christian minorities over Muslims. In contrast, Canada’s considerable expansion of refugee resettlement under the Trudeau government has won international praise. Yet domestic refugee advocates are wary that other groups awaiting resettlement, such as the Yazidi, may seem forgotten. Canada’s private sponsorship program has also being praised as a model for others. Still private sponsorship in other contexts, for instance in the United Kingdom and Australia, has so far remained comparatively very modest and it has not gained much traction in the US. Even the Canadian stream is considered too small by domestic advocates.

The UN Summit: Vague resettlement commitments but significant visibility

The first-ever UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants took place at the opening of the 71th UN General Assembly on September 19, 2016. The summit resulted in the adoption by the 193 member-states of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, which includes a roadmap towards the adoption of a global compact on refugees (the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, provided in annex to the Declaration) in 2018. The New York Declaration was hailed as a ‘minor miracle’ by UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner Volker Turk for re-affirming the commitment of all states to the protection of refugees and migrants’ rights in politically difficult times. In contrast, most commentators insisted on the vagueness of the New York Declaration. Former head of UNHCR’s Policy Evaluation Jeff Crisp pointedly noted the discrepancy between the considerable expansion of humanitarian action in the last decades and the current ‘dark age’ of refugee protection. Director of Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre Alexander Betts highlighted the problematic organizational dynamics of the summit, as the UNHCR feared mandate competition by other UN organizations and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which officially became affiliated to the UN at the summit.

One particular criticism mentioned in almost all of the summit’s reports was the refusal of Western states to agree upon a commitment to resettle 10% of refugees referred by the UNHCR. This commitment was replaced by the very broad intention to ‘expand the number and range of legal pathways available for refugees to be admitted to, or resettled in, third countries’ (section 77). The most concrete reference to a resettlement target is made in section 78, which advocates resettlement and other admission pathways ‘on a scale which would enable the annual resettlement needs identified by the UNHCR to be met.’ In addition, section 79 indicates that states will ‘consider the development’ of private sponsorship as well as labour mobility opportunities for refugees in which the private sector could be involved.

Regarding international cooperation, the Declaration broadly promotes the spirit of international responsibility-sharing. The Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework is more specific as it plans for specific funding and lending mechanisms for refugee-hosting states, yet the document will remain a draft for the next two years.

A few initiatives more concretely addressing the allocation of resources were announced. Most prominently, Canada’s government, the UNHCR and George Soros’ foundation The Open Society presented a joint initiative to structure and disseminate expertise on Canada’s private sponsorship model.

The Leaders’ Summit: The political will to deliver?

The impulse for this public-private partnership may have come from Barack Obama’s initiative to organize a Leader Summit on Refugees the day after the UN summit. Endorsed by the UN, the event had its own organizational dynamics. The Summit was co-hosted by states who had distinguished themselves in their actions towards refugees – besides the US, the governments of Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Jordan, Mexico and Sweden. Obama and the Department of State had publicly mentioned that only states committing to additional pledges regarding refugee resettlement, education and job opportunities for refugees and humanitarian financing were to be invited, and eventually 52 states participated. Before the summit the White House launched a section of its website aiming to increase domestic communities’ and the private sector engagement in refugee resettlement, and Secretary of State John Kerry announced that US resettlement would be increased by 60% to 110,000 in 2016-2017.

The joint Summit statement mentions that participating states have committed to ‘approximately double the number of resettled refugees’ (the media widely communicated it as 360,000 yet neither the figure nor a timeline were mentioned in the statement) and to offer new pathways of admission. Regarding international cooperation and resources allocation, the Canadian immigration Minister stated that 13 countries had already expressed their interest for the above mentioned private sponsorship initiative and several states such as the UK committed to funding for a UNHCR-IOM partnership set to support capacity-building in new resettling states. Several countries that did not pledge additional resettlement places, such as France and Germany, promised education and humanitarian funding for refugee-hosting countries.

 Will promises be kept?

Obama’s political leadership should be praised. Yet the US President will not be in office for much longer. Other summit leaders, notably Angela Merkel and François Hollande face difficult national elections next year. This casts a shadow over long-term political and financial commitments. Further, in contrast the US and Canada, the British and Australian governments, who made significant resettlement commitments, also strongly advocated stringent border controls at the UN General Assembly, showing the limits of a common approach to refugee resettlement. Prospects for a significant improvement of the political climate in resettling countries, and of international cooperation, in the light of the failure of a common response to the Syrian crisis, are rather bleak. It remains to be seen whether initiative such as the UNHCR, Canada and Soros’s public-private resettlement partnership – which comes alongside Soros’s larger financial commitment to ‘invest in migrants’ can sustainably increase refugee resettlement and make it more equitable. It has been argued that considerable private commitment to global development, such as the work of the Gates and the Clinton foundations, does not systematically challenge structural inequality. This observation should be kept in mind while conjecturing the future of refugee resettlement.

This blog post was also published on the blog of Das Netzwerk Flüctlingsforschung