Is Resettlement a Solution for Syria’s Refugee Crisis?

A staggering one third of Syrians have now fled their homes. 6.5 million are uprooted within Syria, and more than two million have become refugees in countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Many refugees are determined to return to their homes, but as the conflict drags on the prospects of an imminent return are fading. Instead, discussion is focused on how to help the refugees and their hosts weather what is shaping up to be a long-term problem. This will undoubtedly require increased support for over-burdened education, health, housing and water systems in host countries. Another option on the table is resettling some of the Syrian refugees to countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia and Germany. This is an important option, but one that is unlikely to benefit more than a handful of Syrians.

Inevitably, there are not enough resettlement places to go around. In 2012, less than 0.6% the world’s refugees were resettled.

As a resettlement caseworker with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, in Cairo, I saw firsthand how resettlement can provide a new lease on life to refugees trapped in risky and difficult circumstances. I am proud to have helped resettle hundreds of Somali refugee women and children to the United States, where many are now flourishing as employees, entrepreneurs and students. But I also saw the unintended negative consequences that often accompany resettlement programs. Inevitably, there are not enough resettlement places to go around. In 2012, 88,600 of the world’s 15.4 million refugees were resettled – less than 0.6 percent. In principle, resettlement opportunities are to be provided to those most in need, such as torture survivors and refugees with serious medical problems. Yet even if they do not fall into one of the groups that are prioritized for resettlement, many refugees are in desperate straits and may take big risks to try to access coveted resettlement spots. While I was working in Cairo, my colleagues and I saw refugees stage protests, divide up their families, and physically harm themselves, believing this would increase their chances of being resettled.

Could resettlement make a major contribution to resolving the Syrian refugee crisis? For the chosen few, resettlement will be life-changing – but in the absence of a bold revisioning of current resettlement policies, those chosen will be very few indeed. 17 countries have agreed to participate in UNHCR’s Syria Resettlement/Humanitarian Admission Program, including the United States and many European countries. However, given the European economic crisis, many states are reticent to engage in the costly process of resettling significant numbers of Syrian refugees. Many are more concerned with keeping Syrians out, as reflected in Bulgaria’s efforts to build a fence along its border with Turkey. Consequently, the program aims to resettle only 30,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014. This represents 1.5 percent of Syrian refugees, and 0.4% of the total number of displaced Syrians. Priority will go to refugees particularly vulnerable to abuse, such as single women and girls, and LGBT refugees.

While resettlement outside the region may lessen the risks these refugees face, resettlement efforts may create risks of their own. Resettlement programs can generate competition within already tense refugee communities, and resentment amongst poor host community members who cannot participate in such processes. The vast majority of displaced Syrians remain inside their country, and will be unable to access resettlement opportunities. UNHCR and resettlement states aim to use resettlement strategically, so that it benefits more people than just those refugees who are resettled. At its best, resettlement is a demonstration of solidarity and responsibility-sharing that can relieve the pressure on host states, encouraging them to keep their borders open and support the integration of refugees in local communities. However, a recent review of resettlement efforts by UNHCR concludes that while this is a “brilliant idea…implementation has not lived up to the concept’s potential.” The report suggests that attempting to use resettlement in such a strategic way is an approach “based on hopes rather than evidence.”

It is also not clear that resettlement is the kind of “responsibility sharing” Syria’s neighbors are looking for. Beleaguered host states such as Lebanon are asking for development support to offset the pressures created by the influx of refugees, but the Lebanese minister of social affairs, Wael Abu Faour, has said that “Nothing of significance has materialized so far, not one hospital, not one school. We are more than disappointed. We are frustrated. It has been more than two years of advice, of lessons, of promises and nothing.” Supporting resettled refugees requires a considerable investment on the part of resettlement states, but the relocation of even a serious proportion of Lebanon’s 725,000 Syrian refugees is unlikely to assuage the minister’s concerns. The longer these concerns go unaddressed, the greater the likelihood that Lebanon will restrict access to Syrians in need of asylum.

Resettlement can make an important, if modest, contribution to addressing the Syrian refugee crisis, but the risks it presents must be carefully managed. Above all, the development of resettlement programs must not detract attention and support from the vast majority of the displaced who will remain within Syria, and in neighboring states.