Refugees and Resettlement

It’s always somewhat gratifying when I hear someone in my personal life change the way they speak about an issue because of my blogging. It’s even more gratifying when I get the sense they’ve actually internalized some of the ideas and aren’t just being careful because I’m around. This happened last weekend when my brother casually mentioned that he’d heard that the US actually resettled about a third of the world’s refugees. He mentioned that he wasn’t sure how that was possible since he knew the number of refugees the US took in was dropping, but he wondered if there was some meaning to “resettled” he was missing. As a thank you to him for being so conscientious about his adjectives, I figured I’d look in to the stats and definitions for him.

First, I have to admit it took me a few minutes to find anything on this, mostly because I thought he said the data came from “UNH”, which I took to mean the University of New Hampshire. Turns out he actually said the UNHCR, or the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Oops.

When I finally found the right page, I was impressed to see that they actually have really wonderful resources defining all of what their terms mean. For refugees, the three solutions they work towards are voluntary repatriation (returning to their home country when it is more stable), resettlement (moving permanently to another country) or integration (becoming part of your host country).

It’s those last two that seemed to be causing the confusion (at least for me), but it made sense when I read it. A host country is the country the refugees initially go to when they flee their own country. Unsurprisingly, these are most often countries closer in proximity to them that will allow them to stay there. From their fact sheets, the top host countries are Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran and Uganda: The refugees that stay in those countries aren’t considered “resettled”, because it’s considered temporary. The UNHCR works with those refugees to identify those who are most vulnerable (you cannot apply), and then submits their application. They don’t get to pick the country they go to. Unlike the host country, the countries that accept refugees through this program agree to give them permanent legal status in their country.

So does the US really accept a third of all resettled refugees cases? Yes, last year that was true. In other years it’s been even higher. I can’t embed it here, but this page has a really nifty graph of the total applications/departures each year, and you can filter it by resettlement country. In 2017 there were about 75,000 UNHCR applications for resettlement, the US took 26,000 of those.  In 2016 there were 163,000 applications, and the US took 108,000. Now I should mention that by “took” I mean took the application. Countries still do their own screening process before people are actually resettled.

Question 1, answered! Oh, did I mention there was a second question?

As we were talking about the plausibility of this stat, we raised the issue that we were constantly hearing about how many refugees countries like Germany were taking in. We were trying to figure out what category those people fell in to, and how they fit in to this picture.

As far as I can tell, the migrants making the headlines in Europe are either asylum seekers or economic migrants. Asylum seekers differ from resettled refugees in that resettled refugees are sent to a country under an agreement/discussion with the UNHCR and after a screening, and asylum seekers just show up and are screened after the fact. Since only 1% of the world’s refugees are ever resettled, the vast majority of refugee discussions are talking about asylum seekers. I won’t pontificate much more on the differences as that gets in to all sorts of legal issues, but I can say I had fun playing around with the graph generator on the UNHCR website. Here’s the number of resettled refugees France, Germany and the US have taken since 2003, and what countries they came from: