Louise Olliff

Third country resettlement has long been held as one of three main “solutions” to forced displacement, sitting alongside voluntary repatriation and local integration in the Durable Solutions  framework. According to UNHCR, resettlement is “the transfer of refugees from an asylum country to another State that has agreed to admit them and ultimately grant them permanent settlement.” People considered for resettlement, are those who have been recognised as refugees and are particularly vulnerable due to being survivors of torture and/or violence, being women and girls at risk, or children or adolescents at risk. Alternatively, the refugees belong to the category of people that have protection (legal and/or physical), medical, or family reunification needs, or those for whom there are a lack of any foreseeable alternative durable solutions.  

Over the past fifty years, hundreds of thousands of refugees have found a new life through resettlement programs. While there were 37 countries with resettlement programs in 2016, in reality the vast majority of resettled refugees have ended up in one of three countries: the United States, Canada or Australia. In the context of a renewed push to increase resettlement places and countries globally, the following explores some of the problematics and possibilities of resettlement within the international refugee regime. 

Resettlement problematics 

Resettlement has sat uneasily in the international refugee regime in both practice and effect. On a practical level, resettlement has only ever provided a modest contribution to resolving the longer-term status and protection needs of refugees and other persons of concern. The number of global resettlement places available each year has rarely exceeded 100,000 places and, in 2018, only 55,692 refugees were resettled through referral by UNHCR (a number of countries, including Australia and Canada, administer their own humanitarian resettlement schemes alongside UNHCR-facilitated resettlement). Yet the number of people in need of resettlement continues to grow, as conflicts are more drawn out and destructive. In 2019, UNHCR estimated that 1,428,011 persons will be in need of resettlement. This means that far fewer than 1 in 10 refugees who have been identified as in need of resettlement are likely to get this opportunity. 

In the context of the chasm between resettlement needs and available places, resettlement processes are less than ideal. It can take years, even decades, for a person to go through the multitude of bureaucratic processes. It is possible that, even for the very vulnerable, resettlement quotas and priorities that are set by States will in effect mean they have little chance of being accepted. Take, for example, refugees in Indonesia who have recently been informed they are unlikely to ever be resettled at current rates, with registration processes all but closed. Concerns have also periodically been raised about the prioritisation criteria for resettlement places decided by States, with some countries being accused of selecting people based not on vulnerability and need, but on problematic ideas such as integration potential”,  or on excluding admission to entire groups of refugees based on their country of origin

Resettlement programs have also been used by some States to justify the undermining of other forms of protection, particularly the right to seek asylum. The Australian government is a textbook example of this; justifying a suite of harsh policies designed to deter people from seeking protection by arguing that there is a “right way” to come to Australia, and that refugees who are resettled have waited patiently in a (mythical) queue. By pitting recognised refugees who have been resettled for reasons of particular vulnerability against people seeking asylum, successive governments have created a distorted picture of the place that resettlement plays in responses to forced displacement globally, and Australia’s role and “humanitarian” response within this broader context.  

Aside from limiting the practices of protection by resettlement states, there have been other reservations aired, including how the promise of resettlement in a richer country may have (unintended) consequences for how refugees in host countries consider their options (for example, local integration or voluntary repatriation) and how vulnerabilities and deficiencies rather than strengths are amplified or distorted in a system that (nominally) prioritises these things.  

A resettlement revival? 

Despite these shortcomings, there are grounds to argue that resettlement has made a valuable contribution to expanding solutions for people forcibly displaced. Resettlement programs have eased the pressure on countries hosting the most refugees, have provided a lifeline to people whose protection cannot be assured in a host country and have meant that significant numbers of people have been able to rebuild their lives with the assurance of a permanent legal status. It is for these reasons that calls for a revival and expansion of resettlement places globally continue. 

In the Australian context, there has been long-standing bipartisan political support as well as general community support for Australia’s offshore resettlement program, which has seen an average of 13,735 refugees per year make a life in Australia since the 1970s. In the lead-up to the Federal election in 2019, both major political parties have pledged to increase the size of the resettlement program if elected. The Australian Labor Party says it will expand the program to 32,000 places per year and the Liberal/National Party has committed to its planned increase to 18,750 places in 2018-19. Both parties have seen the potential of greater community involvement in resettlement, with many calls being made for a better and more engaged community sponsorship model.  

However, beyond commitments to increase the numbers of resettlement countries and places, there has been a lack of imagination and leadership in Australia and elsewhere about the role that resettlement plays in the international refugee regime, and how to amplify or reimagine its potential to expand and strengthen refugee protection more broadly. 

Reimagining resettlement 

Piper, Power and Thom argue that “resettlement is not only about giving vulnerable refugees the chance of a new life… it has a variety of other uses that have a far wider application than simply assisting those resettled”. Most often this “wider application” is talked about in terms of the “strategic use” of resettlement; that, by resettling small groups within a larger refugee population, other protection solutions can be unlocked, enabled or kept open for those who remain. This “strategic use of resettlement” discussion is most often framed in terms of negotiations between States and UNHCR about refugee populations. Yet there is little acknowledgement of the considerable impact of resettlement on strengthening refugee community-based protection by expanding resources and knowledge within refugee populations through transnational social support networks. 

Transnational social support networks are created through resettlement processes because those who are resettled have predominantly lived as refugees in other countries, sometimes for decades and, more often than not, retain active connections to refugee populations. As well as sending remittances to family and friends, research has found that it is common for resettled refugees in countries like Australia to set up small volunteer-run organisations to collectively mobilise resources to assist “their people” living in displacement contexts in other parts of the world. Refugee diaspora organisations (RDOs) undertake a range of activities: they raise money for refugee schools and health centres, purchase wheelchairs and water pumps, send material aid, facilitate migration outcomes, and undertake systemic advocacy. They also help in ways that are non-quantifiable: strengthening social networks of care, sharing information, bearing witness and offering hope. The capacity of resettled refugees to draw on transnational social networks, contextual knowledge of refugee situations, mobility enabled through resettlement, makes them distinct and valuable humanitarian actors. 

That resettled refugees play an ongoing role in supporting and caring for those who are not resettled is a story that is rarely told. This helping happens quietly, informally and on a small scale, in parallel to the formal humanitarian or refugee system. Yet it is vital source of support; of “community-based protection”. To date, the main actors involved in refugee protection (UNHCR and NGOs), as well as resettlement states such as Australia, have not engaged in any substantive way with the transnational social support networks of refugees. Instead, refugees who are resettled are no longer considered “in the picture” of the international refugee regime; there is a sense that they should just get on with their lives in Australia, now that they are no longer refugees. While it is understandable that there are concerns about the weight of obligation to help people overseas for recent arrivals struggling to find their feet in a new country, it is also unrealistic to expect that those who have been told they are “the lucky ones” and who have intimate knowledge and connection with refugees living in very difficult situations, will simply forget and move on as soon as they arrive in a wealthy and safe country like Australia. 

A possibility that has yet to be explored is how resettled refugees can be more fully enabled to undertake the helping work that they inevitably do of their own accord—such as by reducing bureaucratic red tape for small voluntary organisations transferring money overseas, by exploring potential partnerships between international NGOs and RDOs, by establishing targeted diaspora volunteer or recruitment programs within the humanitarian sector, by including RDOs in humanitarian coordination mechanisms, or by strengthening the fundraising, governance and project planning capacities of RDOs through initiatives like the Danish Refugee Council’s Diaspora Programme.

Reimagining resettlement should mean not only increasing the number of resettlement countries and places globally, but also amplifying its (potential) protection benefits through a more considered and ongoing engagement with people who have been through this process. We would do well to acknowledge the significant ways in which communities change as borders are crossed and displaced populations continue to connect with each other and create their own solutions in the context of the significant failings of the international refugee regime to ensure effective protection. As a leading resettlement country, Australia has the potential to show leadership and innovation in promoting the value of resettlement beyond that of providing a durable solution to a select number of people. Resettlement is valuable for strengthening the support and resources available to refugees who are not resettled.

Louise Olliff completed her PhD at the University of Melbourne in 2018 on “Refugee diaspora organisations in the international refugee regime: motivations, modalities and implications of diaspora humanitarianism.” She works for the Refugee Council of Australia and teaches in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne.