The term refugee is overused and misused. Many of us believe that to be a refugee is simply to be displaced. Instead, a refugee is someone who has been forced to flee her country due to violence or persecution and who cannot return. To be a refugee is to be attacked, abused, to lose your family members, to find yourself in an inhospitable foreign land where you can’t speak the language or negotiate for your own survival or that of your children. It means losing your web of relationships, support system, and known world.
Another common misconception about refugees is that their situation is temporary, that they pitch tents and tough it out for a while and then go home and resume their lives. In reality, the vast majority of refugees are never able to return home. And very few are able to resettle in safe, stable countries. Rather, the tents are gradually replaced by more permanent structures, years go by, refugee camps swell, urban slums become more densely populated, children and then grandchildren are born, and refugees are still in exile, still in limbo, deprived of basic rights in their countries of asylum, barely surviving in forgotten camps or in the shadows of urban slums.
Whenever I take a visitor to a refugee camp, the question is the same: “This looks like a town; where’s the camp?” Refugee camps are towns. Often huge towns. The Dadaab camp in northeast Kenya hosts nearly 450,000 refugees and counting, many from the recent devastating drought in Somalia. That’s about the population of Cleveland. The camp has shops, mosques, churches, hospitals, video theaters, and Internet cafes. While today’s emergency response efforts focus on the basic survival needs of the inhabitants, what’s missing over the long term are rights: the right to reside in the country permanently, the right to state protection, to basic education, and to freedom of movement. What’s also missing are livelihood opportunities, which are often tied to rights, since refugees rarely have the right to work legally, farm, or keep livestock.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the international community’s designated responsible party for protecting refugees, has articulated a three-pronged “durable solutions framework” to resolve the plight of refugees. Basically, refugees can (1) repatriate to their home country when conditions allow for safe, voluntary return; (2) remain in the country to which they fled and integrate locally; or (3) resettle to a third country that is willing to grant them permanent residency and a path to naturalization.
The bleak reality, however, is that solutions one and two are rarely available in the near term, and that very few refugees are able to benefit from solution three, resettlement. This leaves the majority of refugees in indefinite limbo. My organization, RefugePoint, works in camps in eastern Sudan, for instance, where tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees have been living in exile for 50 years, since that country’s war for independence from Ethiopia began. Others are descendants of those who fled 50 years ago and, despite being born in Sudan, still have no legal status or rights there.
Although comparatively few refugees benefit from resettlement to a third country, it is the only of the three solutions over which the humanitarian community can wield much influence. Repatriation relies on political conditions in the home country and on that government’s interest in making conditions safe for return. Integration in the country of asylum relies on the goodwill of the host government to share its land and resources in perpetuity. Often these governments are financially and politically unstable and the needs of refugees are low on their list of priorities.
Fortunately, a growing number of developed countries are now offering regular, annual quotas for the permanent resettlement of refugees in an effort to help those countries bordering conflict zones meet the overwhelming need. (The number of asylum seekers in all of Europe in 2009 roughly equaled the number that entered South Africa alone: around 250,000.) The United States is the leader in this resettlement effort, accounting for about 80,000 of the 100,000 or so slots available worldwide each year. Canada and Australia have the next largest programs, at about 5,000 each, followed by Sweden, Norway, and small but important quotas offered by 20 other countries.
The U.S. resettlement program was formalized in 1980 and has received strong bipartisan support since then. In consultation with Congress, each year the president approves the quota and budget for the program. But the quota is consistently underutilized and allocated money is left on the table. It’s clearly not for a lack of need.
RefugePoint was founded in 2005 (under the name Mapendo International), at a time when the United States was falling far short of its annual targets for refugee admissions. Between 2000 and 2005, nearly 150,000 slots went unfilled. With so few solutions available and so many refugees in desperate need, each unfilled slot feels like a tragedy. Part of the shortfall was due to the effects of 9/11 and new security measures, but that wasn’t the whole story.
The Unites States has an extensive network of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) prepared to assist refugees once they arrive in the country, but we lack similar capacity on the “sending” side of resettlement, where complex triage and referral procedures must be followed to identify who among the world’s 15 million refugees is most in need of one of the nation’s slots. This task had been left exclusively to UNHCR, which is often, and appropriately, more concerned with sheltering and feeding the millions of refugees in its charge. Identifying and referring refugees for resettlement had become a perennial afterthought and sometimes even a nuisance to field staff who are already overstretched.
RefugePoint was founded to increase capacity for identifying and referring cases on the sending side of resettlement. The end goal is to ensure that each slot in the U.S. annual resettlement quota and that of other governments is filled. In this mission, an NGO like RefugePoint has one advantage over UNHCR: we can specialize in a certain piece of the “value chain,” while UNHCR has the enormous mandate of sustaining all refugees worldwide and coordinating all refugee assistance activities start to finish.
RefugePoint works with UNHCR and other NGOs to expand the reach of resettlement, allowing more refugees to benefit from it worldwide. In our first seven years, we have identified and referred over 15,000 refugees for resettlement from Africa. These included refugees from war-torn countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, and Democratic Republic of the Congo who had sought safety in camps or urban areas in countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and South Africa. The cases we refer are among the most at-risk in their communities. They are female-headed households, survivors of violence and torture, unaccompanied minors, people with disabilities or chronic medical conditions, or a combination of the above. Different factors render refugees at extreme risk in different situations, making it necessary to tailor the triage process accordingly. Identification of the most vulnerable is nine-tenths of our job.
Our referrals in 2010 made up 22 percent of all referrals from Africa, which points to the deficit of capacity that we’re working to overcome. Through a combination of advocacy and training, we have helped facilitate the resettlement of several thousand additional refugees. The cases we referred have resettled to seven different countries in North America, Europe, and Australia.
Roughly half of the world’s refugees are now living outside of camps, settling instead in urban areas or small towns. The aid regime is struggling to keep up with these changes: some of the most vulnerable, underserved refugees are in urban areas where they continue to be overlooked for resettlement opportunities. In response, RefugePoint has devised an effective strategy for reaching those among the dispersed urban caseload who are most in need of resettlement: we use a social service and medical care model—providing free medical care and other services—to improve conditions for refugees and locate the neediest among them.
Take Muna, for instance. Our social workers in Nairobi, Kenya, happened upon this 17-year-old Somali girl while visiting another refugee family in Eastleigh, a densely populated, impoverished neighborhood in Nairobi. Muna and her siblings were orphaned during the war in Somalia and, as the oldest, Muna was left as the sole caretaker of her brothers and sisters, including two severely handicapped brothers. While there are hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees in Kenya who could use assistance, Muna and her siblings clearly demonstrated aggravated vulnerability factors: they were unaccompanied minors and part of a female-headed household that included two disabled members. Unfortunately, these are the sorts of calculations that need to be made when resources are limited and the need is vast. We began providing food assistance and basic health care to the family, while at the same time assessing their long-term prospects for survival in Kenya, which we determined to be poor. Through an arrangement with the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, we referred them for resettlement. After numerous checks (medical, security, identity), they gained final approval for travel in September and reunited in Kentucky with an older half-brother.
Because RefugePoint relies almost exclusively on private funding, we have greater flexibility to respond to emerging needs. For instance, with private funds we were able to quickly deploy a staff member to Egypt last April to help respond to refugees fleeing fighting in Libya, as well as those who have languished in Cairo for years. Quick action would not be possible if we had to wait for a government contract.
Earlier, I said that resettlement benefits relatively few refugees. Strictly speaking, that’s true. Less than 1 percent of the world’s refugees will be resettled. But without resettlement, the international community has little or no leverage with which to negotiate for the other two durable solutions, repatriation and local integration, which have the potential to benefit many more refugees. Resettlement is an important expression of solidarity—referred to, unfortunately, as “burden-sharing”—between wealthier countries and the countries of first asylum, which bear the brunt of refugee outflows, yet are typically underdeveloped.
Seventy percent of all refugees are hosted in some of the poorest countries in the world. The resettlement of several thousand persons can help encourage the government in the asylum country to muster the political will to make concessions for the remaining refugees, such as increased rights or even permanent residency. Importantly, it can also help convince neighboring countries to keep their borders open to refugees fleeing live conflicts, as was the case with Macedonia in 1999 when emergency resettlement efforts persuaded that country to keep its border open to fleeing Kosovars who would otherwise have been trapped under Milosevic’s bombardments. In short, resettlement can unlock other solutions for larger numbers of refugees, a phenomenon referred to as the strategic use of resettlement. We have only scratched the surface of the potential for maximizing these secondary benefits of resettlement.
Another less well-known benefit of resettlement is the way it can loop back to help address the root causes of refugee crises. Refugees are the best war correspondents. When they become our neighbors and coworkers through resettlement, citizens of developed countries are exposed to far-away conflicts. We begin to lobby for their resolution, donate money to mitigate them, and hold our politicians accountable for their actions abroad. Many refugees also use the assets they have acquired through resettlement, such as education, to return and help rebuild their countries once the war is over. Meanwhile, the modest incomes they earn in their new countries often flow back as remittances to sustain family members who would otherwise be reliant on humanitarian aid.
RefugePoint’s activities will continue to evolve in response to the emerging needs of refugees. Our strategy is to remain flexible and opportunistic, in the best sense of the word, to continue to find new and better ways to address refugee crises. While we have identified resettlement as our most immediate, high-impact opportunity for easing the plight of some refugees, we plan to use it ultimately as a key to unlock broader, durable solutions for the refugee population as a whole.