From Crisis to Opportunity: Global Pathways for refugee resettlement

by Brian Dyck

Five years ago, I was able to attend the Annual Tripartite Consultation on Resettlement (ATCR) in Geneva, Switzerland for the first time. After returning, I wrote about the meeting and the state of refugee resettlement globally and what Canada and MCC’s response could be. I started the article with then UN High Commission for Refugees, António Guterres’ opening comment at the ATCR closing session, “We are in trouble.”

If we were in trouble back in 2014, the trouble has only gotten worse since then. Since 2014, the Syrian crisis which was relatively new has increased in the number of people who have fled the country while the number of internally displaced Syrians has remained fairly steady at about 6 million. In addition, conflicts in South Sudan and Myanmar have created large new refugee and internally displaced populations. Then there are a number of protracted conflicts which have displaced people from places like Afghanistan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Colombia (which continues to have millions of internally displaced people) for decades. Many in those places do not know a time without war and displacement.

Another trend we have seen in the past five years is more people taking the situation into their own hands and fleeing to places like Europe to claim asylum. If there is in fact a queue in Europe for refugees to patiently wait to be resettled, that queue is probably close to 20 years long. No one wants to wait that long in often dire situations, relying on meager handouts from International NGOs or generous neighbours who have limited resources themselves.

If we are in trouble, what is the way out? Back in 2016 there was a sense of crisis as asylum numbers in Europe were climbing. There was also a sense of optimism and a movement to global cooperation to address this crisis. In September of that year, the United Nations gathered to commit to a Global Compact on Refugees and a Global Compact on Migration. There was a pledging conference in New York called by then US President Obama, where state leaders came forward to commit to solutions. In September 2018, both compacts were passed by the UN after much discussion and editing to make them acceptable to most states.

The UNHCR recently released its three-year strategy on resettlement and complimentary pathways as a response to the Global Compact on Refugees. The three goals of the strategy were a major point of discussion at the ATCR this year.

The first goal is obvious: grow resettlement, both in terms of the number of people resettled and the number of states involved. In terms of numbers, the target is to resettle a million refugees in the next 10 years. In 2016, when more than 100,000 refugees resettled, that would have seemed like a modest goal. With only about 55,000 refugees resettled last year, it seems more ambitious.

If the US returns to resettling more than 80,000 UNHCR referred refugees per year, as opposed to less than 30,000 last year, the goal will be reached easily. While Canada and a number of other states have increased their resettlement numbers, the US is still the big player. However, if the US continues with their trend of historically low numbers for resettlement, it will be a challenge to meet the target.

The second goal involves what has come to be called, “Complementary Pathways” (CP). CPs are ways that refugees can find temporary or even permanent protection in a third country through things like humanitarian visas (which may have a limited time) education visas, family reunification schemes or labour mobility schemes. The UNHCR hopes that an additional 2 million refugees can find a complementary pathway in the next 10 years. The challenge will be to try and track the number of people who access these pathways, but more importantly to make sure that those who receive a complimentary pathway can make a difference for the millions who do not get a chance for resettlement or CP.

In terms of CPs, the government of Canada has placed a lot of hope on the Economic Mobility Pathway Project. This has been a very small pilot project which will see fewer than 15 refugees coming to Canada this year with the first benefactor being highly touted. However, one IRCC staff policy person said recently, we are already thinking about what EMPP 2.0 will look like.

In addition to scaling up significantly small pilot projects like this, the challenges with complementary pathways will be to make sure that they are truly complimentary to the protection focused resettlement that is part of goal one of the strategy. It will be tempting for states to either count what they already do in providing refugees with a place as a CP and thus not add new protection spaces. Or states might just focus on the complementary pathways for those who can provide economic benefits and ignore those with higher needs who also likely have higher protection needs.

The third goal is the most important: promoting welcoming and inclusive societies. There are several reasons why I think this. First, if refugees are moved to a place where they are not welcomed and included, they won’t thrive and are less likely to integrate into their new home. Second, a welcoming and inclusive society can come together around the common task of resettlement and build better social cohesion. Many groups I have talked to over the years have talked about this as an unexpected benefit. Third, a welcoming and inclusive society can shape the public discourse around diversity. If the broader society is looking for ways to integrate newcomers, it is less likely that xenophobia and racism can gain ground in a community.

The refugee sponsorship programs in Canada are a major part of this. Since 1980 more than 340,000 refugees have been resettled through sponsorship where the government takes a backseat to the resettlement. While there are certainly problems with sponsorship in Canada today, it is a program that has contributed to the whole of society approach which is so important to making a welcoming and inclusive society. Millions of people in Canada have been directly or indirectly involved in refugee resettlement in the last 40 years and churches in particular have led in this. It is an ongoing challenge to keep a society welcoming and inclusive, but it is important to maintain this if we want to make headway in offering refugees the possibility of a brighter future.

In the next year there will be more attention paid to these goals and in particular there will be a pledging conference in December at the Global Refugee Forum. States and NGOs are invited to commit to supporting in focused ways related to resettlement and complimentary pathways, or other areas such as providing education and work opportunities to support refugees in their first country of asylum. As I look at this, I wonder what commitment churches are willing to make to address the global refugee crisis.

Five years ago, one of the things that High Commissioner Guterres said is, “The solution is political. There is only one way to stop displacement. [It is] to stop conflict and it is to find peace, and that capacity is lacking in today’s world.” That is still true today and that is why we are still in trouble. That is why I think the third goal of building welcoming and inclusive societies is so important and that is the role that I believe the church is called to play locally and globally.


Brian Dyck is the National Resettlement and Migration Coordinator for MCC Canada

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