BUNJ, South Sudan — As tragic news continues to pour out of Afghanistan and conversations around refugee resettlement continue to surface, it is a great time for a reminder on the refugee resettlement process. A refugee is someone who has fled across an international border due to persecution based on reasons “of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”
For refugees currently at risk in Afghanistan, there is an additional resettlement category. Since 2006, the U.S. has resettled certain immigrants from Afghanistan on a “Special Immigrant Visa” (SIV). This visa is specifically for people who have assisted the U.S. Armed Forces and — by doing so — are at risk in their country of origin. Versions of this visa have existed in the past, and most Afghans and Iraqis currently resettled in the U.S. are under this visa category. Both in terms of the United Nations Charter definition and U.S. refugee status, Afghans currently using the SIV are not technically refugees. The SIV is a visa specific to the U.S. and does not process through the UNHCR refugee system.
What Options Do Refugees Have?
Refugees have three main paths once they have fled their homeland including Repatriation, Second Country Integration and Third Country Resettlement.
Repatriation occurs when refugees can return to their country of origin with safety permitting. If the situation that led to their displacement has been remedied including a natural disaster or the end of a war, refugees can return home and rebuild. This is the preference for nearly all refugees.
Second Country Integration occurs if refugees are unable to return home, they can try to build a life in the country they fled to. The ability of refugees to do this depends on many factors, including a country’s labor laws and ability to absorb and support the populations. Successful integration in a second country is much more likely for urban refugees, who have better job prospects than for refugees restricted to a camp setting.
Third Country Resettlement occurs if the crisis that led to displacement is ongoing for many years with no end in sight. During this situation, the U.N. may attempt to resettle refugees in a third country like the U.S., Canada, Australia or countries in Western Europe. Each year, less than 1% of global refugees are resettled in a third country.
How Many Refugees Are There and What Happens Next?
At the end of 2020, there were more than 26 million refugees globally. The resettlement process starts after someone is officially registered as a refugee by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This process, as well as selection for resettlement, can take years. UNHCR collaborates with governments and non-governmental organizations to coordinate this process. There are many countries that resettle refugees including the United States. The U.S. is considered the most stringent in terms of refugee acceptance and screening process. Since refugee resettlement numbers are determined by the administration in power, resettlements tend to ebb and flow cyclically with each new administration.
Refugees cannot apply for resettlement themselves. UNHCR selects cases for resettlement based on a variety of vulnerability factors including medical needs, at-risk women and children. UNHCR also screens out individuals who have committed crimes or might be a security risk. Individual countries then select from the pool of refugees that the U.N. provided and carry out their individual screening processes. Unsurprisingly, despite an increasing need, refugee resettlement was essentially halted in 2020 due to COVID-19.
Resettling Refugees in the United States
Approval for resettlement to the U.S. is partially determined by the refugee caps instituted each year by the administration in power. The U.S. refugee admission ceiling has been trending downward significantly since 1980, which is directly counter to the increasing displacement across the globe. Resettlement needs doubled between 2014 and 2018. According to UNHCR, considering the resettlement rates prior to COVID-19, it would take 18 years to resettle all the refugees in need if no new refugees emerged.
After screening is complete and refugees fly to the U.S. and local agency staff start preparing for arrival. In some cases, agencies receive a few weeks or a few days to prepare. Most agencies have established relationships with essential parties in a similar fashion to a landlord placing a family. The U.S. government mandates what refugees obtain on arrival in detail, down to how many plates and cups they need.
Refugees with Medical Needs
Refugees with urgent medical needs go to the hospital on arrival for screening or treatment. Otherwise, refugees visit the doctor within their first week in the U.S. The refugees attend various government appointments and enroll in training to prepare for life in the U.S. Children attend school and parents take English language courses. Refugees who have qualifications will start working right away and some enter vocational training.
Unless they have certain medical needs, refugees receive help from resettlement agencies for up to 8 months, which varies depending on the state and the enrollment program. The goal of this resettlement period is to prepare refugees to be “self-sufficient,” which includes finding employment, gaining access to medical and educational services and paying back the interest-free airline loan the U.S. government provided for their flight to the U.S. Refugees are eligible to apply for a green card for permanent residency after one year of U.S. residency. Certain factors, including an unpaid airfare loan, can be a reason for denial while most refugees obtain approval for residency.
What is the Future of Resettlement?
As migrant populations have skyrocketed, countries around the globe continue to shirk their duties in terms of refugee protection and refugee resettlement. There seems to be a significant misunderstanding about what governments in developed countries should be doing to help in this global crisis. A moral imperative exists to help people who have experienced displacement for decades with a very limited likelihood of returning to their homes. There are also economic and security imperatives to resettling as many refugees as possible. Countless economic studies have shown that immigrants add to the economy, and refugees are no exception. In addition to being more likely to open a business, immigrants often perform jobs that many local populations do not want.
None of the issues facing migrants and refugees are new, and between the effects of climate change and the current global environment, migrant crises will only continue to escalate. The current situation in Afghanistan is a reminder of how unprepared the global community is to deal with these types of crises.
– Bethany T. Woodson