Tuesday

23rd Apr 2019

Opinion

EU leadership on resettlement - the time is now

Last week, the Trump administration announced that the United States, global leader in refugee resettlement, will drastically slash its admissions target from 110,000 in 2017 to a maximum of 45,000 resettlement places in 2018.

At a time where a record number of 65.6 million people are forcibly displaced from their homes, this is the lowest cap since the establishment of the current US admissions system in 1980.

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On the same day, EU Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos gave a speech announcing that the Commission expects EU Member States to resettle 50,000 refugees on a voluntary basis over the next two years, until October 2019.

This target may initially sound large, and indeed would represent a significant improvement to the roughly 23,000 resettlement places made available by EU countries since July 2015. Per year, however, this amounts to less than 2% of the 1.2 million refugees currently estimated by the UNHCR to be in need of resettlement, and does not do justice to the capacity of the EU, which has over 20% of global GDP.

'EU do less, We do less'

One argument used by the US administration to justify the drastic reduction in admissions clearly demonstrates the global impact of such lethargy: officials are right to assert that despite more than halving its programme, the US is still on track to resettle far more refugees than its equally capable allies – including the EU.

Similar arguments resonate across the world.

In 2016, Kenyan minister Karanja Kibicho justified the planned closure of the country's two largest refugee camps by citing the lack of international solidarity in sharing the burden borne by Kenya, including by European countries. The failure by European leaders to offer protection to a fair share of refugees is contributing to a race to the bottom at a time when global displacement numbers are at a record high and we need more international solidarity, not less.

The Commission has the budget to financially support around 40,000 resettlement places in the coming year. This corresponds to a recent call made by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, which was supported by chancellor Angela Merkel. So why doesn't the Commission feel confident that Member States will commit to this more ambitious number of places?

One contributing factor is certain to be that, on both sides of the Atlantic, current political narratives are grounded in misunderstandings about the purpose and process of resettlement.

Myths and Misunderstandings

In the US, the decision to more than halve a programme that has long enjoyed strong bipartisan support has been justified in part by misinformation about the extensive security vetting resettled refugees undergo, or the great contributions (both financial and otherwise) that resettled refugees make to communities in their new home.

As a resettlement agency that has helped refugees settle into their new home in the United States for many decades, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) knows these justifications do not stand up to scrutiny – yet the new cap on numbers demonstrates their immediate negative impact on the people we serve.

In Brussels and across European capitals, increasing resettlement has been portrayed as a means to create "leverage" over countries hosting large numbers of refugees, and the conversation has recently centred on increasing resettlement from countries along the Central Mediterranean route, with the ultimate objective of curbing migration to the EU from this region.

While stepping up resettlement from these countries is also highly necessary, this is the wrong approach: resettlement is a humanitarian tool designed to offer protection and a durable solution to the most vulnerable refugees, regardless of their country of origin or asylum.

If the EU is to make a genuine contribution to resettling the 1.2 million refugees in need, it must focus on geographical locations where the need is greatest. This includes countries like Uganda (projected resettlement needs for 2018: 87,500) or Cameroon (projected needs: 78,255) – neither of which have featured in recent debates about stepping up EU resettlement efforts.

It is not too late for a change in approach: EU decision-makers are currently considering a proposal for a Union Resettlement Framework that, done right, could increase both the quantity and quality of European resettlement by establishing common EU standards and procedures.

The IRC believes that this framework should include ambitious resettlement targets in line with global resettlement needs, amounting to at least 108,000 EU resettlement places per year.

In the lead up to the adoption of this permanent framework, expected in late 2019, EU Member States are free to surpass the Commission's expectations and pledge national resettlement places far closer to the expected 40,000 margin.

In the longer term, European leaders need to ensure that the framework is one that leads to EU resettlement being an ambitious, humanitarian and sustainable contribution to global resettlement efforts – one that inspires our partners to do more, not less, to join us in addressing global displacement.

Lena Donner is refugee resettlement policy adviser at International Rescue Committee in Brussels.

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