Blog post by Professor Elspeth Guild, Queen Mary University of London, and forms part of a series of blog posts responding to the UK Home Office’s New Plan for Immigration.
The UK has opened a consultation on its New Plan for Immigration, which includes a series of questions on protecting those fleeing persecution, oppression and tyranny (the language is a mix of objectives in the preamble of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Refugee Convention 1951).
At questions 4-7, it addresses a series of complex issues about how to achieve safe entry to the UK for refugees. The intention of the UK Government, according to the consultation, is “to maintain clear, well-defined routes for refugees in need of protection, ensuring refugees have the freedom to succeed, ability to integrate and contribute fully to society when they arrive in the UK.” The questions in this part of the consultation are centred around refugee resettlement and, among other things, ask about the effectiveness of measures such as granting resettled refugees indefinite leave to remain, ensuring responsiveness of resettlement programmes to international crises, and enhancing integration support for resettled refugees.
In this blog post, I will point out that the necessary guidance the UK Government needs in order to establish an effective resettlement scheme already exists. Rather than relying on the results of a poorly designed public consultation, the UK Government should look to the expertise of international actors in resettlement, particularly UNHCR. The Government should also remind itself of the standards set for resettlement in the UN Global Compact on Refugees (Refugee Compact). In this context, the Government must remember that although resettlement is an important part of refugee protection, providing resettlement places will not absolve the UK of its obligations towards refugees arriving irregularly.
Refugee Resettlement: Structure and Standards
The safest way for refugees to find protection is through being resettled by state authorities or international organisations working with state authorities. Resettlement means that refugees are selected (usually in their first country of asylum, often from refugee camps or the like) to be assisted and transported to a country which has undertaken to provide them with a durable solution to their flight: permanent residence in the host country. People chosen for resettlement are usually given assistance not only as regards travel to their (new) host country but also as regards integration when they get there. Their status as refugees is usually assessed before they are selected for resettlement and on arrival, they usually do not go through a refugee determination procedure but are immediately granted an immigration status (temporary or permanent).
Refugee resettlement is a core component of the Refugee Compact, adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2018. It is referred to 31 times in the Compact, very often accompanied by the phrase “complementary pathways for admission,” indicating that this is among the safest ways for refugees to find a durable solution. Offers of resettlement and complementary pathways are an indispensable part of States’ commitments in the Refugee Compact (section 3). According to the Compact, resettlement is “a tangible mechanism for burden- and responsibility-sharing and a demonstration of solidarity, allowing States to help share each other’s burdens and reduce the impact of large refugee situations on host countries” (section 3.2). UNHCR proposes specific objectives, to which states have committed themselves in the Compact. These include:
- Establishment of multi-year resettlement schemes;
- Efforts to ensure resettlement processing is predictable, efficient and effective (e.g. by using flexible processing modalities that fully address security concerns to resettle at least 25 per cent of annual resettlement submissions within six months of UNHCR referral);
- Ensuring that resettlement is used strategically, improving the protection environment and contributing to a comprehensive approach to refugee situations (e.g. by allocating places for the resettlement of refugees according to UNHCR’s resettlement criteria from priority situations identified by UNHCR in its annual projected global resettlement needs, including protracted situations; and/or e.g. dedicating at least 10 per cent of resettlement submissions as unallocated places for emergency or urgent cases identified by UNHCR);
- Investing in robust reception and integration services for resettled refugees, including women and girls at risk; and the use of emergency transit facilities or other arrangements for emergency processing for resettlement, including for women and children at risk.
Resettlement Realities and Protection Needs
As mentioned elsewhere in this series, refugee resettlement has reached an all-time low internationally, not least as a result of the cuts to numbers made by the previous US administration. The new US administration has restored the programme. At the height of Syrian refugee arrivals in Europe in 2015-2016, the UK, while refusing adamantly to participate in any solidarity measure with EU member states, bound itself to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees. This was a one-off programme, which took place over five years between 2015 and 2020 (i.e. amounting to 3,000 refugees a year). The same year, it opened a limited refugee sponsorship programme, which was extended in 2019, but capped at 5,000 refugees to be resettled under it. In 2020, the UK received just under 30,000 applications for asylum from people who had spontaneously arrived. It granted protection that year to 13,638 applicants (this includes all forms of protection. It is important to remember that the people granted protection in 2020 may have made their asylum claims many years earlier so are not necessarily the same cohort who applied for asylum in 2020). Including success rates on appeal, the percentage of asylum seekers who get some form of protection in the UK is currently at 54%. In 2020, Ireland received 11,429 asylum applications and granted protection to almost 75% of those whose applications were determined that year. So, the UK does not stand out as a particularly generous country as regards granting refugee protection in relation to some of its closest neighbours.
Further, as the figures above show, the UK resettlement programmes are a drop in the bucket in relation to the annual number of spontaneous refugee arrivals and the numbers of persons who are granted international protection. If the Government’s argument is that refugee resettlement should become a significant part of the UK’s response to the so-called international refugee crisis, the numbers in question will need to increase significantly. Even to remain at current levels of refugee protection, which for the UK are historically low in comparison with the post-1990 period, the UK will have to increase resettlement fourfold at least.
A Need for Firm Commitments and Efficient Procedures
If the UK is to fulfil its commitments to the international community undertaken in the Global Compact on Refugees, it will first need to set up a multiannual programme which will provide certainty to international organisations, in particular UNHCR, as to how many places will be available in the UK over an extended multi-annual period. This allows UNHCR to plan and prepare people eligible for resettlement for their new journeys. This preparation has been particularly important for instance in the case of Somali refugees in camps in Kenya where there is virtually no chance of local integration or, in most cases, safe return. Of the over 300,000 refugees in the Dadaab camps, there are many who, having arrived in the early 1990s, have lived their whole lives in these temporary camps, waiting for resettlement. At the same time, they have seen their chances of resettlement diminish as destination countries have limited numbers (including the UK). Multi-annual programmes with firm commitments allow UNHCR to give refugees an indication of how long they may have to wait before being resettled.
Because resettlement normally takes place outside of legal avenues for seeking asylum under the Refugee Convention, states are often inconsistent to the point of capricious as regards setting out clear and reliable rules on resettlement. While all refugees are vetted for resettlement (usually by UNHCR, but a number of states do their own vetting which is expensive and duplicates the work both for the authorities and the refugees), one of the consistent issues is whether the individual is a security threat to the potential host country. Again, the lack of clear and consistent criteria (let alone appeal rights) on the basis of which security decisions are taken, increases the precariousness of resettlement for refugees themselves. Thus, the importance of multi-annual programmes and predictable and efficient procedures which are applied without discrimination is vital.
UNHCR has established the following criteria for determining refugees as eligible for resettlement: (1) Legal and/or physical protection needs; (2) Survivors of violence and/or torture; (3) Medical needs; (4) Women and girls at risk; (5) Family reunification; (6) Children and adolescents at risk; and (7) Lack of foreseeable alternative durable solutions. According to UNHCR’s criteria, there are three levels of priority: emergency, urgent and normal. In the UK’s new resettlement plan, it should respect the UNHCR criteria and implement them in national law. This will avoid unnecessary duplication of efforts and time and reduce the risk of holding out promises of resettlement to refugees who are ultimately never chosen. It is also important for the UK to remember its obligations under the UN Convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination 1969 and to ensure that its criteria for resettlement are consistent with these obligations.
Robust reception and integration are key components to any resettlement programme. Once again, UNHCR has produced a valuable tool for states: a handbook on the integration of resettled refugees. Not only does it cover all of the important features necessary for an integration programme to be successful, but it also provides detailed criteria against which to assess the success or otherwise of a resettlement programme from the perspective of integration. It also includes substantial information on ensuring the sustainability of refugee integration and recommendations designed to improve outcomes.
It is important that in designing a new refugee resettlement programme, the UK builds on the existing evidence and experience which UNHCR has put at its disposal. The implementation of UNHCR guidelines would be a very good starting point for the UK.
Refugee resettlement is an important component to relieve pressures on states hosting substantial numbers of refugees and to provide refugees with a real opportunity to build a new life. But refugee resettlement can never be an alternative to fair and effective refugee status determination procedures for spontaneously arriving refugees. These procedures must be consistent with the Refugee Convention and UNHCR guidance. While resettlement is an important and valuable tool in providing international protection, it must not be instrumentalised to undermine the Refugee Convention duty on all signatory states to abide by the key obligation of the Convention: non-refoulement. Anyone fleeing persecution must be entitled to arrive at the borders of the UK and seek asylum. Such persons must never be sent back to persecution, instead they must be provided with reception conditions and fair and efficient asylum procedures, including a right of appeal with suspensive effect.
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