Why Resettlement Should Be Our Number 1 Option

Credit: Koidu Limited
Credit: Koidu Limited

Theresa May, following in the footstep of successive Australian governments, recently suggested at the Conservative Party conference that only resettled refugees are “real” refugees worthy of our care and compassion.[1] One the other hand, the asylum-seekers that spontaneously arrive at our borders somehow do not fit the label of refugees. In Australia, asylum-seekers have long been branded ”queue jumpers” for trying to by-pass the established resettlement channel and arriving without the pre-agreement of the government.[2] Thus, the British and Australian governments have suggested that there is a legitimate trade-off to be made between asylum-seekers and resettled refugees.

UNHCR has continuously highlighted a state’s duty to respect the principle of non-refoulement — the right to seek asylum and the need for resettlement as a durable solution[3], especially for the most vulnerable categories of refugees. While most legal scholars would agree that there is no right to access asylum found in international law, there nonetheless is a clear right to seek asylum once you are in a country or at its border.

Still, it seems that some advocates of a more liberal and generous refugee regime have been convinced by May’s argument — that there is indeed a trade-off between asylum-seekers and resettled refugees, and that by supporting resettlement you contribute to undermining the right to seek asylum. At a recent event I attended at the Institute for Advanced Legal Studies, Dr. Violeta Moreno-Lax of Queen Mary University turned down the idea to expand European resettlement programmes on the basis that we need to first guarantee access to our asylum system. Merely touching upon this fact is not enough. Others have argued that resettlement “undermines the agency of refugees,” as the process implies a selection scheme by the resettlement states, and should therefore be opposed.

First of all, it must be stated clearly that there is no inherent contradiction in accepting asylum-seekers and also engaging in resettlement activities at the same time. In the European context, Sweden has been the largest recipient of asylum-seekers per capita for the past years while also enacting the largest resettlement programme in Europe. Those claiming that there is a trade-off are contradicted by this example. Advocates of a generous refugee policy should never play vulnerable groups against each other, suggesting that one is more deserving than the other. Proposing that there is a trade-off between refugees based on their mode of entry into a country is just not true.

Secondly, the argument that resettlement is bad because it is a state-led process, thereby undermining the agency of refugees themselves, simply does not hold. Even if one acknowledges that a state-led process is open to the biases of the resettlement states (which certainly has been the case), refugees are not assigned destinations outside their own free will. Resettled refugees are not helpless pawns shipped around the globe against their will. Partaking in resettlement is a choice made by the concerned individual. Certainly, it is a choice made by the individual under conditions with very limited options, but choices will always be limited as long as there is no clear unequivocal right to access asylum.

I argue that resettlement would have a role to play, even if Europe suddenly decided to open its borders to anyone wishing to apply for asylum. Opening European borders would still require asylum-seekers to make it to the border by themselves, meaning exposing them to the scourging heat of the Sahara desert, the risk of kidnapping and torture by criminal gangs in the Sinai and being shot by Iranian border guards. The last stretch of the journey that asylum-seekers make to arrive in Europe is by no means the most dangerous or most demanding part of the journey. We also know that the most impoverished and most vulnerable persons rarely find the means to migrate. It goes without saying that making the hazardous journey to the European border is significantly more difficult if one has a severe handicap or limited access to credit to pay for the journey.

Finally, it is true that with the current global refugee crisis at our hands, a European resettlement programme of 20,000 places, or even an expanded programme of 200,000 places[4], is not enough. But is that a reason to oppose it? I strongly believe that engaging with the opportunities at hand is a better and more efficient way forward than resisting them, even if it may seem insignificant at the time. Most changes come step by step, not as a sudden revelation.

Clearly, this last point is one of tactics. There may different opinions on what may be the best way forward. This component has not been discussed, such as the possibility of issuing humanitarian visas or abolishing the carrier sanctions currently in place. We may continue debating what are the best tactics, but for the time being I plead with all those working for a more generous refugee policy not to lend legitimacy to the UK and Australian governments’ attempt to differentiate between asylum-seekers and “real” refugees by opposing resettlement. International law acknowledges no difference between refugees based on their mode of arrival, and that is something we should never make trade-offs for.

Helena Landelius, Contributing Writer

[1] Read the whole speech on: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/theresa-may-s-speech-to-the-conservative-party-conference-in-full-a6681901.html

[2] Previous Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, among others, has been credited with this expression: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/immigration/abbott-slams-boatpeople-as-un-christian/story-fn9hm1gu-1226422034305

[3] UNHCR considers that there are three alternative durable solutions for refugees: voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country. Not all options are possible for all refugees. Read more on: http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49c3646cf8.html

[4] The word in Brussels is that the European Commission will propose a European resettlement programme of 200 000 places in March next year: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/5bec9bee-758f-11e5-933d-efcdc3c11c89.html#axzz3p2uEAyAf

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