Focus on Refugee Skills to Move Beyond Arguments About Resettlement

In a June 12 speech to governments and NGOs at UNHCR’s annual consultations on refugee resettlement in Geneva, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi made a passionate plea for additional resettlement pledges from participating nations. He will likely be disappointed.

As important as it is, resettlement will continue to be only a small part of international protection efforts. Providing assistance to refugees in first countries of asylum will continue to be a larger part of humanitarian response operations, and the realistic durable solution in most cases will still be eventual return to their countries of origin.

So what can we do now about the global humanitarian crisis?

The Widening Resettlement Gap

Grandi pressed governments to honor the New York Declaration pledges made in September 2016 to match resettlement offers to needs identified by UNHCR. His challenge is urgent. Close to 1.2 million refugees need resettlement, yet UNHCR expects only 93,200 open slots this year. According to UNHCR projections, while more countries will take part in resettlement in 2018, the gap between needs and offers is widening.

The political climate in the United States and Europe does not seem amenable to increasing resettlement in the short term. The Trump Administration’s FY17 resettlement target of 50,000 refugees is substantially lower than the Obama administration’s goal of 110,000. In Europe, opposition to admitting more asylum seekers has been exacerbated by populist politicians. UNHCR has pursued new resettlement options, such as Argentina and Brazil, but these are likely to remain small programs.

Resettlement of the most vulnerable refugees (such as those facing sexual and gender-based violence in camp settings) will remain essential, but it is not an adequate solution to the current forced migration crisis. The top priorities should continue to be preventing the emergencies that force people to flee by addressing political, economic, or social root causes; and improving conditions in refugee producing countries to allow refugees to return.

The Human Capital of Refugees

Preventing or ameliorating crises will necessitate “nation building” of some sort, however unpopular the term is right now. Functioning institutions, rule of law, civil society, and other checks on oppressive governance are key to dampening conflict and creating a stable, sustainable environment that could allow refugees to return home.

We should see refugees not as impediments to nation building, but as assets.

First, we need to do a better job assessing refugee credentials, vocations, and aptitudes when they first come into contact with UNHCR or authorities in their first country of asylum.

Second, we need to provide refugees with the skills training they need for gainful employment, particularly in camp settings or other semi-permanent facilities. UNHCR and donors should be leveraging the revolution in web-based platforms (such as the Khan Academy for academic subjects, Duolingo for languages) to provide more vocational training. 

Finally, we need to do a better job utilizing refugee abilities, helping them find jobs that benefit them and their hosts—and that will also benefit their home countries when they return home. Otherwise, we are wasting not only the assistance from humanitarian donor countries, but also refugees’ own human capital.

Refugees with experience as nurses, health aides, teachers, truck drivers, mechanics, accountants, logisticians, interpreters, writers, or administrators should be using those skills in their country of asylum.

Where host countries restrict refugee employment, donor governments should continue to look for ways to leverage development assistance to expand employment of both host country citizens and refugees. 

East African leaders of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), in their March 25 “Nairobi Declaration’ on Somali refugees, provided a good framework, pledging to “Enhance, with the support of the international community, education, training and skills development for refugees to reduce their dependence on humanitarian assistance, and prepare them for gainful employment in host communities and upon return.”

When it is too difficult to integrate refugees into a host country’s economy, humanitarian agencies and traditional donor governments should consider employing skilled refugees in their own humanitarian operations in other parts of the world – recruiting skilled refugees for humanitarian response teams and support operations.

The Skills to Rebuild

Identifying and cultivating refugee skills is not just a humanitarian imperative; it will also yield long-term political and economic benefits. Skilled refugees can help jump-start international efforts to rebuild countries after the conflicts or catastrophes that precipitated their flight.   

Post-crisis countries usually suffer from a deficit of skilled personnel, at the very time when such people are most needed to rebuild institutions and reconstruct civil society. The mass return of unskilled refugees can compound immediate governance challenges.

The availability of skilled refugees with ties both to their homeland and to the international community, however, would be invaluable in preventing a “rebound” of post-transition chaos. That can, in turn, decrease dependence on international sources of funding and security.

Refugee resettlement is noble work; it is critical to saving some of the most vulnerable and victimized people in the world. Ideally, the countries that have traditionally resettled refugees will respond generously to High Commissioner Grandi’s request, while others will consider making or expanding their own efforts.

But resettlement is just a piece of humanitarian response, and not the biggest. We should pay more attention to enabling and elevating refugee skills. It will benefit refugees and asylum countries immediately. And eventually, it just might help address the tragic circumstances in refugees’ home countries that forced them to flee in the first place.

Joseph Cassidy is a Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Global Sustainability and Resilience Program, and former Director for Policy, Regional, and Functional Organizations of the International Organizations Bureau, U.S. Department of State.

Ella McElroy is a Research Intern at the Wilson Center, focusing on the international refugee regime and issues pertaining to refugee public policy.


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