#Refugees: Rethinking the EU’s approach to refugee resettlement and relocation policy

| April 13, 2016 | 0 Comments

eu-border-2015-see-record-flow-migrantsRefugee resettlement to and within the European Union has so far embodied one of the weakest links in the EU’s refugee policy, writes Solon Ardittis.

To quote but two figures:

  • Under the existing EU voluntary scheme to resettle 22,000 refugees in the European Union over two years, agreed in 2015, less than 3,500 have so far been resettled in 10 member states.
  • As of 11 April 2016, only 1,145 asylum applicants, out of the 160,000 planned, had been relocated from Greece and Italy to other EU member states under the EU Relocation Plan agreed in 2015.

Based on their current design, EU resettlement and relocation policies are failing to gain traction in most member states, either because of their mandatory nature or because of their largely restrictive scope.

Indeed, one of the problems with such policies is that their decision-making process continues to rest with central government authorities alone, unlike the way resettlement is approached in some major non-EU countries; another problem is the strictly and univocally humanitarian nature of such policies.

If the EU Relocation Plan has failed to achieve its targets so far it is largely because its intra-EU distribution key was established solely on ‘objective, quantifiable and verifiable criteria’ (i.e. size of the population, GDP, unemployment rate and average number of spontaneous asylum applications and resettled refugees per 1 million inhabitants over the period 2010-2014). What the plan has largely overlooked is the need to also incorporate a range of other potentially enabling factors such as the willingness of local authorities, NGOs, other support groups, businesses and citizens to contribute to the financial and organisational aspects of relocation.

At a time of national budget cuts and deficits, and mounting hostility to the migrant crisis among specific segments of European society, it is therefore time for the EU to widen the scope of its resettlement and relocation policies in order to take account of the willingness of selected non-state actors to contribute substantively to the funding and implementation of such policies. In this regard, one potentially viable option that has been tested successfully elsewhere is the development of programmes of ‘private sponsorship of refugees’, enabling citizens, support groups and businesses to support many of the financial and non-financial costs of refugee resettlement. Canada’s experience in this area is enlightening.

Since 1979, Canada has been implementing a ‘Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR)’ programme that enables Canadian citizens and permanent residents to provide opportunities for refugees living abroad to find protection and build a new life in Canada. Based on a formal agreement with the Canadian authorities, private sponsors undertake to provide the refugees with care, lodging, settlement assistance and support for the duration of the sponsorship period. Normally, this is 12  months starting from the refugee’s arrival in Canada or until the refugee becomes self-sufficient, whichever comes first.

Private sponsors normally agree to support such items as food, rent, household utilities and other day-to-day living expenses; clothing, furniture and other household goods; interpreters and medical doctors; assistance with the application for provincial health-care coverage; enrolling children in schools and adults in language training; introducing newcomers to people with similar personal interests; providing guidance with regard to banking services, transportation, etc.; and assisting refugees in their search for employment.

Since its launch in 1979, Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees Programme has provided protection to some 250,000 refugees – around 7,000 per year. This is of course additional to the Government-assisted resettlement programme. Considering that Canada’s population accounts for 7% of the EU’s, the annual figure of 7,000 private sponsored refugees would amount potentially to some 114,000 in the case of the European Union.

Among other major non-EU host countries, Australia has been implementing a similar programme on a pilot basis between 2013 and 2016, and is now considering expanding it. In the United States, there is mounting pressure for the establishment of a similar scheme.

Within the European Union, only Germany is currently implementing such a scheme, albeit at Länder rather Federal level (i.e. 15 of the 16 Länder implement a private sponsorship scheme). The United Kingdom is in the process of finalising a similar policy, following an announcement made by the Home Secretary on 6 October 2015. Ireland and Switzerland had developed a similar scheme on a temporary basis, focusing specifically on the reunification of Syrian families.

The potential of such alternative and non-traditional approaches to refugee resettlement has not yet been explored and exploited fully within the EU.

As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, stressed at the High-level meeting on ‘Global responsibility sharing through pathway for admission of Syrian Refugees’, held on 30 March 2016 in Geneva, private sponsorship not only adds more places for resettlement, but also “contributes to create this sense in civil society that it is a positive thing to do”. Studies based on Canada’s experience suggest, in particular, that the long-term outcomes for privately sponsored refugees often exceed those for government-assisted ones, due in part to a stronger community support.

Privately sponsored refugee resettlement therefore appears to have the potential to compensate for many of the weaknesses in the EU’s current policies and measures in this area. However, for such a scheme to operate to its full potential, in particular by generating sufficient demand based on a range of criteria, its eligibility rules and modus operandi cannot draw solely on strictly humanitarian considerations. While it would of course be conceivable, and indeed desirable, that any future EU-based private sponsorship scheme establish a mandatory quota on vulnerable groups, there would be limited rationale for the scheme to also exclude more business-driven forms of resettlement, enabling employers to sponsor eligible refugees based on criteria such as education, skills and professional experience.

Refugees eligible for privately sponsored resettlement are usually referred by UNHCR anyway, and therefore their need for humanitarian protection has been ascertained prior to any privately sponsored resettlement agreement. Based on this premise, and considering the EU’s current economic and political climate, as well as the misfortunes of its resettlement and relocation measures to date, there would be limited ground for not extending the breadth of any future EU policies in this area to a more demand-driven eligibility and operating environment.

Solon Ardittis is director of Eurasylum, a European research and consulting organization specializing in migration and asylum policy on behalf of national public authorities and EU institutions. He is also co-editor of  Migration Policy Practice, a bimonthly journal published jointly with the International Organization for Migration  (IOM).

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