Do the most vulnerable refugees get resettled?

Googling this question results in headlines such as “World’s most vulnerable refugees struggle as US welcome mat shrinks”, “Pausing the Refugee Resettlement Program Will Harm the Most Vulnerable” and “World’s most vulnerable: are we responsible for them all? ”, reflecting US President Trump’s recent – now suspended – Executive Orders that, among other things, reduced the US’s intake of resettled refugees to 50,000 per fiscal year.

[Featured photo: “Canada ‘an inspiration’ on Syrian refugee resettlement”]

What is resettlement?

Resettlement is the transfer of refugees (who have, by definition, fled persecution in their country of origin) from one country to a third country where they are given a permanent legal status and expected to settle permanently; it’s been around since the 1970s in greater or lesser numbers. Resettlement globally is an established arrangement, whereby families and individuals are identified and screened by UNHCR according to seven categories (to which participating States have agreed) and are then sent to different resettlement countries. The resettlement countries evaluate the cases, conduct security checks, interview the families in many cases, and give a decision. Successful resettle-ees are transferred to their new country by IOM, and are received either by NGOs or the government entities responsible for them. Refugees in the resettlement pipeline are extensively vetted and screened, and it is the resettlement country that makes the final decision who goes and who stays. States have a legal obligation to receive refugees who show up on their territory, but resettlement is completely voluntary – which is why the two concepts should not be conflated, nor is resettlement the solution to a State’s unwillingness to abide by their legal responsibilities.



What is vulnerability?

‘Protection’ vulnerability

UNHCR and countries, together, have established a number of categories that they have collectively agreed represent the most vulnerable refugees, or, phrased differently, the refugees most in need of resettlement. These categories are: medical needs, women and girls at risk, survivors of violence and/or torture, children at risk, legal and/or physical protection needs, and refugees lacking foreseeable alternative durable solutions. Although they probably don’t cover all possible eventualities, these categories do seem to encompass quite a number of vulnerabilities that would make resettlement the best solution for that particular family. Often, two or more of the categories are applicable – people who were tortured often have medical needs or may fear continued persecution, for example; a woman at risk may also have children who are at risk.


“New study finds child marriage on the rise among vulnerable Syrian refugees.” Also, what’s with the signs?


The resettlement categories are all centered around a perspective of vulnerability that focuses on “protection” (protection, in refugee speak, is ensuring access and fulfillment of rights under national and international law). For example, someone with legal or physical protection needs might be in a situation where their rights to physical security, safety, liberty, etc., are not being respected; if there is no way to change the situation (i.e. where their asylum country is not able to ensure security or justice) they may need to be resettled to a different country. Or a woman who is head of household is at risk for sexual exploitation by her landlord or employer due to her vulnerable situation. Or an unaccompanied child who is vulnerable to exploitation or abuse. The focus on ‘protection’ is very understandable; after all, it is one of UNHCR’s core functions, and it is a logical extension of the concept that UNHCR exists to provide protection where the country of nationality can’t or won’t and where the country of asylum can’t or won’t. A protection-centred resettlement programme also makes for compelling individual stories of continued persecution, exploitation, or abuse. Although programming generally includes efforts to prevent or mitigate protection risks as well as establishing response mechanisms, identification of cases that have suffered abuse or exploitation, or are at individual risk, is difficult when considering the population as a whole, and many if not most cases are identified because the person or family themselves reported the situation.

Socio-economic vulnerability

But ‘protection’ is not the only metric by which one can assess vulnerability. Socio-economic vulnerability builds on work and research done on poverty and economic vulnerability to come up with a concept of vulnerability that focuses primarily on economic indicators, such as expenditures and assets, but should also encompass social metrics as well. The benefit of this kind of approach is that it is frequently more easily quantifiable – rather than the qualitative kind of approach taken with protection-related vulnerabilities – and hence can be applied over a wider population if proper tools are developed. Such initiatives in the Middle East, for example, have resulted in the Vulnerability Assessment Framework applied in Jordan; the VAF “defines the concept in terms of what a given person is vulnerable to, taking different sectors – such as lack of education, lack of documentation, or health liabilities – into account.” As UNHCR describes it, “vulnerability is notoriously difficult to capture […]  One broadly applied way to circumvent this measurement difficulty is to use expenditure as a proxy for refugee welfare.” The VAF therefore calculated a vulnerability score based on an individual interview/assessment with each family. Some of the assumptions and process behind the VAF are described here and some additional material can be found here. A similar approach was taken in Kakuma camp in Kenya, again focusing on expenditures as a proxy for welfare. In Lebanon, socio-economic vulnerability was assessed through a yearly vulnerability assessment (called the VASYR) conducted in a similar manner to the VAF but on a yearly basis so as to track trends over time, and as a second step, by using a predictive statistical model to identify vulnerable families without needing to conduct an individual interview.

Of course, socio-economic vulnerability and protection-related vulnerabilities are inter-linked: lack of (access to) work or documentation leaves people vulnerable to exploitation; people may be exposed to (or expose themselves to) hazardous situations out of economic desperation (for example, pulling children out of school; marrying off children at an early agesurvival sex; falling victim to trafficking; etc); and medical conditions may require expensive medications or require the presence of a caregiver which can impact a family’s earning potential or increase expenses. Anecdotal impressions suggest a strong correlation between socio-economic and protection vulnerability, but the causal logic could run in both directions.


Vulnerability and resilience

[You could just skip this whole section and read the study that is extensively quoted here]

Resilience fundamentally concerns how an individual, household, community, society or state deals with shocks and stresses. […] According to the Regional UN Development Group (R-UNDG) Position Paper, prepared by a UNDG Regional Working Group on Resilience, the resilience-based development approach specifically looks at supporting resilience through development assistance, which aims to support institutions to respond to increased demand and pressure (characterised as “coping”), promote household recovery from the negative impacts of the crisis (“recovering”) and strengthen local and national economic, social and political institutions to protect development gains and enhance performance (“sustaining”).” (Source, p.iii)

This ODI study analyses definitions of vulnerability as considered by different humanitarian actors, and its relationship with the concept of resilience as being interrelated:

“In crisis contexts, vulnerability broadly refers to the likelihood of individuals or systems experiencing negative consequences on account of characteristics that make them exposed to those consequences in the first place ( i.e. exposure) such as being present in zones affected by the crisis and limited ability to manage the impacts of the crisis (i.e. coping capacities). Vulnerability and resilience are closely related because they both concern responses to shocks; they have been characterised as being two sides of the same coin, at opposite ends of the well-being spectrum and part of the same equation. [Furthermore]. analysis of vulnerability applies to different levels (e.g. individuals, households, communities, countries and systems) and to different shocks.” (Source, p.9)

But even if we are considering vulnerability to be an inability to withstand shocks, humanitarian actors still use traditional metrics (protection or economic-based models) to assess vulnerability:

[The Syrian Response Plan in Jordan] highlights the use of chronic poverty, the exposure to refugee influx, more ‘traditional’ categorical individual (or household) characteristics and social exclusion as indicators of vulnerability. The criterion of ‘reduced access’ stands out because, rather than saying that people with disabilities are necessarily vulnerable, it highlights that people with reduced access to resources and services are vulnerable and this may be due to disabilities. It therefore could shift analysis towards ‘who has access’ and ‘who participates’ rather than assuming that all women and older persons are vulnerable. (Source, p.11)

There are limitations in the extent to which such an approach is operationally applicable: the study notes how actors have attempted to establish categories of vulnerabilities that take into account economic constraints, profiles perceived as exposed to risks, and factors expected to represent access to certain rights or services. Although tools have become increasingly sophisticated (see some of the examples from Jordan and Lebanon) in assessing vulnerability for the purposes of identification and prioritization of beneficiaries, the results of these assessments are not frequently used to determine the type or extent of an intervention, and are often constrained by the particular framework of analysis (individual/household assessment vs community vs national level or regional analysis). Finally, there is a twofold limitation to this approach, which is that these models typically identify the symptoms but not the cause, and that, secondly, they do not focus on capacities but only vulnerabilities:

Categories, however, do not identify the ‘drivers’ of vulnerability. Drivers of vulnerability are the factors that influence and determine vulnerability. For individuals, gender inequality can be such a driver. For households, these can include lack of assets, resources and access to power structures. Scorecards and similar approaches can assess that a household is vulnerable because they are in debt and have poor food consumption, but alone do not provide analysis on the factors that are leading to their debt and poor household food consumption. (Source, p.13)

What does this mean for resettlement?

The short, and obvious, answer is that it is not so easy to determine vulnerability, much less assess it in a way that is both objective/systematic, and contextual/individualised. Even more so, how these assessments are conducted determines which families are included in the beginning of the pipeline of the resettlement process, to be screened and analysed for their individual needs and suitability for resettlement.

The Syrian populations in Lebanon and Jordan have proven ideal populations for these kinds of assessments: individually registered, located in areas that are accessible (both due to infrastructure and security), and with substantial international attention that brought the resources needed to conduct massive assessments and develop innovative approaches, especially as agencies were forced to prioritise resources for the “most vulnerable”. Many refugee populations are difficult to access due to security or infrastructure (Yemen, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan) or there are not sufficient resources to carry out such assessments in the face of budget and ration cuts.

Further distortions are caused by the resettlement system itself: countries select the populations that best fit their humanitarian and political goals, which may not directly correspond to the objective needs. Resettlement countries additionally can set additional criteria (in addition to refugee status and meeting one of the above-named vulnerability criteria) such as the “integration potential” requirement that is part of the legislation of some Nordic countries. “Integration potential” does not appear to be clearly defined in law, but is a legal provision that could well be at complete odds to the aims of resettlement itself: after all, those who are most exposed to risks and have the least capacity to withstand them may be the families most in need of resettlement but who will require more assistance once they get there.

With over 1.19 million refugees considered in need of resettlement in 2017, any measure of vulnerability will indicate that the needs far outstrip the available capacity for countries to receive them.







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