Refugees cling to hope of resettlement, even as world slams doors

In 2016, Raghda*, who had fled civil war in Syria two years before, thought she might finally be on the way to finding a safe place to call home.

She had been given an interview appointment with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, but the day before she was due to attend the agency’s interview with her husband and four children, it was cancelled, she says.

Four years later, she is still waiting for an update.

“I only want to get out of this situation,” she told Al Jazeera. “I don’t care what country I will be resettled in as long as my family and I will have a better life.”

Raghda is one of 26 million refugees around the world awaiting what the UNHCR calls a durable solution to her displacement. Unable to return to Syria or stay permanently in Malaysia, which is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention and lacks a legal framework for refugees, she says her chance for a new home in a third country – resettlement – is also disappearing.

While the number of refugees globally is at an all-time high, the 1.44 million determined by UNHCR to be in need of resettlement far outpaces available options.

So far, fewer than 12,000 people have been resettled this year, which is likely to see record-low resettlement numbers, according to Shabia Mantoo, the global spokesperson for the UNHCR.

Although coronavirus-induced travel suspensions have played a role, resettlement places have plummeted since 2016, when more than 126,000 refugees were resettled globally. Since 2017, the annual number has not surpassed 65,000.

Historic low

A major factor is the dramatic cuts to United States resettlement admissions under President Donald Trump. The US, which has led the world in refugee resettlement since 1980, will resettle no more than 15,000 refugees in the coming fiscal year. That is 3,000 fewer than last year and the lowest refugee resettlement ceiling ever set by a US president.Restrictive admissions allocations, combined with this low resettlement ceiling and increasing bureaucratic obstacles, will “leave out refugees from many of the world’s most harrowing refugee crises”,

The US is not the only country cutting back on resettlement, however. On October 10, Australia announced it was reducing the number of people it was willing to take in to 13,750, compared with 18,750 previously.

The UNHCR and its partners launched a three-year strategy to increase resettlement opportunities and seek out complementary pathways, including through family reunification, work and study routes, in 2019. The agency’s Mantoo told Al Jazeera that to meet the strategy’s targets, resettlement countries had to do more.

“Refugee resettlement depends on collective action by as many countries as possible,” she said. “The result of every resettlement place cut in any country is one more vulnerable life in limbo. The world can do better.”

For the 180,000 refugees registered with UNHCR in Malaysia, which considers itself a transit country and not a permanent home, the opening of resettlement options is urgent.

Refugees in Malaysia are denied the right to work or to access government services including education, and must pay foreigner rates for medical care, which are multiple times higher than local rates, even with a 50 percent refugee discount. Those whose UNHCR status is pending, often for years, are considered undocumented and are vulnerable to arrest.“I always suggest to people not to come here, that living here is not so safe and it is difficult to earn an income, but people think coming here is better than dying,” said Dafer Sief, a Syrian community leader and advocate in Kuala Lumpur. “[UNHCR] has to push more in trying to help refugees resettle … There must be a solution.”

‘Blessed to be here’

Today’s options look considerably different from those four years ago, when former US President Barack Obama set the US resettlement ceiling at 110,000.

Seng Awng, an ethnic Kachin from Myanmar, received a surprising offer during his resettlement interview in 2018.

“At that time the United States did not accept that many refugees, so the [UNHCR] office just gave us the opportunity of [South] Korea,” said Seng Awng, who spent ten years in Kuala Lumpur before resettling in South Korea with his mother and three younger sisters. “We felt we could start a new life here, so when the office assigned us to resettle here, we accepted it.”

Seng Awng’s family is one of six families resettled in South Korea that year, and among just over 200 refugees, nearly all from Myanmar, who have resettled there since 2015, when the country became the world’s 29th to offer refugee resettlement.

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