Time for transatlantic leadership on refugee resettlement

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

As numbers of displaced people across the world reach an all-time high, it’s time to restore transatlantic leadership on refugee resettlement, writes David Miliband. EPA-EFE/ALA KHEIR

As numbers of displaced people across the world reach an all-time high, it’s time to restore transatlantic leadership on refugee resettlement, writes David Miliband.

David Miliband is the president and chief executive officer of the International Rescue Committee.

President Biden’s visit to Europe this week coincided with some alarming news: according to UNHCR, a record 82.4 million people worldwide are currently forcibly displaced from their homes.

While the new US president is committed to tackling this harsh reality with fresh resolve, it’s clear that today’s unprecedented global crisis must be confronted with unprecedented global action.

This World Refugee Day (20 June) should usher in a new era of bold, principled, transatlantic leadership from Biden and the EU in order to change the trajectory of this humanitarian emergency.

One core element of this joint response must involve scaling up refugee resettlement. This is the transfer of vulnerable people from countries such as Ethiopia, Chad and Cameroon – lower-income regions which host the vast majority of the world’s displaced – to safe countries elsewhere.

Globally, these essential protection programmes slumped to a record low in 2020 – decimated by COVID-related travel restrictions and four years of reckless Trump leadership in the US. Fewer than 23,000 people were resettled by UNHCR last year, representing just 2% of those in need.

The encouraging news is that with a new administration in the White House, the US’s resettlement programme is finally getting back on its feet. The Biden administration is approaching refugee resettlement with renewed ambition and positivity. More importantly, it is actually matching this rhetoric with action.

The Biden administration has taken critical steps to rebuild the US resettlement programmes dismantled under its predecessor, setting a goal of 62,500 refugee admissions this year alone before increasing this to 125,000 during the next financial year.

Refugees are already feeling the impact of US efforts to bolster its resettlement programmes. As a direct result of these policy changes, May saw a more than 200% increase in arrivals over the previous month.

There was an almost 700% increase in admissions from Africa, reflecting the staggering need in this region alone. Resettlement agencies across the US, including the International Rescue Committee, are rebuilding their teams and coordinating with community partners to welcome these new arrivals.

America’s new trajectory offers a beacon of hope for people with few places left to turn.

Worryingly this newfound dynamism isn’t being mirrored across the Atlantic, where refugee resettlement programmes remain at a standstill. Last year member states together resettled less than 10,000 people – far short of their pledge of 30,000 – largely due to travel restrictions implemented due to the global pandemic.

Worse still, EU member states failed to issue new pledges for 2021, meaning that we have lost out on a whole year of refugee resettlement in the Union at the very time we need it most.

As one of the world’s wealthiest and most stable regions, this inaction by EU member states is deeply disappointing. It risks undermining years of hard-earned progress on refugee resettlement and driving EU policy further down the wrong track.

Instead, member states need to take a leaf out of the Biden playbook by showing humanitarian leadership and significantly stepping up refugee resettlement. Here’s how.

Firstly, EU member states can and must meet their 2020 pledges by the end of 2021 – reviving and delivering on the resettlement programmes that stalled due to COVID-19. They can achieve this by being agile and innovative in their approach to programming, for instance by conducting resettlement interviews online rather than in person.

The Commission must ensure that member states are able to access sufficient financial support and technical assistance to make this a reality.

Secondly, member states must seize the opportunity of the EU Resettlement Forum in July to commit to significantly increased pledges for 2022.

Not only would this transform the lives of thousands of refugees, but send a strong message to other states ahead of the Global Refugee Forum’s two-year review which takes place in Geneva in December 2021.

Despite their slow progress, we still believe it’s realistic and achievable for EU member states to resettle 250,000 refugees by 2025.

Finally, the EU must urgently restart negotiations on the Union Resettlement and Humanitarian Admission Framework which would help create a more structured, predictable and longstanding EU policy on resettlement.

Developments on this critical reform have stalled since 2018 as it is bundled into the larger Common European Asylum System ‘package’ of reforms.

It’s encouraging that the incoming Slovenian EU Council presidency appears open to ‘decoupling’ certain pieces of legislation where agreement is in sight from the overall package.

This must be done in a balanced way, ensuring measures to facilitate safe and legal routes to protection are adopted – not only those concerning border management. If this approach is applied to the Resettlement Framework, it could finally break the deadlock that has hampered meaningful, coordinated progress on resettlement since 2018.

While it is moving in the right direction, there’s still a great deal of work to be done in restoring US refugee protection systems. One important step for the Biden administration will be to finally enter the Global Compact on Refugees.

However, its moves to scale up refugee resettlement do not just fulfil a promise – they send a clear message that America intends to return to its traditional role of humanitarian leadership.

Now it’s the EU’s turn to get back onto the right course. The incoming Slovenian and French presidencies must adopt the same attitude and work hand-in-hand with the Biden administration to uphold the EU’s fundamental values and breathe fresh life into global resettlement programmes.

The Global Refugee Forum offers the perfect platform for the transatlantic partners to revitalise global commitments to responsibility-sharing by setting a bold example that inspires other wealthy nations to step up and do their part to welcome refugees. 

After a lost few years of refugee resettlement, this is the least they can do to support the many thousands of refugees worldwide who are relying on the US and EU to offer them a vital lifeline.

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