For more than 30 years, the Dutch government has resettled refugees to The Netherlands. Theirs is one of Europe’s longest standing humanitarian resettlement programmes, and has offered the chance of a new life to some of the world’s most vulnerable refugees. However, a recent statement from Gerd Leers, the Dutch minister for Immigration and Asylum, outlines a list of new priorities for the scheme – and could easily close the door to the vulnerable people it is meant to help.
Resettlement is one of the UNHCR’s three durable solutions to protracted refugee situations, and last year it was estimated that more 800,000 refugees worldwide were eligible for it. Of these, 170,000 were defined as especially vulnerable – strong candidates, you might think, for resettlement places. Annually, the developed world offers just 80,000 places on resettlement schemes, and Europe takes just 5% of these: less than 5,000 last year.
If resettlement numbers are so tight, surely it should be the most vulnerable individuals who qualify first? In Leers’ letter, this isn’t the case. The Dutch minister wants to base his programme on “integration potential”- a nasty phrase unloved by NGOs around the world. In practice, this means it’s up to the refugee to show the necessary skills or aptitude that the state deems would make them “easy” to integrate into their society – and, during any selection process, a person might be disqualified if it is deems their integration may be “difficult or undesirable”.
Thus, to qualify for resettlement, you’ve not only got to be one of the one million people identified as eligible, be noted as vulnerable enough to make it onto the priority list of 170,000, then be selected as one of the 80,000 for whom places on resettlement schemes are available, and then you must demonstrate that your integration will be an “easy” task. It seems likely that this addition will make it even more difficult for the most vulnerable refugees, the very people who should be protected by a humanitarian programme of this nature, to access help.
Another major issue with Gerd’s statement is that it’s often very difficult to tell who will integrate “easily” and who won’t. “Moving to Mars”, the excellent film by Mat Whitecross offers just this kind of insight as it follows two Karen refugee families from Burma on a journey to a new life in the UK. The contrast couldn’t be greater between the two men in the households, but it’s enough to say that their experiences of integration aren’t what you might expect. At Refugee Action, our greatest challenges in resettlement have often been with groups who should, on paper, have been the easiest to integrate – and often, it’s those who are perceived as “difficult” – due to poor health, little formal education, or no English – who have the most to give and who feel most connected to their communities.
I recently visited a family resettled to Greater Manchester; consisting of a husband, wife, two children and the husband’s elderly mother. The husband and his mother had arrived in a refugee camp in 1967 – the year I was born – and has languished there, lives on hold, until they were resettled to Greater Manchester more than forty years later. After so long in a refugee camp, the husband had no qualifications, spoke no English and had just recovered from a serious illness. After a thirty hour journey to the UK, the husband’s first words to me were, “Tell me when to start work, I’m ready today”. On paper, how “easy” would it be for this man to integrate into UK society, and what about the long-term contribution made by the subsequent generations of his family? By their very nature, resettlement programmes are an investment in the long term future of people and their families, and it saddens me to think that this potential, as well as the overriding humanitarian need for the programme, could be sidelined.
Good governments accept their responsibilities, and with integration this means providing adequate resources and engaging civil society at the start of the process. It’s highly specialised work, but leads to strong, responsible communities, and investment at the start of the integration journey saves resources in the longer term. My advice to Mr Leers is that The Netherlands should stick to the humanitarian nature of the resettlement programme, concentrate on those most in need, and find a different way of valuing the worth that people bring to your country and your community. Offering the protection of our communities to the most vulnerable is the right thing to do – it shouldn’t be motivated simply by economic gain.
- Rick Jones, Director of Operations at Refugee Action