A Departure from Nowhere

As a refugee, resettlement…revived my shattered hopes.
It was a departure from nowhere and an opportunity to restore a normal life.**

Imagine spending the day doing nothing. You have no food or water, no family. You want to go outside, but you might be attacked. You glance out the front of your tent. Nothing. Nothing as far as the eye can see except dust and a million other tents just like yours. You sit and wait…first for days, then for decades, thinking about the son and husband you saw killed. Having nothing else to think about.

Resettlement is the term used for when a person in such a state as this receives the permission and aid to leave his or her refugee camp and move to a third place – a place that, if everything goes correctly, is full of promise.

Resettlement is not considered a right – in fact as few as 1% of the world’s refugees get to be resettled.* Nor is it an obligation on the receiving nations – only a fraction of the world’s countries have any program whatsoever for resettlement.

But it is salvation for that 1% and a viable last option.

The first option – preferred by refugees and aid workers alike – is a safe return home, to the country they once fled. But wars have a way of making that option impossible…

The second option is to resettle in the communities where they fled. If a refugee escapes from Iraq into Jordan, for example, perhaps they can become absorbed into that culture, find work there and begin a new life. But most of the time, refugees flee into extremely impoverished countries that are incapable of taking on the additional population. Refugees can also face severe discrimination in the communities to which they fled.

The third option is to resettle. To up and move again. To learn a new language and culture. To be brought into someone else’s fold.

Resettlement programs provide temporary aid to help the refugees move, and they offer the possibility of future citizenship.

17 countries accept refugees into resettlement programs for both humanitarian reasons and for the cultural diversity and economic stimulus refugee communities can provide: USA, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Norway, Finland, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Denmark, Netherlands, and the recently added France, Paraguay, Portugal, Romania, The Czech Republic, Uruguay and Japan.* The first 18 resettled refugees in Japan arrived in September 2010.

The criteria for resettlement can give us a glimpse into who these people walking our streets, and shopping at our international grocery stores, are. They must be refugees with one or more of these problems:

  • they have no way to guarantee their security at the refugee camp or have no way to prevent forced return to the situation they fled
  • survivors of torture and violence who do not have proper treatment for their traumas and injuries, or are in a situation that could cause even more trauma
  • have medical needs, particularly life-threatening, and do not have access to adequate treatment
  • women and girls at serious risk of sexual or gender-based violence
  • children and adolescents, especially if unaccompanied
  • elderly refugees who are thus vulnerable to abuses, especially if they have family already resettled elsewhere
  • families separated by forced displacement or previous resettlement, when there is no other way to reunite them.*

Resettlement has its problems. It is expensive for the receiving country (at least at first) and difficult for the refugee. Refugees have to learn a new language (sometimes after mastering a second or third language in the country to which they fled). Transportation needs, a stable income and an understanding community can be hard to come by. And many resettled people struggle with guilt, shame and other psychological trauma from their previous years of suffering.

And yet the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) still describes it as a “durable solution.”*

It is durable in its permanence and promise. Even with all of its flaws, for refugees resettlement solves more problems than it causes. It is what we might dream about from our tents, if we lived where they lived. It is somewhere. Not nowhere.


**Ismail M Ibrahim
Resettled Refugee and National Refugee Education Coordinator, New Zealand Ministry of Education
From the UNHCR Resettlement Handbook

*From UNHCR’s “Frequently Asked Questions About Resettlement

2 Responses to “A Departure from Nowhere”
  1. Michael says:

    This post reminds me how little I empathize with them. Thank you for helping put me in their shoes by describing their life.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] Then the UNHCR typically works on the field to identify a group of people they believe to be in highest need of resettlement (see the reasons for needing resettlement outlined in yesterday’s post). […]

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