How a Refugee Gets from the Camp to a New Country: Refugee Resettlement 101

How, exactly, does a refugee get from a camp in Thailand to New York City? That’s the question I’ve spent the last couple weeks asking—and after the disheartening events of last week, finding an answer felt more urgent than ever.

So far, I've found the legal documents and information available online to be dense and confusing. What I needed was an expert to guide me through the murk that is international refugee policy. Thankfully, the ever-helpful folks at the International Refugee Committee pointed me to Kay Bellor, their vice president of U.S. programs. Bellor oversees 22 programs in cities across the United States that help refugees get settled, has worked in Thailand helping to resettle refugees, and generally knows her stuff.

When we spoke on the phone, she explained what she termed the “very basic” version of the resettlement process. She made sure to note that the process “really does unfold in very different ways depending on a lot of different circumstances across the globe”; refugee policy is complicated, and varies case by case, country to country.

That said, in this two-part installment, we’ll look at how a refugee might go from living in a camp to becoming a permanent resident in another nation. In other words, we're going to figure out how Samy could hypothetically go from the Mae La refugee camp to the United States.

How a Refugee Gets Resettled

Let’s say Samy has just fled Burma to Thailand. He’s been shepherded to a refugee camp, where he is enrolled to receive food and lodging. He is, effectively, a refugee—but not technically. To be legally recognized as a refugee, Samy must be registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The UNCHR has been “mandated to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide,” since 1950, as is noted on its website. It is the prime authority on refugee issues worldwide.

The UNHCR has agents just about anywhere refugees can be found, and the Mae La camp where Samy lives is no exception. Samy would register as a refugee with the UNHCR—and he would do so in real life, if he were able to. You see, the UNHCR respects sovereign governments’ refugee policy—and Thailand has its own agency set up to legally recognize "displaced peoples." Effectively, this means that in Thailand, the UNHCR cannot register a person as a refugee--refugee though he may truly be—until the Thai government does so first. And whether Thai authorities decide to register a given person or not is beyond any outside agency's control.

As such, Samy has so far been unable to get registered as a "displaced person" for purely bureaucratic reasons, which—to put it plainly—sucks big time. Because it means he can’t access the UNCHR’s program, which would try to find a durable solution for his plight. You see, the U.N. body seeks what it calls a “durable solution” for the longterm needs of each refugee. There are three:

1. Repatriation, in which a refugee is returned to his or her country of origin once it is safe to do so.

2. Local Integration, in which a refugee is integrated into the society of its host nation (which in Samy’s case would be Thailand).

3. Resettlement, in which a refugee is relocated to another nation after the other options are determined to be impossible.

A couple important things to note here: Contrary to common belief, the vast majority of refugees want to return home, and repatriation is the ideal course of action; there’s a reason it’s number one. Resettlement, meanwhile, "is an extremely valuable tool, but it’s one that isn’t available to large swaths of refugees,” says Bellor.

In Samy’s case, repatriation is impossible: Returning to Burma would put Samy in immediate danger. Integration isn’t an option either, because of prohibitive immigration law in Thailand. That leaves Samy with one option: finding a "third country," like the United States, for resettlement. But even after he is successfully registered as a refugee, the UNHCR must then determine that he meets the guidelines for resettlement, which are outlined in its 450-page Refugee Resettlement Handbook.

So, for the sake of our experiment, let’s say the Thai government legally declares Samy a "displaced person" and the UNCHR determines that he is eligible for resettlement. What's next? A nice government finds him a new home, right? Not quite.

This, it goes without saying, is complicated stuff, and we’re barely halfway there. Next week, I’ll tackle what has to happen so that a recognized refugee can get on a plane headed for his new home in a country, thousands of miles away.

Illustration by Will Etling.

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