Last Wednesday in Geneva, more than 90 countries and 9 United Nations agencies met to explore options states have in resettling Syrian refugees. There was encouraging momentum yet little concrete action made in the overall strategy of how best to deal with this overwhelming humanitarian crisis.
One development that deserves praise is the trend towards nations utilizing privately funded refugee resettlement programs to increase overall admissions. American lawmakers, however, remain out of step with the international community on this vital way of expanding refugee resettlement in the global fight to save lives.
The Geneva meeting is just another example of the robust international discussions about refugee resettlement taking place. The Director General for the International Organization for Migration has said that the world is now in a “time of unprecedented human mobility.” With upwards of 60 million people on the move—the highest since World War II—resettling and integration has become a more pressing issue for more countries than ever before.
The specific goal of the Geneva meeting was to increase commitments from countries interested in Syrian resettlement and to facilitate the sharing of best practices between nations considering legal pathways.
UNHCR announced the following results from the meeting: several countries offered to significantly increase resettlement programs this year and in the coming years, a number of states affirmed their commitment to family reunification programs, several countries announced new humanitarian visa programs, thirteen states confirmed scholarships and student visas, many states mentioned removal or easing of refugee processing barriers, the U.S. offered technical expertise to nations with new programs, and new financial commitments were increased.
UNHCR also called upon states to find “new partnerships and innovative approaches” to the massive displacement of Syrians. Resettlement serves as an option for refugees that prevents the horrors and dangers of desperate refugees using smugglers. Their goal over the next three years is to have about 500,000 Syrians resettled.
So far, some 30 countries have made humanitarian pathways for Syrian refugees, totalling about 185,000 resettlement commitments. But the overall resettlement numbers and contribution totals remain deeply underwhelming compared to the needs.
One positive trend emerging from the meeting was the focus on states offering safe and legal pathways to refugees through privately funded means. As I wrote in USA Today last month, the international trend of using privately funded resettlement programs has been embraced by a number of nations and the size of the programs is increasing. From Italy and Iceland, Australia and Argentina, resettlement programs are becoming a larger component of the international protection regime.
Nowhere has private resettlement been more successful than in Canada. In 2016, Canada’s operation has resettled about 11,000 Syrians using funds raised partially or fully from the private sector. Immigration Minister McCallum presented on the program in Geneva and numerous dignitaries recognized Canada for their overall accomplishments so far, especially the speed and size of their refugee admission processes.
The UNHCR chief expressed how the Canadian refugee model was an excellent way to rally support in civil society for refugee resettlement. “Private sponsorship programmes in different countries have proven very successful,” he said. “Civil society has underlined its strong commitment to support both traditional pathways and to explore new approaches. We can and should draw on its resources and the innovation [the private sector] bring.”
The international trend towards tapping the wellsprings of private sector interest and support is missing perhaps its most important player: the United States. With such a rich history of privately funded resettlement and its vibrant civil society, American lawmakers are out of step with the rest of the world. The lack of options for the American private sector leaves generosity untapped, and ultimately results in further misery for possibly thousands of refugee families.
The meeting in Geneva was another positive, albeit small, step forward for the international community in brainstorming and committing to legal pathways for Syrian refugees. As nations prepare for the historic September refugee summit, more should begin offering the range of legal pathways UNHCR has put forth.
With lives at stake, prohibiting the American private sector from helping with increased refugee resettlement abandons core American values of philanthropy and civil society. Hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable Syrians need resettlement. The United States should be leading the international community toward a powerful response to this human tragedy.