Refugees cling to hope of resettlement, even as world slams doors

Fewer refugees than ever before are likely to be resettled in 2020 even with the number in need at record levels.

A refugee family in the city centre of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in May. Cuts in resettlement programmes mean many spend years waiting in limbo [Hasnoor Hussain/Al Jazeera]

In 2016, Raghda*, who had fled civil war in Syria two years before, thought she might finally be on the way to finding a safe place to call home.

She had been given an interview appointment with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, but the day before she was due to attend the agency’s interview with her husband and four children, it was cancelled, she says.

Four years later, she is still waiting for an update.

“I only want to get out of this situation,” she told Al Jazeera. “I don’t care what country I will be resettled in as long as my family and I will have a better life.”

Raghda is one of 26 million refugees around the world awaiting what the UNHCR calls a durable solution to her displacement. Unable to return to Syria or stay permanently in Malaysia, which is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention and lacks a legal framework for refugees, she says her chance for a new home in a third country – resettlement – is also disappearing.

While the number of refugees globally is at an all-time high, the 1.44 million determined by UNHCR to be in need of resettlement far outpaces available options.

So far, fewer than 12,000 people have been resettled this year, which is likely to see record-low resettlement numbers, according to Shabia Mantoo, the global spokesperson for the UNHCR.

Although coronavirus-induced travel suspensions have played a role, resettlement places have plummeted since 2016, when more than 126,000 refugees were resettled globally. Since 2017, the annual number has not surpassed 65,000.

Historic low

A major factor is the dramatic cuts to United States resettlement admissions under President Donald Trump. The US, which has led the world in refugee resettlement since 1980, will resettle no more than 15,000 refugees in the coming fiscal year. That is 3,000 fewer than last year and the lowest refugee resettlement ceiling ever set by a US president.

Activists held a civil disobedience protest against ‘the decimation’ of the United States refugee resettlement programme in front of the US Capitol last year. The president has since cut places on the programme even further [File: Olivier Douliery/AFP]

Restrictive admissions allocations, combined with this low resettlement ceiling and increasing bureaucratic obstacles, will “leave out refugees from many of the world’s most harrowing refugee crises”, Nazanin Ash, vice president of global policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee, told Al Jazeera.

The US is not the only country cutting back on resettlement, however. On October 10, Australia announced it was reducing the number of people it was willing to take in to 13,750, compared with 18,750 previously.

The UNHCR and its partners launched a three-year strategy to increase resettlement opportunities and seek out complementary pathways, including through family reunification, work and study routes, in 2019. The agency’s Mantoo told Al Jazeera that to meet the strategy’s targets, resettlement countries had to do more.

“Refugee resettlement depends on collective action by as many countries as possible,” she said. “The result of every resettlement place cut in any country is one more vulnerable life in limbo. The world can do better.”

For the 180,000 refugees registered with UNHCR in Malaysia, which considers itself a transit country and not a permanent home, the opening of resettlement options is urgent.

Refugees in Malaysia are denied the right to work or to access government services including education, and must pay foreigner rates for medical care, which are multiple times higher than local rates, even with a 50 percent refugee discount. Those whose UNHCR status is pending, often for years, are considered undocumented and are vulnerable to arrest.

Refugees and asylum seekers lead an often precarious existence in Malaysia, which does not recognise the international convention on refugees. In May, some found themselves caught up in COVID-19 lockdowns in the Kuala Lumpur neighbourhood of Pudu, which is home to many refugees [Hasnoor Hussain/Al Jazeera]

“I always suggest to people not to come here, that living here is not so safe and it is difficult to earn an income, but people think coming here is better than dying,” said Dafer Sief, a Syrian community leader and advocate in Kuala Lumpur. “[UNHCR] has to push more in trying to help refugees resettle … There must be a solution.”

Al Jazeera contacted UNHCR’s Malaysia office for information about the average waiting time for interviews, and why they might be cancelled, but had not received a response by the time of publication.

Those who do have the chance to resettle do not get to choose a country, but only to decide whether to accept the option that UNHCR presents to them.

‘Blessed to be here’

Today’s options look considerably different from those four years ago, when former US President Barack Obama set the US resettlement ceiling at 110,000.

Seng Awng, an ethnic Kachin from Myanmar, received a surprising offer during his resettlement interview in 2018.

“At that time the United States did not accept that many refugees, so the [UNHCR] office just gave us the opportunity of [South] Korea,” said Seng Awng, who spent ten years in Kuala Lumpur before resettling in South Korea with his mother and three younger sisters. “We felt we could start a new life here, so when the office assigned us to resettle here, we accepted it.”

Seng Awng’s family is one of six families resettled in South Korea that year, and among just over 200 refugees, nearly all from Myanmar, who have resettled there since 2015, when the country became the world’s 29th to offer refugee resettlement.

Arriving in Incheon, the family spent the next six months at a government-sponsored immigration reception centre studying Korean language, culture and society. The Korean government then rented the family a house in Gimpo, 16km (10 miles) west of Seoul,  and found Seng Awng a job at a plastics factory. The resettlement assistance package included one year of rent and a six-month stipend for food. Seng Awng has since found himself a new job at a steel factory, where including overtime, he works 60 to 80 hours a week.

Although he feels welcomed by the community, and especially the local church, Seng Awng says life in Korea has been challenging. “If you don’t have a strong will to try hard or courage to start a new life, I don’t really recommend [resettling] here,” he told Al Jazeera.

The United States once welcomed thousands of refugees to begin their lives anew, but US President Donald Trump has cut the numbers to their lowest level ever [File: John Moore/Getty Images/AFP]

But he is grateful South Korea was willing to give him a home at a time when so many other countries were closing their doors. “I think that no one should be a refugee, but in the meantime, I’m really glad that some countries still help refugees to resettle, including Korea … I feel really blessed to be here.”

Meanwhile, Raghda’s family has faced a host of difficulties. Her 11-year-old son has a health condition that requires frequent hospital visits, for which she had to pay the full foreigner cost for two years until she was recognised officially as a refugee by the UNHCR.

Her husband works 80 hours a week at a restaurant to keep the family afloat, while Raghda runs a small catering business from her home and cares for her son, for whom no special education programme is available at the refugee community school that is attended by her three other children and that is run by a charity organisation.

More than 3,200 refugees from Syria are currently registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia, and only 122 have been resettled to any country since 2017, according to the agency’s data.

But with nowhere else to go, Raghda is holding onto the hope of resettlement. “I want to have the chance to send my son to school,” she said. “I dream about having a normal life like everybody else … that one day I will be a citizen in a country where I will feel at home.”

Wael Qarssifi contributed to this report.

*A pseudonym was used for Raghda to protect her safety.

Source: Al Jazeera