Symposium | Humane Immigration Reform Now

The Refugee Crisis: Smarter, Better Resettlement

By Silva Mathema

Tagged COVID-19refugees

Even as COVID-19 pandemic raged across the world, the number of people forcibly displaced in 2020 reached the highest level ever recorded as ongoing and new conflicts forced people to flee their homes. While recognizing that, in general, less than 1 percent of the refugee population is resettled each year, 2020 was still one of the worst years for resettlement as a result of COVID-19 pandemic-induced travel restrictions. Only about 34,400 refugees of the 1.4 million in need of resettlement were actually resettled in 2020, compared to 107,800 in 2019—a sharp 69 percent decrease.

The United States used to play a leading role in refugee resettlement, welcoming far more refugees than any other country. No longer. Even before the pandemic hit, the Trump Administration had slashed the refugee admission slots available each year from a high of 85,000 in 2016 to a record low of 18,000 in FY 2020. Refugee arrivals fell from nearly 85,000 to 12,000 during those years, a massive decline of 86 percent. Analysis shows that there were not enough additional slots made available by other countries to make up for the loss of slots in the United States. Overall, the global refugee resettlement numbers from 2016 to 2018 were down 45 percent from what they would have been if refugee admissions were not drastically slashed by the United States. Domestically, the lower number of refugees resettled in the United States decimated the intricate local infrastructure that supports resettlement across the country by downsizing, discontinuing various programs, or making the difficult decision to shut down.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), there are currently 82.4 million forcibly displaced people (people who have been forced to flee their homes), twice more than a decade ago. This includes 20.7 million refugees (those who have been forced to flee their country and who have “well-founded fear” of persecution due to a specific reason) and 48 million internally displaced people (those who have been forced to flee their homes but have not crossed international borders).

While the highest number of refugees were still from the decade-long conflict in Syria, there were fast-growing new displacements emerging in places such as the Sahel region in Africa and Ethiopia’s Tigray region, and a humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan. Beyond COVID-19, other complicating factors for displaced people have been brought on by extreme conditions as a result of climate change. This means that the need for the United States (and other developed countries) to admit and provide a haven for a larger number of refugees has never been stronger.

With the Biden Administration’s renewed commitment toward refugee resettlement, and taking a lion’s share of people forcibly displaced from Afghanistan, the time is ripe for the United States to, once again, help lead the world in refugee resettlement. Starting out from scratch gives the United States a chance to build a stronger system that is flexible and responsive to serve refugees and the communities they settle into as well as support the local agencies that do the legwork. Rebuilding our refugee resettlement program by making local resettlement agencies resilient, providing the diverse refugee population with resources to integrate them into our communities, as well as finding creative new methods for expanding the program are just some of the ways to modernize it.

The Old, New, and Emerging Global Refugee Crisis

The 1951 Refugee Convention, a key international legal document that protects refugees, defines a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” The UNHCR reports that almost 68 percent of all refugees originate from just five countries—Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar—yet the majority of them are hosted by countries that are not equipped to meet their needs. Approximately 86 percent of refugees are hosted by developing countries, with 27 percent hosted by least developed countries such as Bangladesh and Chad.

The decade-long conflict in Syria has resulted in one of the largest refugee populations in recent history with millions fleeing their homes to neighboring countries. Currently, there are 6.7 million registered Syrian refugees; Turkey hosts the highest number of Syrian refugees followed by Lebanon and Jordan—3.7 million, 855,000, and 668,000 respectively. Many who were already living in extreme poverty in these countries have now lost their jobs due to COVID-19.

Additionally, more than 5 million Venezuelans have fled their country in search of safety and most are scattered around Latin America and the Caribbean. As a result of an economic collapse triggered by government policies, Venezuelans were forced to flee their homes to escape violence and a lack of basic necessities such as food, medicine, and other services. While some countries have not been welcoming toward Venezuelans, many neighboring countries, such as Peru, Colombia, Brazil, and Mexico have welcomed them, and have found ways to help provide avenues for legal status. But COVID-19 has placed new strains on Venezuelans and their host communities. Organizations working across the region are appealing to the international community for urgent support. Venezuelans are facing a plethora of challenges including unemployment, hunger, lack of access to health care, and xenophobia.

The third largest group is the 2.6 million Afghan refugees, one of the world’s largest group in “protracted refugee situations,” defined by UNHCR as “when 25,000 or more refugees from the same nationality have been in exile for five or more years in a given asylum country.” Afghans started fleeing their homes more than four decades ago since the Soviet invasion in 1979 and many have been unable to return home as a result of ongoing violence and conflict. Refugees in protracted situations suffer from many challenges ranging from restrictions on movement to employment. Furthermore, in August of 2021, with the Taliban takeover of the government and amidst the rising threats against civilians, the refugee situation is expected to escalate to unforeseen levels.

The 2013 conflict in South Sudan, following the secession from Sudan, led to millions fleeing their homes, creating the fourth largest refugee group. While many were internally displaced, about 2.2 million have since been registered as refugees. The fifth largest refugee population are the 1.1 million stateless Rohingya refugees who started fleeing persecution in Myanmar in the early 1990s and whose exodus to Bangladesh increased after new violence broke out in 2017. Since most recent arrivals are in camps in Bangladesh, host communities face enormous pressure to provide facilities and services to the large influx of Rohingya refugees which has also been made worse by COVID-19.

The need for the United States and other developed countries to admit and provide a haven for a larger number of refugees has never been stronger.

Finally, other rapidly growing and complex refugee situations, such as the Sahel region of Africa, need much more of the world’s attention, as violence and conflict interact with impacts of climate change and other complicating factors. The UNHCR calls this one of the “fastest growing displacement[s]” and “the most forgotten.” This region, which includes some of the least developed countries in Africa such as Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Niger, is suffering from multiple layers of crises including brutal armed conflict, food insecurity, climate change, and now the COVID-19 pandemic. In the Sahel region, where temperatures are rising faster than the rest of the world, climate change is causing bouts of intense droughts and heavy rains that are destroying the livelihoods of people largely dependent on agriculture and livestock and adding more layers to the challenges they are already facing. Similarly, Central America’s dry corridor is at high risk for droughts, heavy rain, and flooding, compounding issues that people of the region already face such as gang violence and extortion, and also pushing them to flee their homes. While the UNHCR recognizes climate change as a “defining crisis of our time” that interacts with other factors in forcing people to flee their homes, they have not endorsed the term “climate refugees.” However, the organization is providing guidance and support to the international community to protect those displaced by climate change related disasters.

Each of these refugee situations described above is unique and offers a glimpse of why, what, and where refugees are fleeing. They highlight the urgency of finding durable and creative solutions tailored to their diverse needs, as well as the need for developed countries like the United States to step up to help.

The United States Can Offer a Fresh Start Through Resettlement

Durable solutions for refugees range from voluntary repatriation when circumstances allow (refugees return to their home country), local integration (refugees are integrated into their host country), to resettlement (refugees are resettled in a third country). For many, resettlement is the only viable solution because returning to their home or integrating into the host country is not an option.

As mentioned, the United States has been historically generous toward global refugees, each year resettling more of them than all other countries combined. Since the enactment of the Refugee Act of 1980, which created the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), the United States has resettled 3 million of the total 4 million refugees resettled globally, followed by Canada and Australia, which resettled less than a million each.

Our research has shown that refugees integrate well into U.S. communities and make valuable contributions in a variety of ways. Over time, they find jobs, learn English, pursue their educational aspirations, own businesses, and make significant wage gains over time. Communities around the United States have provided refugee families who arrive, sometimes with close to nothing, with a place to call home and a community in which to thrive.

During a 2018 interview for an issue brief published by the Center for American Progress, Mohammed, a refugee from Baghdad, Iraq, spoke about having to “start from scratch” when his family of five was resettled in Boise, Idaho. Previously a veterinarian and a laboratory owner, he was able to find a job as a senior microbiologist. His wife, who used to be a professor of mechanical engineering in Baghdad, was also able to make a transition to the U.S. job market. Resettlement in the United States has provided refugees with a fresh start, but communities also benefit from having refugees thrive in their midst. For example, a study from New American Economy reported that a factory owner in Louisville, Kentucky credits refugee workers for saving their business. Meanwhile, residents in St. Louis, Missouri recognized the contribution of Bosnian refugees in revitalizing a South city neighborhood. Stories like these are not uncommon and, with the right combination of support and help, refugees settle and find their footing in a new place even more smoothly, while the communities flourish with the addition of a vibrant and resilient population.

But the idea of the United States as a beacon of hope for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” came into question after the Trump Administration ascended to power and took a hard stance against refugees and immigrants. In 2017, the Trump Administration first placed a moratorium on all refugee admissions for 120 days and then drastically slashed the admissions ceiling from 110,000 to a then-historic low of 50,000 for FY 2017. The admission slots were further cut in following years, reaching another record low of 15,000 in 2021. During the Trump era, refugee arrivals to the United States dropped by 86 percent, causing a massive blow to a resettlement infrastructure that had taken years to build. The program, its funding, and the network of resettlement agencies shrank, along with refugee admissions—about 134 out of 350 local resettlement agencies that are primarily responsible for receiving, resettling, and integrating refugees in their local communities either shut down or zeroed out their budgets by FY 2020.

Some Ways to Rebuild the Refugee Resettlement Program

The Biden Administration has expressed a deep commitment to rebuilding the refugee resettlement program and welcoming more refugees in upcoming years. It started with raising the admissions ceiling of 15,000 for FY 2021 to 62,500 and promised to raise it even further, to 125,000 in FY 2022. Although it is unlikely that the United States will reach that goal this year, given that actual arrivals have been slow and only about 6,246 total refugees have been resettled this fiscal year, the United States resettled a higher number of refugees in June—1,533 compared to an average of 344 in the prior six months.

Along with raising the admissions ceiling, President Biden announced significant changes on various fronts. In an April 2021 memo on the emergency presidential determination on refugee arrivals, President Biden ended the discriminatory quotas set forth by the Trump Administration on the number of refugees that can be resettled from certain African and majority-Muslim countries. He previously directed his Administration to increase access to the refugee program for vulnerable populations such as individuals at risk as a result of their “gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation.” Now it is up to the various departments, such as the departments of State, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services, to make the substantive changes necessary to implement this directive. He also directed his Administration to prepare a report on climate-related migration, playing close attention to options for identifying, protecting, and resettling individuals displaced directly or indirectly by climate change. This is a commendable and forward-looking step for the United States to take in recognizing the need to understand and define climate-related migration so that our country can be a trailblazer in finding sustainable solutions for those displaced by climate change.

These are all positive steps to rebuild the program, and the increased number of arrivals this May and June shows that the system is finally starting to find its stride. While rebuilding, the Administration should also look at ways to increase the stability of the program, make it more resilient to domestic and international upheavals, and focus on expanding its capacity to resettle more refugees. Below are three selected ways to strengthen the U.S. refugee resettlement program:

Supporting Local Resettlement Agencies

Local resettlement organizations do the brunt of the work to resettle recent arrivals in their new communities. They make sure they have the resources available to learn the language, access necessary trainings, and find employment as quickly as possible. The federal funds these organizations receive for their resettlement work are tied to the number of actual arrivals. While this may work well when there are a significant number of new refugees coming into their communities for resettlement, this system falls apart as soon as the actual numbers shrink, and local agencies are not able to cover their costs. The federal government should guarantee funds to cover a minimum level of expenses even during arrival downturns so that local organizations are stable to weather these slumps.

The federal government should guarantee funds to cover a minimum level of expenses of local resettlement organizations.


Prioritize refugee integration in addition to self-sufficiency. Making sure refugees achieve economic self-sufficiency has been a cornerstone of the U.S. refugee admissions program since the beginning and the current system is set up to get newly resettled refugees into jobs as soon as possible. While being self-sufficient is an important feat, the resettlement program should also prioritize integration that supports the diverse needs of refugees based on their various backgrounds. The programmatic support provided by the federal government for integration is limited and local resettlement organizations usually step up to bridge the gaps left by the federal government. This means that, often, where refugees get resettled dictates what type of services are available and accessible. The entire program should be rebuilt in a way that provides more resources to support services that are vital for refugee integration, from English language classes, credentialing, to guiding them through their other educational aspirations. The federal government can also analyze and use data collected as part of the resettlement programs to improve and promote integration and identify best practices.

Expand community co-sponsorship programs and explore private co-sponsorship. One other avenue that could expand the capacity and resources for refugee resettlement, and that has not been fully embraced in the United States yet, is community co-sponsorship or private co-sponsorship programs. There are different co-sponsorship models from around the world that provide varying sets of resettlement responsibilities to community groups, but most allow community groups to take responsibility for resettling refugees and helping them achieve the skills necessary to integrate. This avenue for resettlement also increases interaction among refugees and community member as well as building support for the program.


The needs of refugees worldwide have never been greater. It is vital that the United States examine its resettlement program and build it back better than before. The Biden Administration has its work cut out for it. The steps it has taken so far have slowly started to mend a system dismantled during the Trump era. In addition to resopnding effectively to the humanitarian emergency situation in Afghanistan, increasing the number of refugee slots, expanding access to more vulnerable groups, and taking a step toward treating climate change as the threat of our times make for a good start. Making other positive changes within the various components of the resettlement system, including supporting the local resettlement organizations, prioritizing refugee integration along with self-sufficiency and exploring new avenues for resettlement such as community co-sponsorship, will have a lasting positive impact not only on the program, but also on the refugees it serves, the resettlement communities in the United States, as well as the global refugee population.

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Silva Mathema is the acting director of Immigration Policy at Center for American Progress.

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