Will wealthy countries step up and resettle more Syrian refugees?

Refugees arriving in Greece by boat. (Ben White/ CAFOD, October 2015)

Amid anti-refugee rhetoric, two groups set new resettlement goals on Tuesday for the world’s wealthiest countries. The United Nations said that 450,000 Syrian refugees will need new homes by the end of 2018; Oxfam puts the target at 480,000 by the end of 2016.

The numbers, while high, represent just 10 percent of the refugees currently living in countries neighboring Syria. Current resettlement pledges total 129,966 – well short of the targets. The announcements come at a time when Western countries are increasingly taking steps to keep refugees out. Some leaders in the U.S. and Europe are calling for outright bans on refugees, and a recent EU deal would return refugees to Turkey, a plan that critics say violates refugees’ rights.

Against this backdrop, the U.N. faces seriously challenges in meeting its resettlement goals.

“The international context we are in – and nobody is naive about that – we know very well we’re dealing with a complex situation, increasing fear in many countries, increasing politicization of refugee, displacement and asylum issues. This is a difficult thing,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Adrian Edwards to the media on Tuesday.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi will attend a meeting of wealthy countries today in Geneva to discuss the refugee crisis. It will focus on the issue of resettlement and is a follow on to the London conference in February that sought to bring in more financial resources.

A new analysis from Oxfam puts the numbers behind the crisis into stark contrast. It found that just 1.39 percent of the roughly 5 million Syrian refugees have resettled in wealthy countries. The analysis measures fair shares for the number of refugees countries should accept, relative to the size of their economies. Just three countries – Canada, Germany and Norway – are doing enough.

Notable poor performers include Japan, Korea and Russia for making no resettlement pledges. The United States also sits at the bottom of this for its pledge of just 12,000 people, well below the calculated fair share of 170,779 million.

Oxfam takes a more aggressive stance than the U.N. by calling for the resettlement of at least 10 percent of the refugee population by the end of this year. The number is based on the estimate that shows roughly one out of every 10 Syrian refugees are very vulnerable. That vulnerability means the needs are more urgent than a 2018 goal would address

“We need to show Syrian people that ‘solidarity’ is an action, not a sound-bite,” said Oxfam International head Winnie Byanyima, in a release. “Countries with a strong economy, good services and developed infrastructure can immediately resettle 500,000 refugees between them – if they choose to. This is less than Washington D.C.’s population. Some countries have reached their fair share, and more. Others need to follow.”

Refugee resettlement is not the only avenue for countries. Syrian refugees could join western countries by reuniting with family, attending college on scholarship, or through work. The more than 92 countries represented will try to figure out a way forward that alleviates the pressure of refugees on Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon – where the majority of refugees now live.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.