US Leadership in Refugee Resettlement: Beyond the Numbers

The challenge of rapidly welcoming tens of thousands of Afghans and Ukrainians to the United States in FY22 created opportunities to reform and expand the US resettlement program. In a prior blog, I outlined key takeaways and recommendations in response to the Biden administration’s report to Congress on proposed refugee admissions for FY2023. Earlier this week, President Biden finalized the plan for refugee admissions of up to 125,000 through a Presidential Determination.

The report to Congress also described enhancements to the resettlement program and highlighted the launch of a multilateral Resettlement Diplomacy Network designed to increase third-country solutions for refugees. The network will act as a center of gravity to expand and modernize the global resettlement system, engage governments of potential new resettlement countries, and grow complementary pathways (e.g., facilitating refugee arrivals for education and employment opportunities).

Resettlement diplomacy is as important as the resettlement program itself. The US refugee admissions program (USRAP) supports only a small fraction of displaced people. If the United States manages to reach its FY2023 target by resettling 125,000 refugees, it would still only account for 0.06 percent of the world’s 27 million total refugees and 6 percent of the approximately 2 million refugees designated by the UN Refugee Agency as priorities for third-country resettlement (due to vulnerabilities or needs that cannot be met in their current host country). Alongside the provision for humanitarian assistance, the report suggests that the resettlement program is a “vital foreign policy tool” because it demonstrates US leadership and commitment to sharing responsibility for the global challenge. Nearly 85 percent of the world’s refugees are hosted by low- and middle-income countries, led by Turkey, Colombia, Uganda, and Pakistan.

In pursuing an ambitious agenda for the Resettlement Diplomacy Network (RDN), the US government and partners should:

  • Ensure close connection with diplomatic discussions on conditions for refugees in countries of first asylum, such as access to the labor market and education. From global to local discussions, it is imperative to connect resettlement to diplomatic negotiations where the vast majority of refugees live. The RDN offers an opportunity to better coordinate negotiations across countries, hopefully to include new countries welcoming refugees.
  • Emphasize the win-win of resettlement in providing humanitarian protection and an economic opportunity for host nations, including those with aging populations and labor shortages in areas such as healthcare and eldercare. This should be done both programmatically—for example through upskilling programs that engage host communities and refugees and facilitating refugee arrivals through employment and education pathways—as well as through evidence-based outreach and communications. For public leaders and private citizens, it should be noteworthy that the reduction of US refugee admissions between 2017 and 2020 costs the economy $9.1 billion per year in lost wages, taxes, and other ripple effects such as entrepreneurship and technological innovation.
  • Build on the creation of refugee advisory boards. Refugees are uniquely placed to shape solutions to displacement and inform programs that foster inclusion. Refugees in a number of countries, including Canada, Germany, and New Zealand, have thus created bodies to support and facilitate refugee engagement with governments and multilateral policy processes, and the US Refugee Advisory Board was formed earlier this year. Refugees Seeking Equal Access at the table (R-SEAT) works for sustained refugee representation in global meetings and also supports the creation of country-level bodies. The US and other RDN partners should support the growth of bodies that elevate refugee leadership at the country, regional, and global levels, including in official delegations.
  • Engage the UK government to change its approach of paying for Ukrainian resettlement entirely through its fixed official development assistance (ODA) budget. As CGD colleagues Sam Hughes and Ian Mitchell note, by using existing funds to support the first-year costs of hosting Ukrainians without making additional pledges to increase the overall size of the ODA budget, the UK’s current approach is out of line with that of other G7 countries and pits support for the world's poorest against those seeking safety from Russian aggression. The RDN is exactly the type of forum to discuss the broader implications of financing and other decisions around resettlement and encourage a race to the top.
  • Explore financial innovations such as resettlement bonds (as proposed by a CGD working group) that would leverage private finance to resettle more refugees to third countries. Payments would come from donors who otherwise would spend the funds supporting refugees in camps or cities in countries of first asylum.
  • Invest in a durable secretariat for the RDN with multiyear funding from several sources and a governance structure designed to advance progress even if one or a few members reduce support.

With a little more than two years left in the current administration’s term, now is the time to lay the foundation for a robust infrastructure so that US leadership translates into helping more refugees in the decades to come. If properly resourced and supported, the Resettlement Diplomacy Network could be an anchor for progress.

This blog is the second of two on US Leadership in Refugee Resettlement. You can read the first, “The Brass Tacks of Rebuilding US Leadership in Refugee Resettlement and Why It Matters,” here. Thank you to Nili Sarit Yossinger, Claire Manley, Jocilyn Estes, and Erin Collinson for their input and comments.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.