The Pact and Refugee Resettlement: Lessons from Australia and Canada

Forum on the new EU Pact on Migration and Asylum in light of the UN GCR

Contribution by Adèle Garnier
Assistant professor in the Department of Geography at Université Laval, Québec, Canada
28 September 2020


Most refugees in the European Union (EU) are granted protection following an asylum claim on EU territory, yet the new EU Migration and Asylum Pact strongly support the expansion of refugee resettlement. This ASILE Forum explores whether there are lessons to be learned from two countries in which most refugees are admitted through refugee resettlement: Australia and Canada.

The Australian and Canadian experiences show that refugee resettlement is strengthened by inclusive politics and civil society involvement in resettlement policies. Still, resettlement remains a marginal contribution to international protection.

Hence, the contribution recommends that the EU strongly support inclusive resettlement politics and policies while strengthening access to asylum, which should remain the main instrument of humanitarian protection in the EU.

Expansion and increased advocacy for resettlement in the EU

Refugee resettlement is the voluntary admission by states of refugees from countries in which it is not sustainable for them to stay. Contrary to asylum, resettlement is not codified in international law.

In the last decade, refugee resettlement to European Union (EU) member-states has significantly increased, from 4,050 resettled refugees in 2011 to 24,815 in 2018. Between October 2017 and October 2019, EU member-states pledged to resettle 50,000 refugees, yet resettled 37,520 over this period. 14 member-states (including the United Kingdom) have pledged to resettle almost 30,000 refugees in 2020, a pledge made in the EU Migration and Asylum Pact to cover 2020 and 2021 so as to account for resettlement delays caused by travel bans adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The development of an EU-wide resettlement framework has been promoted by the European Commission since 2000. EU funding has been made available to support resettlement places in member-states as well as multi-stakeholders initiatives promoting resettlement, such as the European resettlement network. A draft directive aiming to establish a EU joint Resettlement Framework has been in the legislative pipeline since 2016, yet negotiations between the European Parliament and the Council have not progressed since 2018.

In 2017, then EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos stated that refugee resettlement ‘should become the preferred way for refugees to receive protection’ and the EU Migration and Asylum Pact unveiled on 23 September 2020 demanded that the EU resettlement efforts be ‘scaled up’, with the recommendation to adopt a Framework Regulation on Resettlement and Humanitarian Admission.

Yet EU member states admit far more refugees following an asylum claim on EU territory. In 2019, 109,000 persons were granted refugee status in the EU. A further 52 000 were granted subsidiary protection and 45,100 the authorisation to stay for humanitarian reasons. The EU Commission argues that refugee resettlement ‘helps save lives, reduce irregular migration and counter the business model of smuggling networks’ therefore presenting resettlement as an alternative to irregular migration as a way to seek asylum.

What about refugee resettlement in countries in which most refugees are admitted through resettlement? Are there lessons to be learned? The following highlights Canada’s and Australia’s refugee resettlement experience with a focus on relations between resettlement and asylum; on the role of civil society in resettlement policies; and on contributions to international protection, to draw lessons for the EU.

Canada’s and Australia’s refugee resettlement

Resettlement vs asylum?

Given that refugee resettlement is not based on international law, politics can play a considerable role in expanding or contracting refugee resettlement. Most strikingly, the United States of America (US), the traditional resettlement leader, have drastically reduced resettlement admissions under the Trump administration, as part of a broader anti-immigration agenda.

Canada and Australia have long been in the top 3 of countries resettling the most refugees and in the last decade experienced resettlement increases. Yet in Canada, contrary to Australia, resettlement was not framed as an alternative to asylum.

In Canada, the death by drowning of Syrian boy Alan Kurdi in Turkey contributed to a strong pro-resettlement mobilisation in the wake of the 2015 federal election campaign. Justin Trudeau’s centre-left Liberal Party promised to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees within three months if the Liberals won the 2015 federal election. The Trudeau government delivered on its promise once in power though this timeline was judged too ambitious at the time by some immigrant settlement organisations. Canada has since slightly increased the country’s annual resettlement intake compared to before 2015 and is now the world’s resettlement leader; Canada resettled 28,076 refugees in 2018.

Canada’s resettlement increase was not related to an increase of asylum claims on Canadian territory. Still, asylum claims in Canada have considerably increased since 2015. Canada’s political rhetoric on asylum is warier than political discourse on resettlement, yet Trudeau has stressed the legitimate nature of asylum claims made at its borders, and has increased resources to be able to deal with up to 50,000 asylum claims by 2021.

Australia experienced two resettlement increases in the 2010s, one of which was tied to increased restrictiveness towards asylum-seekers. In 2012, Australia’s resettlement intake increased by 40% to 20,000 places under the centre-left Labor government of Julia Gillard. Such increase had for years been promoted by refugee advocates yet it occurred in the context of a very significant increase of asylum claims made by people who had arrived in Australia by boat (dubbed ‘irregular maritime arrivals’, IMAs). However, the resettlement increase, according to the Prime Minister, targeted ‘those in most need: those vulnerable people offshore, not those getting on boats’. IMAs would get ‘no advantage’ in gaining access to humanitarian protection in Australia. In fact, at the same time of the resettlement increase, Australia reintroduced its earlier policy of processing IMAs’ asylum claims in other countries in its region, the so-called Pacific Solution.

The centre-left Labor government of Kevin Rudd, in 2013, introduced a ban on the grant of permanent protection in Australia to IMAs – yet Labor lost the 2013 federal election to the centre-right Liberal/National Coalition of Tony Abbott. Abbott’s main campaign slogan had been ‘stop the boats’ and his government returned the resettlement intake to its pre-2012 level of 13,750, until it was pressured by civil society and state governments to increase resettlement in response to the Syrian crisis. This led to the one-off resettlement of 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees between 2015 and 2017, followed by an increase of the country’s annual resettlement intake to 18,750. Australia’s refugee politics demonise asylum-seekers. A recent government-sponsored review argued such rhetoric had a nefarious impact on refugees at large; the Australian government delayed the release of its findings by several months.

Civil society involvement in resettlement policies

In Australia and Canada, civil society mobilisation played a key role in increasing resettlement. This role is, overall, more institutionally entrenched, and more incentivised, in Canada.

One policy step at which Australian civil society appears to play a greater role is in consultations ahead of the government’s announcement of the annual resettlement intake. The Refugee Council of Australia, the peak body representing Australian refugee advocates, releases an annual report presenting community views on the country’s refugee intake, and these views are taken in consideration in policy design. Though dialogue between its Canadian equivalent, the Canadian Council for Refugees, and the immigration bureaucracy, is sustained, there is no such annual report in Canada. Australia’s consultative process is laudable; yet it is no guarantee the government will listen.

Canadian civil society is essential to the country’s private refugee sponsorship program. Groups of at least five Canadians, as well as larger organisations, can enter agreements with the Canadian government to financially support the arrival and settlement of people in refugee and refugee-like situations. Private refugee sponsorship was formally established in the 1970s in the context of the Indo-Chinese refugee crisis and legal scholar Audrey Macklin has called it a ‘permanent component of immigration policy.’ Today, most resettled refugees in Canada are privately sponsored rather than assisted by the government of Canada – in 2018 18,156 resettled refugees were privately sponsored and 8,156 were government-assisted.

In 2015, when Trudeau announced its electoral promise to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees within 3 months, hundreds of local groups signalled they were ready to sponsor. The Trudeau government supports the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative, through which Canada public authorities, private organisations and the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) foster the establishment of refugee sponsorship programs overseas.

For decades, Australia has also allowed private individuals to sponsor the resettlement of refugees and people in refugee-like situation, yet without encouraging sponsors’ direct involvement in refugee settlement once in Australia.

Following strong civil society demands for a scheme akin to Canada’s private sponsorship, a community sponsorship program was eventually piloted in 2013. Its capacity is 1,000 places yet this quota has never been filled. In 2018/2019, 563 refugees were resettled as part of this stream, in contrast to 7,098 whose admission was supported by individuals, and 9,451 government-assisted refugees. Refugee advocacy groups and scholars have been highly critical of the community sponsorship program’s narrow eligibility criteria, such as evidence of an employment offer and English proficiency, as well as its exorbitant cost. Notably, Australia does not participate in the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative.

Contribution to international protection

Canadian and Australian politicians insist on their countries’ generosity through their substantial contribution to global refugee resettlement. Yet less than 1% of the world’s refugees are resettled each year, whereas more than 80% of the world’s 26 million refugees reside in developing countries, mostly close to their countries of origin.

For this reason, even resettlement advocates acknowledge that the ‘protection dividends’ of investments in resettlement programs are considerably smaller than support to refugees in regions of origin, while some populations, such as Syrians, have in recent years far more strongly benefitted from resettlement than others, particularly African refugees.

Strong emphasis on the vulnerability of resettled refugees has its ambivalences as it can devaluate refugee agency. Resettled refugees may be perceived as victims who contribute less to their countries of admission than other categories of immigrants, rather than people able to advocate for themselves through long and complex resettlement procedures and dealing with considerable structural disadvantages in host societies.

Which lessons for the EU?

In contrast with EU member-states, Canada and Australia admit most refugees through resettlement rather than following an asylum claim. This ASILE Forum recommends against the adoption of resettlement as the main mode of refugee admission to the EU because resettlement is not based on international law and is highly sensitive to domestic politics.

Rather, this contribution recommends emphasising additionality between refugee resettlement and asylum and stressing that far more solidarity is needed with developing countries, as developing countries host most of the world’s refugees.

In the context of an increased focus on global solidarity, this contribution considers that the Canadian resettlement experience can be a model for EU member-states in terms of inclusive politics and civil society involvement. In this respect, the Pact’s incentivisation of community sponsorship is a step in the right direction. More EU member-states should be encouraged to take part in the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative supported by Canada.

By contrast, the Australian experience shows that pitching resettlement against asylum not only demonises asylum-seekers, but also worsens the settlement experience of all refugees. It is to hope that the EU will in the future refrain from framing resettlement as an alternative to asylum. This framing risks further shrinking EU citizens’ willingness to welcome any refugee in addition to reducing the availability of humanitarian protection.