Module 8: Resettlement and Barriers to Resettlement


Some refugees cannot return to their country of origin because they will continue to be persecuted or confronted with violence and trauma. In such cases, the UNHCR helps resettle refugees to a new country. Resettlement is rare, and only 1% are resettled by the UNHCR. Most of the refugees are resettled to the United States, Canada, Australia or Scandinavia. The resettlement country provides legal and physical protection to the refugee and should allow the refugees to become naturalized citizens.(1)

Most refugees want to be resettled, though some want to repatriate and return to their country of origin. A study done on Liberian refugees in Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana found that though “they were not happy in Ghana, few saw the possibility of becoming happy if they were to repatriate.”(2) In Kakuma Refugee Camp, “resettlement seems to have become not a solution per se but a goal in itself: to seek a better life in industrialized countries.”(3)

Barriers to Resettlement

Before Leaving the Camps

In order to be resettled, refugees are required to prove that their personal security is threatened. “To be considered for resettlement or protection leading to resettlement involved a tedious game with chairmen, [refugee] agency personnel, or security guards.”(4) The high visibility of the resettlement process in many camps, coupled with the increased demand for resettlement, creates an environment which encourages falsified insecurity claims. Because of the arbitrary nature of insecurity evaluations and deciding who should be resettled, corruption is often rampant. For example, at Kakuma Refugee Camp, if a refugee’s file were to be lost, they could buy another one. Additionally, approved files of resettlement could be sold to someone else who would take their identity.(5) In Meheba settlement, refugees of extraordinary promise were those most sought after for resettlement, whether that was through exceptional linguistic skills of knowing many languages, through unsurpassed scholarly achievement, or through a unique talent. This singling out of ‘talent’ creates further tension and a sense of discrepancy within an already strained environment.

Upon Settling in the Country of Resettlement

The hardships that refugees endure do not end when they arrive in their country of resettlement. There are then many new barriers that refugees must face, including "culture shock, inability to communicate, lack of or severe underemployment, poor shelter, and health. Compounding all are political sensitivities and the insecurity not only of their present position but the constant worry for the fate of families still left behind in often dangerous circumstances.”(6)

When refugees move to a new country, they not only have to adapt to a new culture far from their family and friends, but also often to a new language. The existence of a language barrier for many refugees makes it more difficult for them to gain employment and access higher education. Moreover, because children tend to learn the language and adapt to their resettlement country more quickly than their parents, the traditional parent-child relationship is inverted. Children become the cultural brokers for the rest of the family and face emotional stress and pressure because of this role.(7) Refugees are frequently unprepared culturally for life in their country of resettlement, and they experience culture shock. Though refugee camps usually have orientations for the refugees that are about to be resettled, these rarely prepare refugees for what lies ahead. Valentino Achak Deng, a Lost Boy in Kakuma Refugee Camp explained that “when after ten years, we finally were told we would be leaving the camp, we were given a two-day course in what we would see and hear in the United States. An American named Sasha told us about American currency, about job training, cars, about paying rent, about air-conditioning and public transportation and snow… But while Sasha told us that in America even the most successful men can have but one wife… he did not warn us that I would be told by American teenagers that I should go back to Africa.”(8)

In addition to facing discrimination and culture shock, refugees may struggle economically and in the job market.(9) Often, skills that were profitable in their native country are not seen as valuable to employers in their resettlement country. For example, refugees who worked as rural farmers in their home country may have difficulty applying their talents to the large-scale agricultural industry in the U.S. Similarly, professional degrees or education levels may not be recognized in the new country.(10) A refugee who formerly worked as a dentist may be required to re-enroll in dental school in order to practice in their new country, which is an expensive and arduous process. Resettlement countries provide temporary aid to refugees; however, refugees still often struggle to make ends meet as they search for employment and acclimate to the new culture. As Valentino explains, “when we landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport, we were promised enough money to cover our rent and groceries for three months. I was flown to Atlanta, handed a temporary green card and a Medicaid card, and through the International Rescue Committee provided with enough money to pay my rent for exactly three months. My $8.50 an hour at Best Buy was not enough.”(11) With job experiences and education that do not transfer to their new countries, many refugees find that the aid they receive— three to eight months of payment in the U.S.— is not enough to build economic stability.(12)

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(1) “A New Beginning in a Third Country.” UNHCR. Accessed on 20 June 2020.

(2) Hardgrove, A. “The Liberian Refugee Families in Ghana: the Implication of Family Demands and Capabilities for Return to Liberia.” Journal of Refugee Studies. 22.4 (2009): 483-501.

(3) Jansen, B, “Between Vulnerability and Assertiveness: Negotiation Resettlement in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya.” African Affairs. 107.429 (2008):569-587.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Kaufman, H. “A Better Place to Live: Refugee Resettlement Challenges all of Society.” (October 11, 2009). The Afro News. Accessed on 24 June 2020.

(7) Reedy, J. (2007). The Mental Health Conditions of Cambodian Refugee Children and Adolescents (Doctoral dissertation, The Ohio State University).

(8) Eggers, D. What is the What; the Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. (New York: Random House, 2006), 18.

(9) Reedy, J. (2007). The Mental Health Conditions of Cambodian Refugee Children and Adolescents (Doctoral dissertation, The Ohio State University).

(10) Stein, B.N. “Occupational Adjustment of Refugees: The Vietnamese in the United States.” International Migration Review. 13.1 (1979).

(11) Eggers, D. What is the What; the Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. (New York: Random House, 2006), 19.

(12) “Refugees and Access to Funds and Benefits in the U.S.” Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigration Services. Accessed on 24 June 2020.