How UNHCR’s refugee-resettlement process actually works

Maclean’s explains the five-step resettlement process that refugees typically go through to get to Canada

A Syrian Kurdish refugee cuts the hair of a young boy in a UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) refugee camp in Suruc, Sanliurfa province, on January 30, 2015. Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

A Syrian Kurdish refugee cuts the hair of a young boy in a UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) refugee camp in Suruc, Sanliurfa province, on January 30, 2015. Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

Can Canada possibly bring in 25,000 refugees over the next six weeks? Some politicians and pundits are saying it’s way too fast, while others are claiming that Islamic State fighters could slip in among the refugees. While we don’t yet know how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s refugee plan will work, we do know that the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)—which runs the camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey where the refugees currently reside—tries to make sure refugees won’t pose a risk to the countries planning on taking them in. Trudeau’s plan may be different in the specifics, but experts agree he’s likely to follow the broad strokes of UNHCR’s process. Here’s how UNHCR does it:

Step 1: UNHCR makes sure claimants are eligible under the 1951 Refugee Convention. To qualify, they need to have fled their homes and be unable to return due to “serious and indiscriminate threats to life, physical integrity or freedom resulting from generalized violence or events seriously disturbing public order.” Anyone who has participated in war crimes or serious non-political crimes is ineligible. As Gisèle Nyembwe, a spokesperson for UNHCR Canada, puts it: “At the registration stage, we try to identify combatants.”

Step 2: UNHCR identifies those who are the most vulnerable and in greatest need of resettlement, which typically includes orphans and single mothers and their children. In the United States, about 50 per cent of the roughly 1,800 Syrians admitted this year were children, and around 25 per cent were adults over 60. The number who make it through this screening process is about one per cent. In 2014, UNHCR referred 103,890 refugees out of 14.4 million to the resettlement program.

Step 3: Each person UNHCR considers for referral is individually reviewed by a refugee protection officer, says Peter Showler, who spent three months in Lebanon last year working with UNHCR. Refugee-protection officers are looking for any inconsistencies in claimants’ stories. “If they say they were in Homs until March 2012, then, all of a sudden, they’re talking about Aleppo in November, that’s a red flag,” says Showler.

Step 4: If the refugee-protection officer is content, she will then refer the file to a visa officer in one of the 28 countries that participate in the resettlement program, including Canada. The visa officer then conducts an interview with the claimant. In that interview, there is a focus to ensure the person is not involved in any kind of terrorist activity, according to James Milner, an associate professor at Carleton University and an expert on refugee policy. “After 9/11, they really beefed up the procedures to focus on preventing anyone with terrorist ties from making it through,” says Milner.

Step 5: The refugee’s file is run against databases maintained by the Canada Border Services Agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Interpol, and similar databases in allied countries to determine if the person is a threat. The refugee also has to undergo a medical test. In 2014, Canada accepted 7,575 people through the refugee-resettlement program, including 1,450 people from the Middle East and North Africa region, and 1,715 people from the Europe region, which includes Turkey.


How UNHCR’s refugee-resettlement process actually works

  1. It would be so much easier for a terrorist to come through as a tourist.

    Seriously, how can “Security” remain an argument?

    • Security remains an issue until we can be fully assured that no corners will be cut w.r.t. security screening in order for the government to meet an arbitrary, self-imposed deadline.

      There are 1008 hours in 6 weeks. During that time 25,000 refugees must be processed. That’s about 25 refugees/hour on a 24/7 basis. Even if we discount for children under some maximum age, that still leaves (picking numbers out of the air) 10 to 15 refugees/hour on a 24/7 basis. And that’s processing time, of which security screening time is a subset (and I didn’t even consider transport time). So, yes, security is an issue until it can be definitively shown that processing 25,000 refugees before the end of the year can be done with proper rigour.

      • One may not have a history associated with terrorism but may be radicalized all the same. So, in spite of the screening, we’ll get some people willing to commit terrorist acts. But that is likely the case with non refugees as well who simply immigrate here. And we’ll have home grown ones as well. The key becomes a high level of monitoring and vigilance which I’m concerned the current government will shy away from. It appears to me they are much more concerned about individual rights than doing what’s necessary to provide security.

      • That’s assuming that there will be only one person working on the file and that no work has already been done – both ridiculous assumptions. Every year they somehow manage to admit about 1/4 million immigrants and certify another 1/4 million temporary foreign workers – that’s more than 41,000 per month; at the same time they review and reject many more applicants. They have bandwidth.

        • [comment stuck in moderation purgatory due to URLs. Here it is again without URLs]

          There was no assumption on the number people working on the file. Rates are rates, and the number of servers (people processing files in this case) are a different issue. If you want to process 25,000 refugees in 1008 hours then you need to process them at a rate of 25 refugees/hour. That statement is factual, and says absolutely nothing about how many people are processing them. You could have 10 people processing them requiring each person to process at least 2.5 refugees/hour or you could have 100 people processing them requiring each person to process at least 0.25 refugees/hour – in the end the *overall* rate of 25/hour is the same.

          And the amount of prior work done also has no bearing in what the overall processing rate needs to be in order to process 25,000 refugees in 1008 hours.

          Yes we admit immigrants and non-permanent residents at a very high rate. But the individual processing time for immigrants is typically in the years and for TFWs in the months. Not 1.5 months as the government intends for the 25,000 refugees. As well, the processing required for immigrants and non-permanent residents, who will have all required paperwork ready, is very different from what’s required for people who will often have no identification papers whatsoever and who must be processed outside of the country.

          And for a more apples to apples comparison, if you check the individual processing times for government assisted refugees from the Middle East and Africa, you’ll see that they range from a low of 5 to a high of 29 months. For privately sponsored refugees it’s a low of 11 and a high of 61 months. Again, *significantly* higher than the 1.5 months the government now intends.

          [I originally had links here to the relevant government web pages for processing times, however, that resulted in my response being stuck (forever?) in moderation. Google “Check application processing times” to get the jump-off page]

  2. I’m more worried about the future of the incoming Syrian children and their
    future children, who may be discriminated against in society and employment.
    And as a result will become isolated and reduced to living in poverty.
    These upcoming young Muslim men will be vulnerable to radicalization.

    • It has been said elsewhere that Canada simply does not have enough visa officers who have contacts that can verify the information they are given. Obviously the ones who are the least likely to be Ìslamists are the kids and the very elderly. So it is the young men who are the target and I have my doubts of the ability of our visa officers to plumb the depths of character and background. As far as UN screening, I wouldn`t give two cents for it being able to pick up anyone who is in deep cover, which Isis seems to be able to do. The soft left is more concerned about `rights than any potential danger. And I hope they don`t concentrate these people – for example as Chinese immigrants have concentrated in RIchmond, BC. There is not likely to be easy integration where there is such concentration.

      • Hopefully, your at least good with giving Chinese Canadians the vote – that only happened the year after I was born. But I understand: after the Chinese did such a fine job of building the railroad BC wanted in order to join confederation, the people of BC made a lot of effort to disadvantage and disenfranchise them … old habits die hard.

  3. I was former refugee….and I have seen the failure of the so-called “screening and selection processing” held by the UNHCR at the refugee camp in Thailand before. The staffs who worked work with UNHCR and local authority had committed bride, corruption….to let someone that supposed not fit in the definition of UNHCR Refugee 1951 convention….
    Can you imagine ISIS has capacity to fund for some of their infiltrators …and get through….First thing first, who would over see this critical screening process? Who will be there to carry out the job?? Can we even trust the interpretor? Translator? etc…who will be the staffs around the clock , on the ground????

Sign in to comment.