Refugee resettlement as humanitarian governance

The need for a critical research agenda

By Adèle Garnier, Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and Liliana Lyra Jubilut


This blog post suggests understanding refugee resettlement as an instrument of humanitarian governance from the selection of refugees to their long-term integration. It presents a five-point research agenda aiming to investigate resettlement’s power dynamics in multiscalar perspective, with a focus on: political economy; the UNHCR’s competing goals; and the role of discretion, persuasion and coercion in resettlement’s discourse and practice.


Refugee resettlement can be described as the orderly and long-term relocation to safety of individuals in dire need of protection. It is one of three durable solutions in the international refugee regime (in addition to local integration and voluntary repatriation). After years of neglect at the end of the Cold War, refugee resettlement has experienced a resurgence since the early 2000s. This is largely due to UNHCR’s stronger organizational leadership but also to the increasing number of participating states (16 in 2008, 26 in 2014 according to UNHCR statistical yearbooks) and to the expanding involvement of private partners. As displacement is globally reaching unprecedented levels, and as Europe is struggling to respond to the increased inflow of refugees since 2015, refugee resettlement is attracting political attention, and will be for instance a key item of the Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis organized as a side event to the United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants.

While resettlement is considered a response to a humanitarian crisis – in this case forced displacement – it has received little critical attention as an instrument of humanitarian governance, with scant conceptual focus on the interface between power and protection. There is also a lack of research into specific selection programs and processes and insufficient understanding of how the political constriction of resettlement has shifted over time; for instance, by being or not being a durable solution of last resort, or focusing more on groups or individuals. Because of these research gaps, we argue that there is a need for a closer look at how power dynamics, including forms of power with others (such as persuasion) and over others (such as coercion), shape refugee resettlement as an instrument of humanitarian governance.

Historically, humanitarian governance has been construed as an act of benevolence. Michael Barnett has described this as ‘the increasingly organized and internationalized attempt to save the lives, enhance the welfare, and reduce the suffering of the world’s most vulnerable populations’. Humanitarian governance is situated within recent international relations literature as a subfield of global governance, here understood as the multiple governmental, inter-governmental and non-governmental efforts and mechanisms to manage common public goods and address international issues. It can thus be argued that Barnett is addressing the practical dimension of humanitarian governance, that is, the machinery of co-operation between a variety of actors working together for the common good. In contrast, Mariela Pandolfi states that humanitarian governance results from how the proliferation of non-territorialized power and governance is deployed, legitimized and imposed according to a planetary logic in ‘crisis’ situations by an ‘international humanitarian rule of law’. Pandolfi’s approach can be said to focus on humanitarian governance as a performance, that is, as the production and legitimization of a particular worldview which may be benevolent and disinterested on the surface, yet also helps a particular set of actors to achieve their own goals.

If we conceive refugee resettlement as both a practical and performative instrument of humanitarian governance, we believe that an investigation must go beyond its apparent benevolence and necessarily regard both analytical and ethical aspects. By means of that, not only a deeper understanding of the instrument is developed, but it is also shown how it is embedded in, and possibly contributes to, global inequality. We offer a five-point research agenda to that end.

First, resettlement research needs to be multiscalar. Refugee resettlement involves the co-operation of many actors at the local, national and international level aiming to achieve a durable improvement of highly vulnerable people’s wellbeing. In this sense, refugee resettlement is a practical contribution to humanitarian governance as it is traditionally understood, that is, involving the international community in the resolution of acute crises so as to improve threatened life. At the same time, resettlement also includes long-term processes (the integration of resettled refugees in receiving states) that are seldom associated with the concept of humanitarian governance.

Regarding the macro- performative dimension of refugee resettlement, being involved in refugee resettlement appears to bring considerable reputational benefit, because of this association with ‘positive’ concepts in both the international and the domestic realm, such as international solidarity and integration. This seems an incentive for international, national and local actors to associate themselves with refugee resettlement.

Second, we need better discussions of the political economy of resettlement. In part, this is a plea for multidisciplinary research. Understanding how resettlement works, requires both quantitative and qualitative methods to ‘follow the money’, unpack decision making processes and trace the granular micropolitics of resettlement selection processes. It also requires researchers to be willing to think more about trade-offs: Refugee resettlement is a comparatively costly instrument of international protection as it comprises the identification of those considered the most vulnerable, a further (if orderly) migration for the selected, and the fostering of their long-term integration, that is, investment in technologies of identification, selection, mobility and settlement. Thinking about the political economy of humanitarian ethics also involves reflecting on how we can get the best protection for the largest number of individuals for the funding available.

Third, the competing goals within UNHCRs resettlement framework need more attention. Can resettlement equally be a strategic and a humanitarian instrument of protection? That is, can it be an instrument that enhances international solidarity and protects the most vulnerable, as UNHCR advocates for? Can resettlement be used to protect both vulnerable groups and vulnerable individuals? Is resettlement a solution of last resort, as it was long considered, or is it on par with the other ‘durable solutions’ to forced migration, local integration and voluntary return?

Fourth we need to understand better how the governance of resettlement is based on discretion and persuasion. Resettlement is not codified in International Refugee Law. Domestically, resettlement is usually framed as a humanitarian goodwill gesture. However, resettlement is also an unaccountable form of governance in a time where the humanitarian sector in general and UNHCR in particular think a lot about accountability. What would it mean for resettlement to be meaningfully accountable — and to whom?

The implementation of refugee resettlement requires considerable political resources, as it remains barely codified in international and domestic law and is therefore at the discretion of resettling states. Resettlement largely relies on persuasion and negotiation between decision-makers both within states, and among states and international organizations (especially UNHCR) in the international sphere. At the same time, as much as refugee resettlement remains largely discretionary, UNHCR has been very prolific in codifying its understanding of refugee resettlement into numerous guidelines and handbooks. Notwithstanding this corpus of soft law, because of this discretionary nature, but certainly also because of the multiplicity of actors involved in resettlement, what is to be understood as ‘proper refugee resettlement ‘remains contentious. Similarly, resettlement is surrounded by a multiplicity of narratives of accountability that needs to be unpacked.

Finally, attention must be paid to the coercive aspects of resettlement, especially in regards to the selection processes, given the lack of negotiating power that most refugees experience in the process. While there is an emergent scholarship on the micro-performative requirements of refugees and legal protection officers in the ‘humanitarian theatre’, more knowledge is needed about the machinery of refugee resettlement at the more local level, as a bureaucratic and social process both in states in which refugees are selected for resettlement and in resettling states. For example, misappropriation of soft law instruments (or just lack of use) can lead to distortion or non-implementation of refugee resettlement soft law. Such distance means that refugees who should be considered resettlement candidates are missing out. Not only is it an indication of how refugee resettlement involves power as coercion at the local level; this distortion has also an impact at the international level as it weakens UNHCR’s persuasive power.

In sum, we suggest developing a research agenda that, firstly, accounts for the complexity of refugee resettlement as an instrument of care and protection as much as an instrument of control enhancing or reproducing inequality; secondly, helps identify similarities and differences in the way practices and discourses of humanitarian governance are deployed at the micro- and the macro-level; and thirdly, furthers a much needed multidisciplinary conversation on refugee resettlement.


The blog post is based on a paper given to the 18th Nordic Migration Conference in Oslo August 12 2016 and forthcoming edited volume on resettlement and humanitarian governance under contract with Berghahn books. It was also published on the blog of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies.



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