The Role of Communities in Refugee Resettlement

'Volunteers can help address real problems facing refugees'

Asylum seekers from El Salvador and Honduras arrive in the US. The number of refugees permitted entry into the US shrank to new lows under the Trump administration. (Photo by ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images)

Asylum seekers from El Salvador and Honduras arrive in the US. The number of refugees permitted entry into the US shrank to new lows under the Trump administration. (Photo by ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images)

Among the high-profile anti-immigration policies that characterized the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency was a dramatic contraction in refugee resettlement in the United States. Under President Trump, the federal government instituted the lowest annual refugee admission ceilings of any administration to date, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Last week, the Biden administration shifted course on its earlier proposal to accept up to 62,500 refugees in the current fiscal year, but claims to support accepting up to 125,000 refugees in Fiscal Year 2022.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the humanitarian crisis facing the approximately 80 million refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced persons worldwide who find themselves living in limbo – faced with circumstances of violence, armed conflict, persecution, and natural disaster in their home countries that is then compounded by the challenges of crossing borders, the health dangers of overcrowded refugee camps, and the inhospitable nature of the refugee and asylum process under an openly hostile administration.

“The past year has heightened the challenges facing refugees and other displaced populations,” says Scott Harding, an associate professor with the UConn School of Social Work who studies forced migration and refugee resettlement. “There were already tens of millions of people in precarious situations, depending on where they lived, but COVID really made them more vulnerable. This has likely increased their vilification and outsider status – making it harder for them to get work, harder for them to be relocated, harder for them to be resettled.”

Following the decisions of the Trump administration, more than one third of local resettlement agencies closed their operations as refugee admissions into the country were slashed.

“Part of the reason many of these groups closed was because the number of refugees being resettled dropped so dramatically, and the federal government then said, ‘there’s no need for us to provide funding to groups that resettled fewer than 100 people in a given year,’” says Kathryn Libal, associate professor at the UConn School of Social Work  and director of UConn’s Human Rights Institute. “Under the Trump administration, there was a contraction of the broader ecosystem that was doing this work–something that people we’ve interviewed have said is a real concern. People who had knowledge, capacity, and experience have moved on to other jobs, and to get them to return could be a challenge.”

One way that Harding and Libal believe that capacity should be restored is with renewed focus on community sponsorship as a successful model for refugee resettlement.

Through community sponsorship, resettlement organizations work with community teams to help support refugees and connect them with resources as they start their lives in a new and wholly unfamiliar place. The community teams involve groups of volunteers – some who may be part of faith-based organizations, and others who are secular but just feel empowered to help. The community sponsorship teams work with refugees by helping them find employment, learn English, figure out where in the community they can do things like buy groceries or meet friends, and join them with other locals to help establish additional connections.

“Many volunteers in these efforts have deep connections in their community,” Harding says, “so they’re able to promote interaction between refugees and the local community – linking refugees to local institutions and services. This, in turn, ensures that there are more opportunities, more points of contact that refugees have to allow them to resettle, if not quicker than maybe in a more holistic, integrative way than if it’s happening just with the resettlement agency, whose resources are typically pretty stretched.”

Harding and Libal have lead a team of researchers, including S. Megan Berthold, associate professor in the UConn School of Social Work, and Grace Felten, a doctoral candidate in the same program, to study community sponsorship. They interviewed participants in community sponsorship programs in Connecticut and New York. Harding and Libal have contributed some of their findings to the book, Strangers to Neighbors: Refugee Sponsorship in Context, recently published by McGill-Queens University Press.

“Volunteers can help address real problems facing refugees,” says Harding. “They’re promoting community integration and self-sufficiency among refugees and allowing them to create social capital in their new environment, maybe in a way that would happen through the traditional model, but I think our research shows that community sponsorship allows it to happen in a broader and deeper way. These social networks that refugees typically form are essential for their ability to thrive.”

The positives of the model aren’t just for the refugees, though, says Libal – the community accrues benefits as well.

“Some of the critical insights that we’ve gained address the ways in which people who didn’t know each other before volunteering started to create ties with each other across faith organizations, between people of faith and those who are secular, between different kinds of businesses and local leadership within communities,” she says. “And these connections are also created horizontally between communities not only in Connecticut, but also New York and beyond. Volunteer groups reached out to other volunteer groups to find out what lessons the more experienced volunteer group two towns or even two states over had learned.”

Libal continues, “In some sense, we’ve found that community sponsorship has been a form of community building, not only between the community members and the newcomers, but also the community members who were there before the refugee family arrived.”

Partaking in a volunteer community sponsorship effort has also represented an opportunity for citizens to mobilize to action in order to counter policies that many see as unjust.

“It provides an opportunity to grapple with ideas of inclusion, anti-immigrant sentiment, racism, and xenophobia,” Libal says. “It offers a concrete way for community members to demonstrate solidarity with refugees.”

Critics of community sponsorship argue that it relieves the federal government of its responsibility for providing services and resources to refugees, and that it runs the risk of undermining resettlement agencies and their partners, giving policymakers a reason to move toward greater privatization of resettlement.

But Harding says that a number of resettlement organizations across the United States are interested in the community sponsorship model as a way of augmenting their capacity while providing those vital community connections to an increasing number of refugees.

“I think it makes sense, because average citizens, ordinary people, are seemingly more interested than before in trying to change their communities and trying to make their communities a better place. They are seeking to create a more holistic, functioning community that can address some of the larger systemic problems, like xenophobia, like racism, that have emerged in recent years in a way that an overwhelming majority of Americans reject,” he says. “So, I think there are signs that both organizations and community members are interested in trying to start these types of efforts in different communities.”

The need, especially in a global society still grappling with pandemic, is great.

In a paper recently published by the Journal of Human Rights and Social Work, Libal, Harding, and their coauthors – Berthold, Felten, and Marciana Popescu of Fordham University – detailed the extreme human rights challenges that forced migrants – including refugees and asylum seekers – are facing worldwide as the pandemic contributes greater strain to an already overburdened system.

In addition to entry restrictions into some countries that had previously been welcoming, refugees face “overt and covert forms of exclusion of migrants from labor markets due to rising unemployment and economic hardship, and implementing new deportation policies, as well as new exclusionary policies for immigrants who would have been authorized to work in past,” the researchers wrote. “Without concerted efforts to amplify solidarity with all forced migrants and ensure their human rights, discriminatory and restrictionist policies enacted in the Global North over the past decade will become entrenched.”

The United States can do more to help, Libal says.

“I think we need a much broader and more grounded conversation in the country about immigration and about where the United States is situated within the global community and what our capacity and our obligation is  to address global migration,” she says. “People are not going to be contained within nation-state borders, and it’s quite clear that global migration is going to be a critical issue that we grapple with in the coming decades.”

The United States should be working to address some of the root causes of forced migration and immigration, Harding says, as well as promoting socially just economic development policies, working to transform foreign policy, and addressing the impact of global climate change.

“But short term, medium term, we’re talking about tens of millions of people who are already displaced,” Harding says. “The US has to reform its immigration system, and the US needs to really decide how it’s going to participate in a global refugee resettlement system. Are we going to continue to be a leader or we’re going to turn our back on the most vulnerable people in the world, people who are fleeing different forms of persecution just because of who they are? Hopefully that’s not the case, and the US will be a leader in both respects.”