You Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee: An Analysis of Selected Refugee Resettlement Programs to Improve Comprehensive Integration Outcomes in “Free Case“ Refugee Resettlement

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Wilhelm Bierman


Refugee integration is complicated to achieve and hard to measure. Part of the difficulty in measuring the success of integration is due to the lack of an universally-accepted definition of integration by the international community. In the United States, The Refugee Act of 1980 (“the Act”) was the first significant federal effort to enumerate principles of refugee resettlement assistance. Though never using the term “integration,” in discussing expectations for resettled refugees and the programs that would be provided to them, the Act noted refugees were expected to be “effective resettled as quickly as possible,” the indicator of which was—is—economic self-sufficiency. The Act established three programs in furtherance of those principles—employment training and placement, English-language training, and short-term, limited cash assistance. The expressed vision of the Act was to ensure refugees were “effectively.
Refugee integration, however, is more than just satisfactory achievement of structured economic benchmarks. To achieve true integration, refugees must achieve—and refugee resettlement programs must address—structural integration measures, such as employment and housing, and sociocultural integration through social inclusion and acculturation. For refugees that have family in the United States with which they will be resettled, adjustment and integration are made easier by that family’s existing community connections. However, for “free case” refugees—those refugees that have no familial ties to the United States and are wholly dependent on their local resettlement agency caseworkers for assistance—obstacles to comprehensive integration are far more likely and challenging. These “free case” refugees are at a heightened risk for resettlement failure, as they lack any pre-existing familial network to assist with acclimating to the United States and will be placed in a location chosen for them by one of nine assigned volunteer agencies (VOLAGs). Identifying those resettlement programs that have shown success in refugee integration—beyond simple metrics of employment, education, and housing—will provide valuable information for policy recommendations for the United States’ Refugee Admission Program (USRAP).
All local resettlement programs must provide a baseline of local services that mirror the requirements outlined in The Refugee Act of 1980: employment assistance, English language courses, and limited cash assistance to assist refugees in their first months in the United States. Accordingly, VOLAGs and local resettlement organizations focus on ensuring refugees find employment, once they are resettled. A 2017 case study in the journal Forced Migration Review, however, notes refugees resettled in the U.S. identified English-language acquisition as their most important goal, while cultural preservation held varying importance, depending on the refugee population interviewed. This incongruity in prioritization of needs that must be met to best promote integration must be considered in establishing effective resettlement programs “that [bridge] the gap between policy and the lived experience of integration, taking distinct cultural considerations into account in the formation of new policies and practices.”
Local resettlement programs are not uniform nationwide. They are limited only by funding and resources as to what they can offer refugees. Accordingly, quality of programs that seek to go beyond the baseline provision of employment services and housing assistance vary greatly, as do their measures of success. This thesis looks beyond traditional measures of success—employment, housing, and education—and conducts case studies of resettlement programs that achieved free case refugee integration success in other measures, namely reduced refugee secondary migration—the volitional movement by refugees after resettlement to another location, forsaking the resettlement program designated to assist with their resettlement—and a high percentage of refugees reporting strong satisfaction with their resettlement program and a favorable sense of wellbeing, elements of each program that contributed to those positive outcomes were identified.
Two local resettlement programs were examined, a twenty-four-month Extended Case Management (ECM) program in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a traditional program in Utica, New York. Salt Lake City recognized that six months of resettlement services was inadequate to address the needs of most refugees, so it created an extended refugee case management (ECM) system. Over the two-year duration of the program, refugees reported increasing levels of positivity towards their wellbeing and the work of the resettlement agency in each successive interview. Of greatest significance, perhaps, is that the majority of refugees’ assessments of their own wellbeing did not move from “very bad” or “bad” to “good” or “very good” until the 12 to 24 month range, suggesting that the integratory benefits of a robust resettlement program are not realized in the first few months after a refugee arrives in the U.S., but subsequent to the first year of arrival.
Utica, New York, did not have a particularly novel or lengthy resettlement program. What Utica did have—as a result of a long history of refugee migration and entrepreneurial success—was extensive, robust community support and involvement, taking up the lions’ share of work from the local resettlement organization. As of 2017, the percentage of Utica residents that are foreign-born was 19.4 percent. Even some refugees originally resettled in other locations in the United States have secondarily migrated to Utica, as evidenced by the MVRCR’s notice that it offers employment and other resettlement services to secondary migration refugees.
Beyond the United States, Denmark’s refugee resettlement program was studied, in particular the “Integration Contract” component that obligates refugees to stay in the location of initial resettlement for three years as part of acceptance for resettlement, and in furtherance of Denmark’s “spatial dispersal” policy—one component of the country’s “Nordic values” integration program. The program also requires satisfactory completion of mandatory Danish language and cultural integration courses, before refugees are expected to seek and obtain employment. As of 2019, fifteen years after initial placement in locales throughout Denmark, seventy-five percent of refugees are still in their location of original placement. Though somewhat draconian in nature, the three-year location stay requirement appears to have largely achieved its goal.
Based on the three programs studied, two recommendations were made for inclusion in the USRAP for free case refugee resettlement. The first is a requirement that local resettlement programs be extended to a minimum two-year duration, as in Salt Lake City, Utah. Even if the programs offered are not of the highest caliber, continuing contact and assistance to refugees beyond one year has been shown to have a remarkably positive effect. The second recommendation is implementation of an obligatory three-year requirement to remain in the initial resettlement location, similar to the Danish Integration Contract model. Though enforcement would be problematic, if the agreement could be sufficiently incentivized—perhaps extending program assistance and services for the full three years—it might make secondary migration less attractive to free case refugees.
In conclusion, refugee integration continues to be a significant homeland security concern. Statutorily, the U.S. looks no further than employment and economic self-sufficiency, in assessing the integration of refugees. This is a flawed measure. A more comprehensive definition of integration, to include sociocultural integration, needs to be considered and agreed upon as an industry standard. Adopting the recommendations outlined above into U.S. refugee resettlement policies would ensure that free case refugee integration—under a new, comprehensive definition of integration—results more often and more consistently.

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