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When “Self-Sufficiency” Is Not Sufficient: How the American Refugee Resettlement System Fails to Protect and Fulfill Refugees’ Social and Economic Rights

Renfroe, SaraJane

The American refugee resettlement program’s stated goal within the 1980 Refugee Act is to help refugees achieve “economic self-sufficiency... as quickly as possible.”1 The Act is the genesis and primary policy source of the current resettlement system. Through constructing self-sufficiency along economic terms and limiting the reception and placement program to ninety days, the Act creates a definition of economic self-sufficiency attainable for case workers and refugees along this short timeline, effectively defining the program’s main goal to be job placement, rather than career or sustainable employment support.2 This implementation begs the question: What are the effects of this policy goal on the implementation of resettlement in the United States, and how does this impact refugees’ social and economic rights? In what follows, I consider this question, as well as its relevant counterpart: Does the resettlement system facilitate refugees’ integration into American society? To respond, I interrogate the American refugee resettlement system’s ability to protect and fulfill refugees’ economic and social rights in the United States. I define these rights as they are described in the 1967 Protocol to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the U.S.’s 1980 Refugee Act.

Over a period of six months, I engaged case workers and refugees (n=11) in interviews to examine their experiences with the resettlement program, and to ask their thoughts on the “success” of the current resettlement system. By broadly framing success, I created space for interviewees to determine their own indicators, and this demonstrates important limitations of the American resettlement system with implications for the protection of refugees’ rights. All of my interviewees presented structural critiques of the current resettlement system and critiqued its ability to facilitate refugee “self-sufficiency,” which they defined differently than the rather limited definition in the 1980 Refugee Act. This critique also arose often in resettlement literature focused on the American system, and through putting my research and relevant research into conversation together, I assert that the current system fails to adequately protect and fulfill refugees’ economic and social rights in the United States, outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol, and other international human rights conventions.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Institute for the Study of Human Rights
Thesis Advisors
Dragomir, Cristina I.
Degree
M.A., Columbia University
Published Here
August 25, 2020