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A More Coherent Refugee Policy

There are hidden costs to America’s resettlement programs.

(Mohammad Bash/Shutterstock)

The United States has launched a number of resettlement and parole programs in recent years for people from Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Venezuela. These initiatives are intended to mitigate human suffering by providing assistance for vulnerable people to move from conflict zones to the U.S., where they can enjoy safety and freedom.

Programs such as “Uniting for Ukraine” or “Operation Allies Welcome” for Afghans have been applauded as “groundbreaking and life-saving process[es]”—though experts admit these initiatives have unfair and poorly coordinated aspects. Through these programs, hundreds of thousands of people have arrived in the U.S. for theoretically temporary, though sometimes permanent, protection.


Whatever these programs’ virtues, though, it is high time to face the grim reality: The practice of resettlement and mass parole is unsustainable. In addition, such approaches harm the refugees' countries of origin.

To highlight the limits of these initiatives, we may analyze the current crisis in Sudan. After years of failed negotiations, the two strong men of the country, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, launched an armed struggle for power that has plunged Sudan into a full-scale civil war. The diplomatic efforts of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other actors have not achieved any kind of durable solution so far.

With the warring parties regularly breaking ceasefire agreements, the country is spiraling into chaos. According to the majority of experts, the belligerents are not ready to settle the conflict by negotiation because both Dagalo and al-Burhan believe that they can achieve victory on the battlefield. Therefore, the fighting continues in Khartoum and in the countryside.

But even before the civil war broke out in mid-April, a dire humanitarian situation already existed in Sudan because of the Covid-19 pandemic, regional conflicts such as the Tigray War in Ethiopia, and the global food crisis stemming from the war in Ukraine. More than one million refugees from neighboring states were living in Sudan and 3.7 million internally displaced persons were living far from their homes within the country. Among the 47 million citizens of the east African state, 19 million were projected to suffer from food insecurity in early 2023.

Since April, the humanitarian situation in Sudan has further deteriorated. An additional 1.2 million people have been internally displaced, while 425,000 others had fled the country by the end of May. If this trend continues, which seems likely, the number of people fleeing Sudan will quickly surpass the former UNHCR estimate of about 800,000 potential refugees. In addition, 25 million people need urgent humanitarian assistance in the country.


Thus there are more and more calls for the Western world to welcome Sudanese refugees with open arms, as the West did for those escaping the conflict in Ukraine. And because new legal pathways to do so are still lacking for Sudanese refugees, activists accuse the West of racism and double standards.

It seems inconsistent that Washington has welcomed Afghans, Ukrainians, Haitians, and Venezuelans in different resettlement and parole programs, but not the Sudanese. While European countries like Poland, Hungary, and Romania can argue that they are the first safe countries for Ukrainians fleeing the war, and that the distribution of refugees within the E.U. is part of European solidarity, it is hard for the U.S. to make a similar argument.

But, of course, we could mention other countries besides Sudan: Somalia, where the drought and the jihadist insurgency has pushed 6.3 million people to the brink of starvation; or Burkina Faso, where similar drivers have displaced 1.2 million people, with an additional 3.3 million citizens estimated to be facing acute food insecurity.

The list could continue: Mali, Niger, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique—a few examples just from Africa. All around the globe, hundreds of millions of people in crisis zones are facing similar situations to the citizens of Ukraine and Venezuela. Is the United States ready to resettle them as well? If not, how can Washington avoid the accusation of double standards and racism?

The United States cannot host tens of millions of people in need, and selecting some of them and not others will always be perceived as unfair and biased—even as the refugee program itself invites massive fraud. Before the U.S. launches a brand new “Uniting for Sudan” or “Brotherhood for Mali” initiative to admit hundreds of thousands of refugees from war-torn Africa, it is high time to end ad hoc and unsustainable practices and turn towards more durable solutions.

Washington should focus on supporting local assistance, as is happening in Somalia, where the U.S. is providing shelters and food in the Mogadishu-controlled safe areas for millions of Somalis. We see another example in the Dadaab refugee settlement in Kenya, where UNA-USA works to ensure that children in the camp have access to education. These are simpler and more cost-effective means of support that reach more vulnerable people than huge resettlement programs, available to a rich and generous country like the U.S.

Local solutions can also avoid promoting national brain-drain. Even if people fleeing conflicts around the world only get temporary protection in the U.S. instead of refugee status with easy green card access, it is unlikely that they will ever return to their home countries. The majority will stay in the Western hemisphere, depriving their countries of valuable human resources that could facilitate national rebuilding.

The United States and its allies are right to help mitigate human suffering around the world. But to provide protection and support for more people in need, it is Washington’s responsibility to American citizens and the desperate people they help to find cost-effective, local alternatives to expensive resettlement programs.