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A New Era for U.S. Refugee Resettlement

Posted: 5 Aug 2005  

David A. Martin

University of Virginia School of Law


This essay appears in a volume dedicated to the memory of Arthur Helton, a leading scholar and activist on refugee issues, who was killed in the bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003. It sets forth some of the principal analysis from a lengthy report chartered by the U.S. State Department that critically examined this country's refugee resettlement program, which has encountered serious difficulties since September 11, 2001. A revised and updated version of the full report was published in book form in May 2005 by the Migration Policy Institute (The United States Refugee Admissions Program: Reforms for a New Era of Refugee Resettlement). The essay here discusses the overall context for refugee resettlement in the twenty-first century, noting why the program will have to operate differently from earlier eras, which were dominated by large, long-term resettlement flows from a limited number of locations, notably Vietnam and the former Soviet Union. Future resettlement will be marked by smaller resettlement initiatives drawn from a wide array of locations, reaching populations that will usually have to be processed in unstable or dangerous settings. The key offices in the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security will need to change their operations in response, to become more nimble at identifying appropriate initiatives and deploying officers to process the cases. This essay discusses the following key elements in the framework context for resettlement programs: pull factors, migration choices by refugees and potential refugees, host country reactions, and other political considerations, such as the impact of resettlement on other durable solutions; fraud, corruption and distortion; program complexity and sheer luck; and legal difficulties that apply when resettlement is tightly constrained by the definition set forth in the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.

JEL Classification: F22, H56, I30, K33

Suggested Citation

Martin, David A., A New Era for U.S. Refugee Resettlement. Columbia Human Rights Law Review, Vol. 36, pp. 299-321, Spring 2005. Available at SSRN:

David A. Martin (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States
434-924-3144 (Phone)
434-924-7536 (Fax)

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