Abstract: The Unsettling Resettlement of Refugee Women: An Analysis of Refugee Resettlement Submission Categories (Society for Social Work and Research 20th Annual Conference - Grand Challenges for Social Work: Setting a Research Agenda for the Future)

The Unsettling Resettlement of Refugee Women: An Analysis of Refugee Resettlement Submission Categories

Friday, January 15, 2016: 4:30 PM
Ballroom Level-Renaissance Ballroom West Salon A (Renaissance Washington, DC Downtown Hotel)
* noted as presenting author
Karin E. Wachter, MEd, Doctoral Student & Project Director, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Background and Purpose: As individuals, refugees must meet the requirements for submission under one of seven resettlement categories in order for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to submit a case to a resettlement country for consideration. While women can be considered for resettlement under any of the seven categories, there are two categories under which they are often considered: 1) Women and Girls at Risk and 2) Survivor of Violence and/or Torture. The UNHCR defines women-at-risk as “women who have protection problems particular to their gender and lack effective protection normally provided by male family members” (UNHCR, 2011, p. 263, italics added).However, the category is widely understood within UNHCR as synonymous with “single woman and single mother.” These policies guide how refugee women are categorized in the process of being identified, recommended and accepted for resettlement to the US, and thereby set the course for women’s resettlement experiences upon arrival to the U.S.

Methods: As part of a recent qualitative study conducted in 3 U.S. cities (N=58) that focused on the experiences of Congolese “women-at-risk” resettling in the U.S., we critically analyzed the policies and practices that shape the decision-making process to recommend refugee women for resettlement from a feminist perspective.

Results: Overseas resettlement officers shared their expectations that designations trigger specific services and support for refugees upon arrival to the US, revealing the seriousness with which they weigh category assignments. They described using the survivor of torture/violence category for those refugees who require “psychological support” and who require “more services in the resettlement country.” Women-at-risk were defined as needing “more economic support” than other refugees upon arrival in the resettlement country. However, the reality is that refugee women have intersecting experiences with violence/torture and vulnerabilities/risks that cut across categories, and necessitate a host of service needs and support that reflect those experiences. Furthermore, the woman-at-risk definition negates the reality that a male partner’s abuse of power and control in the household can often increase the risks women face to their physical, emotional and economic well-being; the complex reality is that both protective and risk factors can also be at play simultaneously. U.S.-based resettlement agencies often do not receive notification of a specific designation, and attempt to identify prior to arrival to the U.S. specific needs and vulnerabilities based on limited biographical information provided.

Conclusions and Implications: No matter how thoughtfully refugees are assessed and recommended under specific categories, these assignments quickly lose meaning in the resettlement process. This study and policy analysis reveals that the vulnerabilities that position women for resettlement under the women-at-risk category are not explicitly stated or shared in resettlement processing procedures, not adequately addressed through standard resettlement programming, and potentially exacerbated upon the women’s arrival in the U.S. This paper will discuss implications of these resettlement policies in practice and will offer recommendations for change.