In 2016, Raghda *, who fled the Syrian civil war two years ago, thought that she could finally be on her way to finding a safe place to call home.
She had been given an interview appointment with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, but it was canceled the day before she was due to attend the agency’s interview with her husband and four children.
Four years later, it is still waiting for an update.
“I just want to get out of this situation,” she said to Al Jazeera. “I don’t care which country I’m relocated to as long as my family and I have a better life.”
Raghda is one of 26 million refugees around the world waiting for what the UNHCR calls a permanent solution to their displacement. She cannot return to Syria or stay permanently in Malaysia, which does not sign the UN Refugee Convention and does not provide a legal framework for refugees. Your chance of a new home in a third country – resettlement – also disappears.
While the number of refugees worldwide is at an all-time high, the 1.44 million who need to be resettled, according to UNHCR, far exceeds the options available.
According to Shabia Mantoo, UNHCR’s global spokesperson, fewer than 12,000 people have been relocated so far this year, which is likely to result in record numbers of resettlement.
Although coronavirus-induced travel bans have played a role, resettlement locations have declined since 2016 when more than 126,000 refugees were resettled worldwide. The annual number has not exceeded 65,000 since 2017.
A major factor is the dramatic cuts in resettlement in the United States under President Donald Trump. The US, which has been the world leader in refugee resettlement since 1980, will not be relocating more than 15,000 refugees in the coming fiscal year. That’s 3,000 fewer than last year, and the lowest refugee resettlement cap ever set by a US president.
Activists held a protest outside the US Capitol last year against the “decimation” of the US refugee resettlement program. The President has since cut the number of seats in the program even further [File: Olivier Douliery/AFP]Restrictive grants, coupled with this low resettlement cap and increasing bureaucratic barriers, will “exclude refugees from many of the world’s worst refugee crises,” Nazanin Ash, vice president of global politics and advocacy for the International Rescue Committee, told Al Jazeera.
The US isn’t the only country restricting resettlement, however. On October 10, Australia announced that it would reduce the number of people it wanted to take in to 13,750, down from 18,750 previously.
In 2019, the UNHCR and its partners launched a three-year strategy to improve resettlement opportunities and look for complementary paths, including family reunification, work and study paths. The agency’s mantoo told Al Jazeera that the resettlement countries had done this in order to meet the goals of the strategy to do more.
“Refugee resettlement depends on collective action from as many countries as possible,” she said. “The result of every resettlement in a country is another life at risk in the balance. The world can do better. “
Resettlement options are urgently needed for the 180,000 refugees registered with UNHCR in Malaysia who consider themselves a transit country rather than a permanent home.
Refugees in Malaysia are denied the right to work or access government services, including education, and have to pay foreigner medical fees many times higher than local fees, even with a 50 percent refugee discount. Those whose UNHCR status is often pending for years are considered undocumented and prone to arrest.
Refugees and asylum seekers often lead a precarious existence in Malaysia in which the international refugee convention is not recognized. In May, some were in COVID-19 lockdowns in the Kuala Lumpur neighborhood of Pudu, where many refugees live [Hasnoor Hussain/Al Jazeera]”I always recommend people not to come here, that life here is not so safe and it is difficult to earn an income, but people think that it is better to come here than to die,” said Dafer Sief, a Syrian community leader and lawyer in Kuala Lumpur. “[UNHCR] must put more pressure on to help refugees relocate … There must be a solution. “
Al Jazeera reached out to the UNHCR office in Malaysia for information on the average waiting time for interviews and Ragdha’s situation but had not received a response at the time of publication.
Those who have the option of relocation cannot choose a country, only decide whether to accept the option UNHCR offers them.
“Blessed to be here”
Today’s options differ significantly from those four years ago when former US President Barack Obama set the US resettlement cap at 110,000.
Seng Awng, an ethnic Kachin from Myanmar, received a surprise offer during his relocation interview in 2018.
“At that time, the United States didn’t take in that many refugees, so they did [UNHCR] Office only gave us the opportunity of [South] Korea, ”said Seng Awng, who spent ten years in Kuala Lumpur before moving to South Korea with his mother and three younger sisters. “We felt we could start a new life here. When the office asked us to settle here, we accepted it.”
Seng Awng’s family is one of six families relocated to South Korea this year, and among just over 200 refugees, almost all of Myanmar, who have been relocated since 2015 when the country became the world’s 29th resettlement Offered to refugees.
Upon arriving in Incheon, the family spent the next six months at a government-sponsored immigration center to study Korean language, culture, and society. The Korean government rented the family’s house in Gimpo, 10 miles west of Seoul, and Seng Awng found a job in a plastics factory. The relocation aid package included one year of rent and a six-month grant for groceries. Seng Awng has since found a new job at a steel mill, where he works 60 to 80 hours a week, including overtime.
Although he feels welcomed by the community, and especially the local church, Seng Awng says that life in Korea has been a challenge. “If you don’t have the will or courage to start a new life, I don’t really recommend it [resettling] here, ”he said to Al Jazeera.
The United States once took in thousands of refugees to start their lives over, but US President Donald Trump cut the number to the lowest ever [File: John Moore/Getty Images/AFP]But he is grateful that South Korea was ready to give him a home when so many other countries closed their doors. “I don’t think anyone should be a refugee, but in the meantime, I’m really glad that some countries are still helping refugees with relocation including Korea. I feel really blessed to be here.”
Meanwhile, Raghda’s family is facing a number of difficulties. Her 11-year-old son has a health condition that requires frequent hospital visits, for which she had to pay full alien expenses for two years until she was officially recognized as a refugee by the UNHCR.
Her husband works 80 hours a week in a restaurant to keep the family alive, while Raghda runs a small catering business from home and looks after her son, who is no special at the refugee community school she goes to Educational program is offered to three more children and that is run by a charity.
There are currently more than 3,200 refugees from Syria registered with UNHCR in Malaysia and, according to the agency, only 122 have been relocated to any country since 2017.
But since Raghda has nowhere else to go, he holds on to the hope of resettlement. “I want the chance to send my son to school,” she said. “I dream of leading a normal life like everyone else … that one day I will be a citizen in a country where I will feel at home.”
Wael Qarssifi contributed to this report.
* A pseudonym was used for Raghda to protect her safety.