Why do the US and Canada accept asylum seekers on their soil rather than funding refugee camps abroad?


Refugee camps in countries like Syria are significantly overpopulated and stretched for funds. Taking care of a person there costs a fraction of what it takes to care for a refugee in a developed country. However, for some reason Canada and the US invite a significant number of refugees every year to settle on their soil. This makes sense in Europe as it shares a land border with several volatile regions (and therefore unable to stop the inflow), however North America is surrounded by a vast ocean which makes it possible to exert full control over immigration from outside the American continent.

So why don't Canada and the US redirect their funding to refugee camps abroad? Wouldn't it let them take care of a much larger number of people?


Posted 2018-07-07T06:12:02.123

Reputation: 36 466

Are you talking about the UNHCR resettlement program? If not, could you specify what do you mean by "invite a significant number of refugees"? – SJuan76 – 2018-07-07T10:33:21.083

3Why would land-border lead to the invitation "making sense" for Europe? Also, I'm not sure 20-30 thousand (for Canada, less for the US) are "significant numbers" on a national scale - some EU cities appear to house more Syrian refugees than these two nations combined. – janh – 2018-07-07T10:33:59.503

1I have seen estimates from a variety of sources. I just Googled how much do refugee camps cost. The usual claim is ten times as much to settle a refugee in the west as to give them temporary shelter locally. Including such things as schools and hospitals in the camps. So that "not sure... on a national scale" 20 to 30 thousand means 200,000 to 300,000 not getting cared for locally. I think that requires an explanation. – None – 2018-07-07T12:50:19.120

@SJuan76 I'm talking about all the programs combined. Right now the US accepts about 100 thousand refugees from abroad per year: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/u-s-prepared-accept-100000-refugees-2017

– JonathanReez – 2018-07-07T14:54:55.143

@janh because it's extremely hard to stop people from crossing your land border. The US has been unable to stop South Americans from entering illegally and likewise Europe is unable to stop Asian/African asylum seekers from coming. – JonathanReez – 2018-07-07T14:58:11.277

PLEASE BE SPECIFIC. The link you provided only seems to talk about the UNHCR resettlement program. There is any other program that must be considered for the answer? – SJuan76 – 2018-07-07T15:03:54.137

@SJuan76 I'm not aware of other programs but if they exist, they can be included in the answer. The exact mechanisms behind how the program works are irrelevant, only the final outcome (refugees on North American soil) matters. – JonathanReez – 2018-07-07T15:05:47.510

@JonathanReez It's not "hard", it's a political decision. However, you talked about the invitation, that, for example, Germany has extended instead of helping on location. Inviting immigration is different from "we cannot control a border", and I was wondering about the "makes sense" part you mentioned - or did you mean something along the lines of "it's understandable that Europe doesn't try to control migration because of the proximity and terrain"? – janh – 2018-07-07T16:18:22.027

@janh Europe directly resettles very very few people. Most asylum seekers cross the border illegally and then apply for refugee status. In contrast, it would be extremely hard for anyone from outside of North America to illegally cross into the US. – JonathanReez – 2018-07-07T16:27:03.173

@Jonathan, your source is from 2015 (pre-trump). Please find a more contemporary citation. – BobE – 2018-07-07T19:03:29.253

It probably costs less to accept someone to come into the US to work and pay taxes than it does to pay for their subsistence as they sit and do nothing in a camp in the middle of the desert. Refugees who settle in the US probably result in a net gain for the country rather than a net cost. – phoog – 2018-07-08T02:37:31.950

@phoog if there are statistics to back this up, that would be a great answer! – JonathanReez – 2018-07-08T04:32:31.770



After World War II, most civilized countries agreed on basic standards for the treatment of refugees. Disgraces like the voyage of the MS St. Louis were not supposed to happen again. Each refugee has the right to get his claims checked in the first "safe" country in accordance with the rule of law.

The standards would be chiefly the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, including the right of the refugee of non-refoulement.

Arguably, the intention of those standards was to handle a repeat of the Nazi persecutions, or perhaps non-communist intellectuals trying to make it through the Iron Curtain. Most of those who wrote the conventions were thinking of thousands or tens of thousands of refugees from the first world and the second world, not millions from the third world. (Racist? Sure. Those were the times.)

As the bad conscience from WWII fades, many countries have been trying to modify their rules to try and keep refugees out. They have been trying to make it difficult for refugees to make it into the country to request asylum. But on paper they're still signatory to the various conventions. So asylum claims must still be processed.

This leads to weird effect like European countries granting asylum to Turkish citizens, and sending other refugees back to Turkey.

Specifically on your question, subsidizing refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, or Turkey would not absolve the states from their duty to evaluate each individual asylum request.

Oh, and the US does not invite a significant number of Syrian refugees.


Posted 2018-07-07T06:12:02.123

Reputation: 49 884

2Can you remind me of what those duties are? After all, you mention 'the first "safe" country' rule. For what countries is Canada the first "safe" country that a refugee would arrive in? – None – 2018-07-07T12:41:37.853

Can you reference the rules in question? – Paul Johnson – 2018-07-07T14:17:41.520

@puppetsock, what you mention is at the core of the inner-EU problem, too. A refugee would have to take a boat or aircraft to make it to Canada, and these days airlines are usually required to pre-check visa. That means countries next to the crisis are left holding the bag. Re the duties, see Wikipedia for a starter: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convention_Relating_to_the_Status_of_Refugees

– o.m. – 2018-07-07T14:20:26.690

Do international treaties obligate Canada and the US to actually invite someone from abroad, rather than requiring one to physically show up on their soil first? If so, which treaty would that be? – JonathanReez – 2018-07-07T15:00:10.767

@JonathanReez, as I understand it they have to wait until the ship arrives to claim asylum. Except that the US does their best to stop them from getting into US-bound ships. – o.m. – 2018-07-07T15:02:45.100

Correct, so why would the US turn around and willingly invite someone into the country after going through all the trouble of stopping them from getting in? Why not send that money abroad instead? – JonathanReez – 2018-07-07T15:03:54.333

1@JonathanReez, remember how things turned out in Europe? (1) Germany pushes for the Dublin III regulation, which leaves Greece and Italy responsible for most of the refugees. (2) Greece and Italy point out that they can't really cope any more. (3) Greece is literally overwhelmed and refugees march north-west. (4) Refugee camps in the Budapest rail station. (5) Germany agrees to process refugees it was not responsible for under Dublin, provided they manage to walk to Germany. A total mess, triggered not least by the Germany's refusal to replace Dublin with a more equitable solution. – o.m. – 2018-07-07T15:16:00.190

Yes, which presents a perfect opportunity for the US to build a new refugee camp in Greece and help them out. – JonathanReez – 2018-07-07T15:20:07.757

1@JonathanReez, a cynic might see a pattern: The US brings enough force to topple a secular dictatorship, but not enough force to support the democratic opposition in the subsequent civil war. The religious fanatics mess the place up. And the EU is left with the humanitarian crisis. Supposedly Powell told Bush: "If you break it, you own it." – o.m. – 2018-07-07T16:03:41.077

This explains nothing about the EU situation, since nearly all migrants pass through (multiple) safe countries to get to Europe. – janh – 2018-07-07T16:19:47.063

@janh, those transit countries don't exactly go out of their way to settle refugees, and calling some of them "safe" is a stretch, too. – o.m. – 2018-07-07T17:57:02.537

@o.m. I totally agree: not all are safe, but some are. Them not welcoming immigration doesn't change the fact that "the first safe country" had been reached. – janh – 2018-07-07T18:48:14.583

@janh, that brings me back to the initial point of my answer. 80 years ago, the "civilized" nations refused to take in Jews fleeing from Germany, claiming that somebody else -- anybody else -- should take them. 70 years ago, the civilized nations were sorry and vowed never again. Today, the "civilized" nations do their best to avoid taking in Muslims who flee the sectarian civil wars. I wonder how the next generation will look at us ... – o.m. – 2018-07-08T11:44:57.033

@o.m. Ah yes, "muslims are the jews of today". Thanks, I don't think I can discuss anything when this point has been reached. – janh – 2018-07-08T15:43:12.480

@janh, humans are humans and humans in Syria are murdered on a massive scale. Don't you have a problem with that? – o.m. – 2018-07-08T16:57:38.400

@o.m. No EU immigration policy will change Syria's fate. It will only accelerate the problems in Europe. If you want to help Syria, ask your local politicians to stop trying to "bring democracy" to the middle east. Let Libya be a warning, not a blue print. – janh – 2018-07-08T17:27:15.803

@janh, either that or ask them to do it right if they try it. I believe that "bringing democracy" while deposing dictators can be done, but not on a budget. Rumsfeld screwed up with his initial troop levels in Iraq and the anarchy lasted decades and spread widely. It would have been possible to prevent the breakdown of law and order with enough troops. But back to the question you raised. Do you doubt that the 1951 convention was directly caused by the fate of the pre-WWII refugees (many of them Jews)? And how do the Aquarius and the Lifeline differ from the St. Louis? – o.m. – 2018-07-09T05:30:37.713

@o.m. If you want to "bring" democracy, prepare for 100 years of occupation and suppression of local culture. Otherwise, don't try. The refugee conventions were a result of WWII, and they were not "refugees must be provided with safe passage to a country of their choice", but talked about the first safe country for good reasons. The EU situation is about migration, not asylum. Fleeing from war in Syria to Turkey is for safety. Migrating on to Germany or Sweden is for prosperity. – janh – 2018-07-09T06:33:11.393

@janh, you are right that spreading democracy would be hard work, but I don't believe it would take a century. Regarding Turkey, it is safer than Syria, but refugees from Turkey are getting asylum in ever increasing numbers. – o.m. – 2018-07-09T15:12:41.773


The USA and Canada do fund refugee camps abroad1. Resettlement is for cases when the camps are not the solution

The UNHCR resettlement program aims at protecting the most vulnerable refugees by moving them to safe countries.

From the link:

RESETTLEMENT: The careful selection by governments -for purposes of lawful and secure admission- of the most vulnerable refugees who can neither return to their home country nor live in safety in their current host country.

Getting to a refugee camp is not always a safe solution, as a refugee camp is just a temporal solution and some cathegories of refugees may need further help:

  • specially vulnerable people (e.g. children without relatives) may be at risk.

  • people with health conditions may not be able to stand living in campaign tents for long.

  • some people may be targetted by the host country or even from the same camp.

  • etc.

So people who are evaluated to be in those cathegories2 are refered to the resettlement program. Once in the resettlement program, their data is passed to possible host countries who decide if they allow for their resettlement.

Apart from that, there could be sometimes some specific resettlements due to political reasons. For example, during the Vietnam War the Hmong people helped the USA, and after the end of the war the USA accepted the resettlement of considerable quantities of Hmong people (I do not know if through the UNHCR program or independently from it)3.

1Mostly through the UNHCR, jointly with other countries.

2There are other restrictions, like Persons found to have committed serious crimes or who might pose a threat to other would not be refered for resettlement to another country, and I guess the evaluation is way more complicated than what the linked data tells.

3Here there is not only the humanitarian side but (probably) the political side of showing support for your former ally so your other allies trust you more.


Posted 2018-07-07T06:12:02.123

Reputation: 24 682

Wouldn't it still be cheaper to just build a separate camp for the most vulnerable? – JonathanReez – 2018-07-07T15:29:11.730

1Do you really want to discuss the logistics of providing support to hundreds of thousands of displaced people and to compare the effectivenes of the different alternatives in the coments of an SE answer (and that is without taking into account that every situation will probably be different)? I think we will run out of space, and the subject is complex enough to require some expert knowledge and no to rely in "I think that maybe if" guesswork... Also, do you think that governments would be accepting resettlements if there was a magic, cheaper system that was effective enough? – SJuan76 – 2018-07-07T15:32:47.773

@JonathanReez How is building a refugee camp cheaper than bringing someone to the US where they can work and pay their own rent, not to mention taxes? Admittedly my sample is neither random nor statistically significant, but I know probably two dozen former refugees who settled in Canada and the US, and all of them pay a good deal in taxes. – phoog – 2018-07-08T02:40:29.293

@phoog often this doesn't work and the government has to support them for many years: https://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/36957/are-90-of-middle-eastern-refugees-on-food-stamps-in-the-united-states. Not to mention that taking people away from the region causes significant brain drain as the US and Canada carefully pick whom they accept.

– JonathanReez – 2018-07-08T04:31:18.940

@JonathanReez where do you get "many years"? The data cited there concerns only those who have been in the country for less than five years. – phoog – 2018-07-08T05:45:59.743

@phoog I'm not aware of sources for more recent data. Do you have any for refugees from outside of North America? – JonathanReez – 2018-07-08T18:38:48.327

@JonathanReez it's not that the data are old, it's that they stop tracking people once they've been in the country for five years. So yes, sure, they get some government help for the first few years, and then after a while they establish themselves in a career with six-figure annual incomes. That is how my friends and acquaintances have fared, at least. – phoog – 2018-07-08T22:58:43.267

@phoog Sergei Brin came as a "refugee" and is now worth 10 figures. Not a very representative scenario though :) – JonathanReez – 2018-07-08T23:59:53.003

@JonathanReez the Brin family's initial immigration status not at all clear, but I don't see any indication that they were refugees. The Wikipedia article says that they left the Soviet Union with exit visas. – phoog – 2018-07-09T11:29:37.153