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?

  • 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
    Jul 7, 2018 at 10:33
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    Why 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
    Jul 7, 2018 at 10:33
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    I 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.
    – user21424
    Jul 7, 2018 at 12:50
  • @SJuan76 I'm talking about all the programs combined. Right now the US accepts about 100 thousand refugees from abroad per year: pbs.org/newshour/nation/… Jul 7, 2018 at 14:54
  • @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. Jul 7, 2018 at 14:58

2 Answers 2


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.

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    Can 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?
    – user21424
    Jul 7, 2018 at 12:41
  • Can you reference the rules in question? Jul 7, 2018 at 14:17
  • @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: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – o.m.
    Jul 7, 2018 at 14:20
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    @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.
    Jul 7, 2018 at 15:16
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    @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.
    Jul 7, 2018 at 16:03

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.

  • Wouldn't it still be cheaper to just build a separate camp for the most vulnerable? Jul 7, 2018 at 15:29
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    Do 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
    Jul 7, 2018 at 15:32
  • @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
    Jul 8, 2018 at 2:40
  • @phoog often this doesn't work and the government has to support them for many years: skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/36957/…. Not to mention that taking people away from the region causes significant brain drain as the US and Canada carefully pick whom they accept. Jul 8, 2018 at 4:31
  • @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
    Jul 8, 2018 at 5:45

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