Opening the black-box of refugee resettlement to Germany: The agency of Syrian refugees and frontline workers in resettlement practices

In times of unprecedented high numbers of forcibly displaced persons in the world, refugee resettlement, where persons are directly transferred to a state that has agreed to permanently host them, provides a durable solution for refugees to live their lives in dignity and peace. However, given that the number of persons in need for resettlement largely exceeds the number of resettlement quota, only a few selected refugees are offered resettlement places. Being admitted for resettlement is thus widely considered a ‘gift’ for the selected refugees while they themselves have no say in the outcome of the selection process, for instance with regards to their destination country. 

Still, refugees exert agency within the resettlement process, most notably when they need to decide if they want to accept or reject an offered resettlement place. Although many refugees gladly receive the offered ‘gift’, some resettling states are repeatedly faced with situations where selected refugees reject their resettlement place or drop out of the process before being resettled. This leads to various problems for the concerned refugees who are faced with deadlock as well as the involved resettling states whose resettlement quota may not be met. To be able to set up new (cost) efficient resettlement programmes or to improve existing ones, it is thus important to consider the refugee’s expectations and aspirations for their resettlement and their ability to negotiate and influence the resettlement process.

In addition, refugees to not exert agency in a vacuum, but they are enabled or constrained by structures and by the agency of actors they engage with, most notably frontline workers who implement resettlement programmes. Focusing on a case study of Syrian refugees, the dissertation will thus analyse the agency of refugees and frontline workers who are responsible for the implementation of German refugee resettlement programmes. Bridging disciplines with regards to theory and methodology, the dissertation will rely on participant observations and semi-structured in-depth interviews with resettled refugees and frontline workers. In doing so, the dissertation sets out to advance theory on the agency of people with very limited (power) resources in the field of forced migration and on the local negotiation processes between refugees and implementing actors in resettlement practices.