'What are their coping mechanisms?' How the UN assesses refugees

UN officials cross-check asylum seekers' stories and use iris scans to compile a data bank of those eligible for resettlement. But the two main determinants, Susan Ormiston reports, are human need and strength of character for starting over in a new country.

Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan expected to send the bulk of Syria's refugees to Canada

UN helping refugees in Lebanon

8 years ago
Duration 1:35
Susan Ormiston has an inside look at how the UNHCR processing centre works in Beirut

The reception centre for the UN High Commission for Refugees in Beirut is closely guarded. Half a dozen armed security officials patrol as refugees group outside clutching their registration papers.

A universal plea to anyone who will listen is "Help me," or for some, "Pick me."

As visiting journalists, we are approached one after another by people desperate to get out of Lebanon and into Canada or Europe, to end their years of homelessness.

Not just Syrians, Sudanese and Iraqis, too.

"Sometimes people just need to tell their stories," says Dana Sleiman, a spokesperson for the Beirut UNHCR.

"They have to pledge not to work in the country, they pay prohibitive fees to renew their temporary residence here. Sometimes they just come to say they're not able to survive and ask for help."

This place is a one-stop trauma centre for problems, whether health, schooling or debt.

It's also where fateful decisions are made about who will get a chance at a new life, in a new country.

Assembling files for Canada

"It's extremely difficult, the decision that all the staff will have to make every day, about who gets resettlement and who doesn't," says Angela Murru, a senior resettlement officer.

She is currently assembling files to hand over to Canada, the names of those who are ready to go to Toronto, or Montreal, for good.

She makes choices based on "vulnerability," a complex set of characteristics that assess those who are most at risk but at the same time strong enough to cope with life in a new country.

"How are they surviving now? What are their coping mechanisms? Are their children going to school? These are the kinds of things we look at."

Angela Murra, a senior resettlement officer with the UNHCR in Beirut, says it won't be difficult to fill Canada's quota of 25,000 refugees. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

She can refer to the UNHCR Resettlement Handbook, but her experience and instincts, she feels, are a more sure guide.

"Our role really is to find those who are most vulnerable, and that's our aim. Not everybody will be able to be resettled."

A refugee, in fact, cannot apply to be resettled. The process actually works in reverse.

UNHCR staff or other front-line workers who come in contact with refugees refer the names of those who are at risk or who need to be resettled.

They use standard UNHCR global criteria — like what are these individuals' medical needs, for example. Are they women at risk or victims of torture? Family ties are also considered.

"When we look into resettlement, the aim is really to try and ensure the people are able to integrate well, that they have a support system," says Murru.

So family ties are also something that is taken into consideration.

Bio information and iris scans

Murru is a veteran who has pored over many difficult cases, and prides herself on making the right fit between refugees and receiving countries.

UNHCR does the initial screening in these cases, taking biographical information and using iris scans.

They interview candidates about such things as where they came from, why they left and what they were doing during the war, and then they cross-check that with what officials learn from others who have dealt with these individuals.

All the information goes into a large database.

A sick child is taken by her mom to the UN High Commission for Refugees in Beirut. It is a one-stop shop for almost every sort of problem that the asylum seekers are experiencing. (CBC)

Once approved by UNHCR, names are referred to countries such as Canada who are willing to sponsor refugees.

Canada will then do its own checks. These will also be biographical, but there will also be more rigorous cross-checking with security databases.

Prospective refugees will also have to pass a medical test and, finally, the Lebanese government has to provide an exit visa.

So far, Murru can't confirm how many Syrian refugees Canada wants from Lebanon.

She says that depends how many Turkey will send. Jordan could contribute up to 10,000 of those to be resettled in Canada; the rest of the 25,000 would probably come from here in Lebanon. She expects the answer soon.

"Can we get it done? Yes definitely we can identify a sufficient number of vulnerable cases that would qualify for the Canadian program."

Clearly, there is no shortage to draw from. Lebanon is sagging under the weight of supporting some 1.2 million refugees officially. The actual number is said to be higher.

Helping refugee children

8 years ago
Duration 1:30
Derek Stoffel describes the lengths NGOs go to in order to help educate and entertain refugee children in Lebanon

Many of these asylum seekers have been in Lebanon, in temporary settlements, for three and four years now.

"They've depleted all their resources", says Sleiman.

"In my experience, every refugee I've met here said their number one wish is to go back to Syria."

"But as the war drags on they realize this is not a very tangible option for them, and many more want to leave because the conditions in Lebanon for refugees are unbearable."


Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.