Commentary: Data on refugee resettlement is lacking

Resettling refugees has become harder to justify, but not for the reasons you may expect. Lost in the passionate rhetoric of lobbyists, politicians and humanitarian agencies are statistics and evidence.

Appeals to forestall resettlement efforts speak to fears of terrorists infiltrating refugee flows, notwithstanding evidence that suggests otherwise. Advocates of resettlement reference duty, morality and hospitality, but don’t provide compelling evidence to justify the financial and social strains resettlement places on host communities.

Proponents on both sides struggle to support their reasoning with evidence, and this is the real issue. The absence of consistent data collection and measurement by service providers and government agencies has impaired policy makers’ ability to craft effective policy. Furthermore, resettlement data is full of holes and redundancies because service delivery agencies do not coordinate their data collection efforts. Additionally, service providers are unable to answer basic questions about the effectiveness of their programs and current resettlement trends because their data are not structured in an analyzable format.

Standardizing refugee resettlement data collection could revolutionize the resettlement process. It would facilitate analysis, enabling service providers and those interested in refugee statistics to more easily understand what is happening in real time. This information would also enable service providers to better serve refugee communities and educate policymakers on current trends, potential issues and policy gaps.

Limited capacity to compare and assess resettlement outcomes is a serious concern for policymakers. Refugee resettlement providers function independently of one another. This lack of coordination leads to inefficient data collection, with each organization or agency formulating its own set of data standards and data collection practices. The resulting datasets contain information on resettlement outcomes, but are difficult to compare. The absence of standardization across agencies prevents policymakers from drawing conclusions more broadly.

Without meaningful data standards, agencies and organizations may struggle to evaluate their work and share information. Because funding is typically tied to defined performance or outcome measures, evaluation is a crucial element of program design. The absence of data standards makes evaluation problematic and makes comparisons across programs nearly impossible. The University of Utah’s Center for Research on Migration and Refugee Integration’s recently attempted to evaluate Catholic Community Services’ refugee case management program but was stymied before it even began because the case data were not collected in an analysis-friendly format; moreover, it is impossible to track refugee outcomes as individuals pass from one agency’s stewardship to another’s. Service providers and policymakers across the country face similar challenges.

Fortunately, there is a model for how this problem might be addressed. In 1993, state child welfare systems implemented centralized data collection. Federal funding enabled Statewide Child Welfare Information Systems to integrate all child welfare case management activities into one system for each state. State systems effectively streamlined case management recording procedures, removed redundancies in data collection processes and improved accessibility to all relevant information. These systems became more transparent, granting those interested greater access to information about program gaps, limitations and successes.

Data standardization can only happen if the United States’ Office of Refugee Resettlement takes the lead on this issue. Access to federal funding is already conditional on reporting to the office. The simple solution is this: tie federal funds to data standardization and formatting. The Office of Refugee Resettlement already has a comparative advantage in this department; it has both the resources and incentive to encourage the creation of a statewide data hub for refugee resettlement indicators. Moreover, if the office provides data standardization instruction — following the child welfare system example — then resettlement agencies can focus on what they do best, namely, service provision.

Taylor Elwood and Jessica Arthurs are researchers for the Center for Research on Migration and Refugee Integration; Lisa H. Gren is a professor of public health at the University of Utah; Caren J. Frost is a research professor of social work at the University of Utah and the director of the Center for Research on Migration and Refugee Integration.