Numbers out of the air — How do countries decide how many refugees to take?

Alex Jean
3 min readMar 23, 2022


This week, the Globe and Mail in Canada published a poll showing that most Canadians were willing to take the same number (70,000) or more Ukrainian refugees as Syrian refugees. That’s nice, but where did the number 70,000 come from in the first place? The answer is, nowhere. Refugee caps are based on previous refugee caps and that’s about it.

Sure, you’ll hear governments claim that refugee caps are based on the ability of “the system” to handle the numbers, or that they are based on the needs of the crisis, or some other metric. (The population of Syria is around 17 million. The population of Ukraine, 44 million. Does this matter? Of course not.) The honest truth is that if a government took in X number of refugees in the past, it will probably continue to take in roughly the same number of refugees in the future, unless there is a change in refugee policy, or a special category is created because some crisis (Syria; Ukraine) has been in the news a lot. But make no mistake, the refugee cap is always a tiny, tiny fraction of the needs. So tiny, that it is morally unjustifiable by any metric.

The Trump administration in the US, for example, cut the US refugee cap to 15,000, down from 70,000. These numbers are a tiny fraction of the needs caused by multiple wars, including two started by the United States itself in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite promising to raise the cap, the Biden administration only managed to actually process 12,000 applications in 2020. Note that processing applications is only costly and difficult because the US government has decided to make it so. If you install 15 locks on your front door, that’s going to make it really hard to open your door.

The US just promised to take 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. Why 100,000? Well, for starters, it’s a round number. Also, it’s similar to the number of refugees the US has accepted during similar crises. Between 60,000 and 150,000 seems to be the sweet spot for resettlement during emergencies in ally countries.

Of course, the US also accepts almost 50,000 refugees a year through its onshore asylum process, which is much more fair than the offshore, resettlement process, because an asylum claim may entitle the applicant to a hearing in court. This hearing is far more than most refugees in other countries will ever get. Thousands of people are born and die in refugee camps around the world, which resemble giant, open air prisons, without ever getting a hearing in front of a judge. It’s no wonder that so many people choose to take their futures into their own hands by moving, rather than staying put and “waiting their turn.” Sometimes, family connections or money can get you to the head of the line. Working in refugee resettlement can be dangerous; people get desperate when there are so many applicants for so few places.

Fifteen years ago, Ayelet Shachar wrote “The Birthright Lottery,” which is a great phrase to describe what citizenship actually is, but could also be used to describe the refugee system. It’s a lottery, completely arbitrary and unfair, based on numbers plucked out of the air.