The Resettlement Gap: A Record Number of Global Refugees, but Few Are Resettled
Seven decades after the establishment of the global refugee system, a growing gap has emerged between its ambitions and achievements in resettling refugees. In 2020, an estimated 1.4 million refugees were estimated to be in need of resettlement, but only slightly more than 2 percent (34,400) were relocated for protection in a new country.
While just a fraction of the world’s 26.4 million registered refugees are determined to need resettlement (most are expected to either voluntarily return to their country of origin or stay in their country of asylum), the gap between those in need and those who are resettled has increased in recent years. The 107,800 refugees resettled in 2019 accounted for fewer than 8 percent of those determined to need resettlement.
Overall, the global refugee population has approximately doubled since 2011, with projected resettlement needs increasing by nearly 80 percent. Yet over this same period, the number of individuals who have been resettled shrunk by more than half. Numbers remain low so far in 2021, and it is all but assured that only a tiny share of the nearly 1.5 million refugees estimated to need resettlement in 2022 will be resettled.
Figure 1. Total Refugees and Submissions for Resettlement, 2011-20
Note: Data include submissions made by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); submissions in 2021 run through August 31.
Sources: UNHCR, “Refugee Data Finder,” accessed October 6, 2021, available online; UNHCR, “Resettlement Data Finder,” accessed October 6, 2021, available online.
There are many reasons for this resettlement gap. Processing policies and heavily bureaucratic procedures vary widely by resettlement country and often require significant time, information, and resources. Furthermore, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which is responsible for submitting the vast majority of resettlement referrals, is frequently hamstrung by limited funding and challenging political dynamics in countries of asylum and resettlement.
Increased politicization of immigration in major immigrant-destination countries over the last decade has also hampered resettlement programs. The United States—historically the global leader in refugee resettlement—reduced its refugee allotments to record lows during the Trump administration. Although President Joe Biden pledged to reverse course amid considerable pressure from his Democratic Party, the fewer than 11,500 refugees resettled in fiscal year (FY) 2021 were the lowest since the country’s resettlement program formally began in 1980. Many other countries have had similar challenges sustaining resettlement programs.
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent travel restrictions have only exacerbated pre-existing problems and were significant contributors to paltry resettlement in 2020 and 2021. Despite some successes in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 worldwide, vaccine availability is uneven, and the pandemic remains a significant threat to the global resettlement system.
Figure 2. Projected Refugees Needing Resettlement and UNHCR Submissions, 2011-21
Note: Data are for submissions made by UNHCR; submissions in 2021 run through August 31.
Sources: UNHCR, “Resettlement Data Finder,” accessed October 6, 2021, available online; authors' analysis of UNHCR Projected Global Resettlement Needs (Geneva: UNHCR), multiple years, available online.
Although it faces myriad challenges, the resettlement system provides refugees with a truly durable, lasting form of protection and is an invaluable part of the global refugee protection regime. This article, adapted from the Church World Service report The Future of Refugee Resettlement & Complementary Pathways: Strengthening Sustainable and Strategic Solutions for Refugees, explains the history of the global refugee resettlement system, its current challenges, and opportunities for the future.
History of Refugee Resettlement
The refugee resettlement system was established in the wake of World War II when hundreds of thousands of people were displaced across Europe. Now ratified by 145 states, the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol form the backbone of the international refugee protection regime and serve as the key legal instruments in defining who is a refugee and states’ legal responsibilities towards them.
Since ratification of the 1951 convention, countries have developed their own legal, administrative, and operational frameworks for resettlement. The United States started resettlement shortly after the war and formalized its current program with the Refugee Act of 1980. Many other countries have similar histories of having resettled refugees through an array of modalities before establishing formalized programs in the latter half of the 20th century. Australia formalized its system in 1977, Canada in 1978, several Latin American countries did so after the signing of the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, and New Zealand has resettled refugees consistently since 1987. In Europe, 15 countries have initiated their resettlement programs only over the last 15 years, as the European Union strengthened its legal and political commitment to resettlement.
Historically, the United States has been by far the destination for the largest number of resettled refugees (although a few other countries have a higher per capita rate of resettlement). However resettlement declined under Trump and low numbers have so far continued under Biden. Still, the United States remains the top country for government-sponsored resettlement in recent years.
Table 1. Top Countries for Refugee Resettlement, 2015-21
Note: Figures refer to departures for resettlement and include only refugees resettled through government-sponsored refugee resettlement systems; Canada, for example, has a robust private sponsorship program through which sizable additional numbers of refugees have been resettled. Data run through September 30, 2021.
Source: UNHCR, “Resettlement Data Finder,” accessed October 20, 2021, available online.
It is important to note the distinction between the refugee resettlement and asylum systems. Refugees are identified while outside the resettlement country and undergo a lengthy screening and vetting process before resettlement, while asylum seekers apply for protection directly from within the country where they hope to remain or at its border. The vast majority of refugees and asylum seekers live in countries of asylum in the global South. In 2020, the top countries of residence for refugees and asylum seekers were Turkey (with 3.9 million), Jordan (3 million), Palestine (2.3 million [although Palestine is not an internally recognized independent state, it is treated as a separate entity for UN data purposes]), Colombia (1.8 million), and Germany (1.5 million).
Overview of Refugee Resettlement Processing
For refugees to be resettled, they must first undergo three steps: identification, access to resettlement, and submission of their case. Afterwards, they are presented to the resettlement country for consideration.
Identification is the process by which broad categories of refugees globally are determined to need resettlement. This process is led by UNHCR, which notes that identification is “based on a refugee’s objective need for resettlement and not on their subjective desire for it,” and “should not be based on the desire of any specific actors, such as the host state, resettlement states, other partners, or UNHCR staff themselves.”
UNHCR publishes annual determinations about the number of people requiring resettlement, which is the starting point for negotiations with states regarding annual quotas and targets. The agency may also identify specific crises and regions to prioritize, such as the Syrian civil war.
After identification, individuals’ access to resettlement depends on analysis and verification of their personal situation. Upon arrival to a first country of asylum, people seeking protection are registered with the host-country government, UNHCR, or both, ideally as soon as possible. This process involves the recording of basic information such as name, age, nationality, and family composition. Most (though not all) individuals must be recognized as refugees by the country of asylum or UNHCR to be referred for resettlement. Resettlement is used only for a small portion of refugees who are assessed to have compelling protection needs in the country of asylum. This may involve a consideration of refugees’ physical safety, experiences with violence or torture, medical needs, and other elements.
Officials then conduct a series of interviews and assessments to consider an individual or household for resettlement and to verify their claims.
UNHCR is responsible for submitting most resettlement cases to destination countries, though some are advanced by a handful of authorized nongovernmental organizations. Submissions are driven by quotas; resettlement countries set the number of refugees they will receive based on their own legal, operational, and other requirements, and UNHCR seeks to fill the resettlement places.
Submissions are most often made via Resettlement Registration Forms, which are completed during a series of additional interviews and include information about the refugee’s family composition and biography, evidence of the valid refugee claim, justification of the need for resettlement, and exploration of any legal barriers or questions that may arise. Biometric information such as fingerprints and iris scans are often included. A refugee’s specific medical, child protection, or other needs may require additional forms, which can make submissions more challenging to complete. Typically, there are several rounds of internal review before a case is submitted to the resettlement country.
After submission to a resettlement country, a refugee’s case undergoes another round of review, this time by the country itself. Individual processes vary greatly, but countries typically conduct four types of assessments as part of their consideration: identity, status, security, and suitability. Although UNHCR usually first establishes the refugee’s legal identity through interviews and verification procedures, countries often conduct their own verification as an additional precaution. They then often evaluate whether the refugee meets their own standards for status as a resettled refugee and immigrant. Third, the individual and accompanying family members are assessed to ensure they do not present a security threat. Finally, resettlement states assess whether the refugee would likely face any insurmountable barriers to integrating into the proposed new society or community. As part of this final phase, some countries may choose to resettle refugees with certain skills or backgrounds, such as those who have family members in the country.
If refugees are provisionally approved for resettlement, they then typically undergo medical examinations and cultural orientation training prior to departure.
Challenges to the System
Political opposition to some kinds of immigration receives significant public attention and is an important factor in many countries’ ambivalence about commitments to the resettlement system. Reduced government quotas are a major reason that relatively few refugees are resettled each year.
However, increasing quotas and government commitments alone are insufficient to close the resettlement gap. Structural issues with the current resettlement system also contribute to delays and challenges, often in ways that escape major scrutiny.
Considerable inefficiencies within the identification, access, and submission stages of the resettlement process contribute to the gap between the number of refugees eligible for resettlement and those ultimately resettled. While UNHCR plays a vital role in resettlement processing—including serving as a single point of contact for resettlement countries and being able to standardize processes—its position as a UN agency and dependence on states for both funding (typically from resettlement countries) and access to refugee populations (from host countries) can constrain its independence and reach.
UNHCR also has challenges maintaining a steady and predictable flow of cases to resettlement countries. Refugees may be difficult to access, and the labor-intensive resettlement process may take many years to complete. UNHCR and most resettlement countries alike make annual operational plans, and though UNHCR and states typically agree on the number of submissions to reach countries’ targets, priorities can change within and across years. Even sudden increases in quotas designed to help close the resettlement gap can cause pressure, interrupt anticipated processing timelines, and put strain on the system globally. These dynamics make planning difficult and may prompt UNHCR to prioritize cases that can be submitted and processed speedily, rather than strictly according to need.
Resettlement countries also face considerable challenges to efficient resettlement processing. For one, bureaucratic processes often require the involvement of multiple government agencies and take months or years to complete, leaving refugees in limbo and increasing pressure on host countries. Also, while their case is processed, it is not uncommon for refugee applicants to marry, divorce, have children, or die, which may cause delays as the new conditions are factored into review. If refugees provide information requiring additional background checks, resettlement countries may need to repeat steps, obtain clarification from UNHCR, or conduct additional interviews. This delays overall case processing and can also make each evaluation longer and more complex.
Resettlement procedures are complex, and for refugees to be properly informed requires time- and resource-intensive explanations. Refugees may have significant cultural and linguistic barriers as well as varying levels of education, access to technology, disabilities, and histories of trauma or violence, all of which can be challenging in conveying information.
In addition, refugee participation has traditionally been quite limited throughout the resettlement process. Refugees typically cannot determine which country receives their resettlement submission and are often ill informed about the resettlement process and the status of their case. Often, refugees may not even know that they are being considered for resettlement by a particular country until being invited for selection interviews.
Furthermore, refugees may feel they do not have any other choice but to consent to resettlement. While they may opt out, often refugees do not have any other viable options. In a recent interview with Church World Service, a Bhutanese refugee resettled to the United States several years ago reported that the only decision he was able to make during the process was “to say yes to resettlement.” Although limited refugee participation may not necessarily be a factor in reduced resettlement, it speaks to issues with the global resettlement system that warrant additional attention.
Opportunities for the Future
Many of these issues could be addressed by closer coordination between UNHCR, resettlement countries, and civil-society partners, as well as multiyear commitments by all parties to resettlement quotas and processing plans.
Greater inclusion of refugees in designing and executing resettlement might also yield benefits; notably, providing opportunities for refugees to exercise their authority and seeing them as meaningful partners can provide valuable information on barriers to integration that could be hampering programs. Collecting information on what resettled refugees wish they had known prior to arriving in their new home country might allow governments and organizations to improve cultural orientation. Other questionnaires about refugees’ experiences during resettlement can lead to further reforms and, thus, greater and more efficient resettlement.
Still, for many refugees, none of the three so-called durable solutions—voluntary return to their country of origin, local integration in their asylum country, or resettlement elsewhere—as traditionally defined are achievable. This has become increasingly clear particularly as many large-scale refugee situations have proven intractable, and most refugees are hosted in low- to middle-income countries that do not necessarily have the resources to support them over the long term. As such, much attention has recently been devoted to creating additional safe and legal alternatives for humanitarian protection. Such “complementary pathways” are defined by UNHCR as supplemental to resettlement and may involve existing immigration channels for which refugees might be eligible with some adjustments. Notably, UNHCR warns that these pathways should not be a substitute for the international protection regime.
Complementary pathways are immigration systems through which refugees may access protection but are distinct from the formal refugee resettlement process. Typically they contain specific admissions criteria, apart from refugee status, which refugees must meet to gain access. They are generally viewed as belonging to one of three broad categories: humanitarian, skill-based, and community-based pathways. Humanitarian-based complementary pathways may include humanitarian admission programs, humanitarian visas, and family reunification. Skill-based complementary pathways include opportunities for migration based on employment or education, such as jobs or student scholarships offered to well-qualified refugees. Community-based complementary pathways include initiatives through which citizens, community groups, or nonprofit organizations can sponsor a refugee on their own.
Growing recognition of complementary pathways to protection presents an exciting opportunity to increase refugees’ protection and also bolster their participation throughout the process. Since complementary pathways are based on refugees’ qualifications rather than their protection needs, individuals will likely have increased ability to determine their own futures. For example, refugees may apply for skill-based pathways based on their own career field and destination of choice. While distinct from the formal resettlement process, complementary pathways are a shift away from the historical tendency to view refugees as vulnerable and unable to determine their own future. In this way, they contribute positively to the humanization of refugees.
Refugee resettlement is complex and will continue to face both political and operational challenges in the years to come. Closing the resettlement gap and strengthening the humanitarian objectives of the global resettlement system will require commitments to protect refugees and share responsibilities over the political interests of states. Beyond its operational duties, UNHCR has a role to play in convening resettlement countries and advocating for commitments. Streamlining bureaucracy and enhancing international cooperation would also likely lead to greater resettlement. Making programs across resettlement countries more robust would make them more resilient to shocks such as changes in the political climate or public-health crises. And although complementary pathways should not be a replacement for the formal refugee system, they may serve an important role in coming years. While the number of global refugees continues to grow, the resettlement system is clearly under strain. As crises mount, the system will either need to adapt or find itself increasingly marginalized as a tool for protection.
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