Priorities and areas of work in Europe

UNHCR’s work in Europe includes the following areas:

Access to territory and asylum

Access to safety and the right to ask for asylum are fundamental rights. The right to seek asylum is set out in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and is one of the most important obligations in international law. The 1951 Refugee Convention, which outlines the rights of the displaced, as well as the legal obligations of States to protect them, includes the principle of non-refoulement, which asserts that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. UNHCR is greatly concerned that some States are creating barriers and deterrents to entry or pushing back people in need of protection. States need to put in place protection-sensitive border policies and practices, including measures to recognize whether individuals need international protection, as well as to identify people with specific needs, such as unaccompanied and separated children.

Quality of asylum procedures

As part of its core mandate, UNHCR monitors and supports the authorities across Europe in order to ensure the quality of asylum procedures. One such project brings together six countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine – in a regional forum for exchanging asylum-related challenges, facilitating partnerships, strengthening access to territory, asylum and refugee status determination, and enhancing the quality of judicial review. In Western Europe UNHCR is supporting asylum quality initiatives in Ireland, France, Germany, UK and also planning to expand this activity in the Netherlands and Switzerland. Support in development of effective and fair asylum systems is also provided to national authorities in the Western Balkans and Central Europe.

Safe and legal pathways

Expanding opportunities for solutions through safe pathways, which could help reduce the likelihood that people will risk unsafe journeys to find protection or reunite with their families, must remain a key priority. Providing such pathways in significant numbers would help to share the responsibility with countries hosting the most refugees. This includes resettling more refugees, removing obstacles to family reunification, developing sustainable private sponsorship programmes, expanding student scholarship schemes, and enabling labour mobility.

Children on the move and unaccompanied and separated children

Children on the move and unaccompanied and separated children (UASC) face many protection risks in Europe, including detention, sexual and gender-based violence, further family separation, psychological distress, and security risks. These risks are exacerbated when UASC are placed in inadequate reception facilities and without appropriate care. Lack of educational opportunities or recreational activities also impact UASC well-being. UNHCR, jointly with UNICEF and IRC has launched a Roadmap to strengthened policies and practices for UASC in Europe.

Sexual and gender-based violence

Sexual and gender-based violence is a growing threat to refugees across Europe, exacerbated by poor reception conditions, lack of specific services available to SGBV survivors, long procedures, family separation, and limited prospects and support for integration. Refugees and migrants face severe risks of SGBV on their way to Europe as well as after reaching the continent. Left with no other option, many resort to harmful coping mechanisms, including survival sex, and become exposed to sexual exploitation.

Integration into host communities

Integration involves a two-way process between refugees and their host communities. To build social cohesion, stability and security, it requires that communities are well-equipped to receive refugees, and that refugees are well-supported to realize their potential in their new environments. The ability for refugees to live and build futures for themselves wherever they are in Europe can contribute to an effective asylum system and reduce pressures for onward movement. Investing in the integration of refugees yields positive benefits for refugees as well as host communities, providing a sense of belonging and a future.

Communication with communities

Effective two-way communications with refugee populations is critical in ensuring that their voices are placed at the centre of defining needs and adequate solutions in UNHCR’s programmatic response, as well as in ensuring their access to asylum systems and rights in Europe. Providing information that is readily accessible in the appropriate languages, using multiple platforms, and for people of different ages, and in line with legal procedures, available services, and rights and obligations is a key priority. UNHCR works to establish platforms for refugee feedback and participation in order to enhance accountability to and participation of refugee communities.

Judicial engagement

UNHCR’s work on judicial matters centres around court interventions, informal support to lawyers on strategic litigation and initiatives to train and build capacity among lawyers and judges.

Statelessness in Europe

Among the millions of stateless people worldwide, UNHCR estimates that over 570,000 live in Europe. The causes vary, but one leading factor in Eastern Europe was the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Many people with expired Soviet passports have not been able to acquire the nationality of the state in which they reside. In the former Yugoslavia, groups of people fell between the cracks created by new nationality laws and became stateless. Though many have managed to establish or confirm their nationality, members of minority groups in south-eastern Europe, especially the Roma, still struggle to access the documents needed to confirm their nationality. Throughout Europe, gaps in nationality legislation continue to create situations of statelessness.

Statelessness can also be passed on from generation to generation. In some cases, stateless parents in Europe give birth to stateless children. In others cases, refugee or migrant mothers give birth in Europe and are unable to transfer their nationality to their child. Women from Syria, Iraq and 23 other nations globally are not allowed – under the nationality laws of their countries – to pass on their nationality to their child as men do.

Learn more about statelessness: