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Resettlement as an Instrument of Protection: Traditional Problems in Achieving This Durable Solution and New Directions in the 1990s

Executive Committee Meetings

Resettlement as an Instrument of Protection: Traditional Problems in Achieving This Durable Solution and New Directions in the 1990s

9 July 1991


1. The Executive Committee has traditionally acknowledged the importance of resettlement and the subject has figured prominently in a number of decisions and conclusions in previous sessions1. Owing to important developments over the past two years, resettlement may well take on a new dimension in the 1990s where such issues as the relationship between this durable solution and international protection, adequate quotas, emergency resettlement, acceptance of vulnerable groups, and burden-sharing will acquire added emphasis and require more understanding on the part of governments. The manifold challenges confronting the Office in the 1990s are formidable, not least of which are the requirements for, and dimensions of, resettlement in the years to come. New challenges require re-thinking of resettlement and new approaches to this durable solution are already under consideration by UNHCR.

2. UNHCR's resettlement activities are restricted predominantly to Convention or mandate refugees and tied to protection and appropriate durable solutions. In effect, resettlement is pursued, as a last resort, when neither voluntary repatriation nor local integration is possible and resettlement remains the only available measure to guarantee protection and/or offer a refugee a future commensurate with fundamental human rights.

3. Resettlement is linked to legal and/or physical protection when a refugee faces one or more of the following situations:

  • security threat in the asylum country, for example, resulting from pursuit by persons from, or connected with, those involved with persecution in the country of origin;
  • immediate or long-term threat of refoulement to the country of origin, or deportation to another country owing to non-respect of (or reservations to) the Convention or its 1967 Protocol;
  • threat to physical safety or freedom in the country of asylum analogous to that foreseen in the definition of refugee and rendering asylum untenable;
  • need for physical protection arising from armed attacks or forced recruitment in areas where asylum-seekers or refugees are located.

4. In addition to resettlement as a measure to guarantee security, there are other situations where resettlement must be pursued to provide humanitarian protection. In such instances resettlement relates primarily to the following five categories of refugees defined by UNHCR as vulnerable groups, including the compelling category of long-stayers who also require concerted attention:

  • women-at-risk;
  • victims of torture/violence;
  • physically or mentally disabled refugees;
  • medical cases where appropriate treatment in the country of asylum is inadequate;
  • long-stayers determined according to a time frame, which may be longer or shorter depending on the situation prevailing in the country concerned, or on conditions of asylum (including detention, denial of right to work, right to education of children, etc.) when there are no prospects for another durable solution.

5. A refugee falling within one of the above-mentioned categories, as well as family reunion, would qualify for resettlement in terms of humanitarian protection. Given the difficulties of obtaining extra-regional resettlement places and the problems of cultural adaptation inherent in resettlement, the decision to resettle must be prudent and UNHCR seeks regional resettlement whenever possible. In recent years the Office has achieved success in Latin America and Africa with regional resettlement.

Evolution of UNHCR Activities

6. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s most of UNHCR's resettlement activities focused on European refugees whose reception and assimilation in resettlement countries in Europe, North America and Australia were facilitated as they found new homes among populations predominantly of similar origin.

7. In the 1970s the focus of resettlement needs began to shift from Europe to Latin America, Africa and later to South-East Asia. Over the last 15 years the major thrust of UNHCR's resettlement operations has centred on South-East Asia where, since 1976, over 1.2 million Indo-Chinese have been resettled under the auspices of the Office.

8. While the cumulative figure for resettlement of Indo-Chinese is indeed formidable and countries participating in this endeavour merit praise, it is important to note that, in any given year, resettlement is only sought and obtained for a minute fraction of the overall number of refugees for which the Office is responsible worldwide.

Obstacles to Resettlement

9. In 1990, of the then global refugee population of 15 million, UNHCR requested resettlement for just under 150,000 persons or approximately one per cent of the total. Of the total global refugee population targeted for resettlement by UNHCR, the Office registered only 52,000 departures. This represents a 65 per cent shortfall in meeting the Office's stated needs.

10. The reasons for the shortfall in meeting resettlement requirements in 1990 are attributable to several interdependent factors which over the past years have posed obstacles in achieving this durable solution. The major impediment remains the limited number of countries offering annual refugee admission quotas. Of the 159 member States of the United Nations only 10 governments establish and announce annual refugee resettlement quotas.

11. Admission levels of the governments concerned are indeed generous contributions, in providing a new life to a large number of deserving persons, and their humanitarian approach is commendable. The adjustment of available quotas of some countries, however, resulting from the admission of groups processed independently of the Office, often in response to domestic pressures represented by special interest groups, significantly reduces the annual pool of resettlement places available to meet UNHCR specific, protection-related requirements.

12. The above phenomenon is closely related to, if not actually part of, another phenomenon, which is the blurring of the distinction between refugees (especially UNHCR-designated protection cases requiring, and promoted for, resettlement) versus persons admitted under refugee quotas who often do not face the same protection problems or who more appropriately should be classified as immigrants. The confusion between immigration and refugee admissions, evidenced, inter alia, by the selective approach of governments in accepting refugees for Resettlement, can exacerbate protection problems, delay the processing of deserving cases, contribute to the number of long-stayers and adversely affect the well-being of persons who have already experienced considerable trauma.

13. Adding to UNHCR's problems in securing sufficient resettlement quotas is the cumulative effect on governments and influential sectors of public opinion of South-North and East-West mass migration movements. Over the past decade, as is well known, there has been an upsurge in the number of persons arriving spontaneously in western countries or in intermediate countries especially in Asia and the Middle East - hoping for onward movement to the West. Those with genuine asylum claims have been joined by many others who register such claims on the assumption that their chances of remaining in western countries are greater if they enter the asylum procedure. The aforementioned phenomenon must also be seen in the light of events accompanying the end of the cold war. This historic development has not only altered the convenient prism of East-West conflict through which many western countries perceived refugees and thus, resettlement for some 40 years, it has also raised the prospect, with the easing of travel restrictions, of large-scale emigration from Eastern Europe.

14. This confluence of movements, culminating in a very considerable increase in asylum applications, has had social, economic and political consequences which have included changed attitudes to immigration and refugee issues. One result has been that many governments have introduced more restrictive immigration policies, which may have an adverse impact. This situation has also militated against attempts by UNHCR, in the spirit of burden-sharing, to convince countries to do more in terms of resettlement admissions. As can be imagined, some governments face a rising chorus of critics at home who question why it is necessary to process for resettlement abroad when they must contend with so many persons arriving directly at their borders, the majority of whom manage to remain in their chosen countries.

The Shape of UNHCR Resettlement in the Coming Years

15. These constraints to resettlement remain real and must be addressed. However, certain emerging trends, already reflected in 1991, when the Office's resettlement needs were lower than the previous year, foreshadow the evolution of a situation in the 1990s which will be significantly different from the previous decade. With some exceptions, as indicated earlier, UNHCR may continue to call for less resettlement assistance annually. Such assistance, however, will be inextricably linked to protection cases and will, in turn, require flexibility on the part of governments in the determination of annual admission ceilings and allocations by nationality, and less emphasis on immigration criteria by resettlement countries when admitting refugees. This state of affairs is attributable to a combination of interrelated factors which include recent historic developments, changes in certain long running regional resettlement operations, and efforts by UNHCR to promote voluntary repatriation. These factors are reinforced by the growing awareness of the international community of the need to provide aid to avert outflows, pursue regional solutions to problems and to create the necessary conditions for safe return of persons who have left their country of origin.

16. On the general plane of international relations, major historic developments occurring in rapid succession, ranging from the end of the cold war to the recent Gulf War involving a mass exodus of two million persons and the equally rapid repatriation of a large number of the group concerned, not to mention recent events in the Horn of Africa, signal a markedly changed international landscape in the 1990s, where the parameters for forecasting needs and nationalities targeted for resettlement will be more complex. These changes will involve, and be complemented by, shifts both in the magnitude and nature of resettlement in certain regions. If one surveys resettlement operations over the past 15 years, it is clear that the primary focus has been South-East Asia, which has normally accounted for over 70 per cent of resettlement departures. Recent developments, however, indicate that the volume of resettlement requirements from the region will diminish in the coming years.

17. In effect, resettlement from South-East Asia was geared to protect the right of first asylum in the region and the scale of the exercise, which in large part became automatic, also in time took on many characteristics of immigration rather than refugee resettlement. The provisions of the Comprehensive Plan of Action on Indo-Chinese Refugees (CPA) have sought to address this unique, not to say anomalous, situation. The introduction in the region of refugee determination procedures for persons arriving after certain cut-off dates promises gradually to bring resettlement practices in South-East Asia into line with standard resettlement procedures elsewhere, i.e. resettlement as one option and not the only answer to massive movements of persons. Again, on a regional level, resettlement from Eastern Europe, which was another focus of operations over the past decades, has radically changed. Movements of people from these countries have recently assumed more of an immigration character, requiring responses generally more closely tailored to immigration arrangements.

18. Concurrent with these major international changes as well as regional developments is the increasing emphasis placed on voluntary repatriation and the creation of conditions conducive to this durable solution. The International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA) and programmes for Afghans, Cambodians and, more recently, Iraqi Kurds are illustrative of this development and also signal the difficulties inherent in such programmes. The international community is also increasingly aware that more aid to poor countries will be necessary to attack some of the root causes which contribute to mass migratory movements and refugee flows.

19. Despite recent dramatic changes in international relations, inter-state and ethnic conflicts will continue into the post cold war era and such conflicts will inevitably generate refugee flows which, in turn, will require resettlement - for protection reasons - of a certain number of deserving cases.


20. Rather than massive resettlement operations which have characterized the situation in South-East Asia over the past decade, resettlement exercises in the 1990s are likely to be more protection-oriented, and could often involve smaller numbers. Given the changing political landscape, conditions for, and obstacles to, resettlement as well as flexibility by governments to new situations, merits consideration. While UNHCR's annual resettlement requirements may involve smaller numbers, the underlying protection element in resettlement will be more compelling and require, in turn, a more rapid and flexible response by governments. Protection should take precedence over immigration criteria and preference for admission of certain nationalities.

21. The flexibility should also be manifested in the readiness of governments to raise or lower quotas, or at least the percentages of those quotas foreseen for UNHCR resettlement admission, contingent upon rapidly changing needs. Given the dynamics of the international situation, most recently evidenced by the Gulf conflict, standard resettlement may at times be seriously disrupted, if not supplanted, by emergency operations or voluntary repatriation. To deal effectively with such situations it is advisable that annual government admission ceilings comprise a significant contingency reserve for unallocated nationalities, which would be available depending on need.

1 On burden-sharing, the promotion of resettlement when no other durable solution is possible, the provision of adequate quotas with flexible selection criteria and the distinction between refugee versus migrant admissions, security concerns of first-asylum countries and refugees, emergency resettlement admission of refugees without links in a third country, and admission of vulnerable groups, see paragraphs 94 and 210 B, sub-paragraphs (g), (h), (i), (j), (k), (l) and (m) of document A/AC.96/702.