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Note on resettlement of refugees with special needs

Executive Committee Meetings

Note on resettlement of refugees with special needs

25 May 1998


1. In many instances, the primary reason for seeking resettlement for a refugee relates to an immediate security or protection threat. UNHCR resettlement criteria, however, aim not only at resolving possible immediate danger to a refugee's life and security. Resettlement, as a tool of international protection, is also directed at addressing the special needs of a refugee which cannot be met adequately in the country of refuge. The main objective of resettlement efforts in such situations is the timely relocation of the refugee. For this reason, UNHCR appeals to all States to consider the provision of resettlement opportunities, particularly for refugees with special needs which otherwise cannot be adequately addressed.


2. Refugee women experience the same protection problems as all refugees; they require adequate safeguards to prevent their refoulement or expulsion from their country of refuge. They also require a legal status that accords adequate social and economic rights and access to such basics as food, shelter, clothing and health care assistance.

Specific protection problems of women refugees

3. Many refugee women, however, have not only faced persecution in their country of origin, but find themselves without the support of their traditional family protectors or their community, as the causes of refugee flight frequently result in separation from, or loss of, family members. Women refugees often have to assume new roles and status in addition to coping with the loss of home, country and loved ones, which may render them particularly at risk. Their gender may place them at risk of being subjected to additional protection problems. Abduction, rape, sexual abuse, harassment and exploitation are some of the problems faced by refugee women, particularly those without their traditional family support.

4. UNHCR places high priority on the protection of refugee women and seeks to provide rapid solutions to the problems they face. All UNHCR Field Offices are instructed to integrate the resources and needs of refugee women into all aspects of UNHCR's programmes in order to ensure equal delivery of protection and assistance activities. Assessment and planning are essential at every stage of a refugee situation from the initial emergency and provision of adequate care and maintenance through the identification of appropriate durable solutions.

Problems related to refugee status determination

5. Women may face special problems related to refugee status determination or resettlement eligibility. Some common obstacles faced by women in the process of status determination are:

(a) The refugee claim is based on the political activities of other family members. Therefore, the consequences of persecution, or fear of persecution, of the refugee woman are not given sufficient weight;

(b) Gender-related persecution, or fear of persecution, is not considered, or is given insufficient weight, during the course of the status determination;

(c) The lack of gender-sensitive interviewing skills among those involved in the status determination interview. This can reflect other factors, such as unavailability of appropriate interpreters, or the reluctance of a woman to discuss her case with a male interviewer;

(d) Cultural considerations, taboos, fear of further victimization, particularly in relation to rape and torture, inhibit the refugee in expressing fear of persecution or in relating past persecution.

6. In this regard, UNHCR welcomes the introduction by some States of gender guidelines to assist Government officers in understanding how women may be persecuted differently from men and in recognizing the difficulties women may face in describing their experiences. Such guidelines, which usually were developed in consultation with non-governmental organizations and UNHCR, also include practical advice on issues such as providing same-sex interviewers and interpreters.

Women refugees in need of resettlement

7. When, despite all possible efforts, it is unlikely that the particular protection problems or related needs of a refugee woman can be adequately addressed in the country of refuge, resettlement needs to be actively considered. In some instances, resettlement may be the only solution. The guiding principle for UNHCR is whether or not resettlement is likely to resolve the problems suffered by a refugee woman.

8. For purposes of resettlement, UNHCR considers as women-at-risk those refugee women or women of concern to UNHCR who have protection problems and find themselves without the support of traditional protection mechanisms. Special needs of refugee women in such circumstances could derive from persecution as well as from particular hardships sustained either in their country of origin, during their flight or in their country of refuge.

Problems related to resettlement eligibility criteria

9. In addition to the problems involved in determining refugee status, women may also have difficulty meeting normal resettlement eligibility criteria of individual countries. This can be due to an inadequate socio-economic profile, the lack of an adult male breadwinner, a large number of dependants, and/or a fragile physical or psychological condition. Admission obstacles may be magnified by a perceived weak post-resettlement integration potential, and the perception that self-sufficiency cannot be obtained.

10. One or both of these factors may present an insurmountable obstacle to resettlement and lead to life-threatening situations such as the risk of deportation or refoulement. The lack of resettlement opportunities for such cases can lead to additional hardships in the country of asylum, such as traumatization, victimization and limited opportunities for psychological, social and economic rehabilitation.

11. To address these problems, special resettlement programmes for women-at-risk were created by some countries, whereas other countries extend admission under general provisions to refugee women considered at risk. The resettlement of refugee women with special needs should be supported by culturally appropriate and gender-sensitive services, if needed, and intensive support upon arrival in their country of resettlement with a view to achieving successful socio-economic integration and self-sufficiency.

12. UNHCR calls upon States to provide urgent resettlement opportunities, combined with accelerated processing, for refugee women under UNHCR's mandate who are in dangerous or precarious situations because of the breakdown of traditional support mechanisms.


13. Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, children and adolescents are "entitled to special care and assistance". Their developmental needs, their dependency, and their lower legal and social status make this special attention essential. Resettlement of a minor will be appropriate and necessary if protection or care cannot be secured in an asylum locale. The accomplishment of this objective requires that all concerned undertake efforts to secure protection and placements for these minors in the asylum situation, and when this is not possible, to advocate for special resettlement status on a case by case basis.

Minors who are under physical threat

14. Minors, due to their own actions or perceived actions, may be particularly targeted by authorities or other parties and find themselves in circumstances where resettlement is perhaps the only solution to ensure their protection. Another source of threat is when minors are recruited into the military as soldiers or porters or in some other support capacity. There may also be social practices that pose a threat to a minor, as in the case of early or forced marriages. If the physical safety of a minor is under severe threat and local solutions are not available, immediate resettlement may be the only practical means to guarantee his or her protection.

Minors who are disabled, traumatized or in need of medical care

15. Minors who are unable to receive adequate treatment in their country of refuge or who suffer from health conditions that cannot be addressed due to lack of appropriate medical facilities may be considered for resettlement. As with adult refugees, physically and mentally disabled or sick minors who have been traumatized or tortured or who are survivors of sexual violence need to be given priority, in particular when their condition represents a significant obstacle to leading a normal life and to their eventual achievement of self-sufficiency.

Maintaining family unity

16. Where it is found necessary to resettle a minor who is accompanied by family, resettlement should be made possible for the minor's family, or the guardian, even if these other family members would have no independent grounds for resettlement. The resettlement of a child should not result in long-term separation from parents or the guardian. Even short-term separations can be very damaging because normally the child experiences fear, anxiety, and feelings of rejection and abandonment when separated.

Family reunification of unaccompanied minors

17. Because of the special needs of children and adolescents for a stable family environment, the reunification of unaccompanied minors with their parents or guardians should be treated as a matter of urgency. In addition, reunification of an unaccompanied minor with another sibling should also be accorded priority because of the importance of the support that brothers and sisters can give to each other. However, family reunification may not always be the best solution for a child or adolescent. In all situations involving unaccompanied minors, an assessment should be made based on the best interests of the minor. The quality of the relationship between the child and the parent(s) and whether or not the parent will be able to offer guidance, support, and emotional care must be assessed, for example.

Unaccompanied (or separated) minors are a priority concern to UNHCR

18. It may be difficult for an unaccompanied minor to establish refugee status using the same refugee criteria and procedures applied to adults. When a child is unable to articulate a claim, or when it is not possible to determine the refugee status of a minor, a decision should be made as to what durable solution would be in the minor's best interests. UNHCR encourages countries to consider the best interests of the child when determining the refugee status of a minor, and to determine refugee status using the broadest possible interpretation.

19. UNHCR has developed comprehensive guidelines on protection and care of refugee children which set forth clear principles and procedures to ensure the protection and care of all refugee children including the most vulnerable, namely those who are unaccompanied. In the context of a determination as to whether or not resettlement is the appropriate solution for a minor, the following issues must be considered:

(a) Resettlement of unaccompanied minors should only be considered on a case-by-case examination where other solutions are not appropriate;

(b) The procedure should permit the effective participation of the refugee child and, as with status determination, arrangements should be made for the minor to be represented. It should be ensured that the minors are informed that what is happening affects their future. Where possible, the views of the parents, or others who perform this role, should be obtained;

(c) Where the resettlement, local integration or repatriation of a family caring for a child or adolescent other than their own is being considered, the nature and durability of the relationship between the minor and the family must be carefully assessed.

20. UNHCR believes that more attention should be paid to unaccompanied children who may face urgent protection concerns in refugee situations. Such protection concerns include forced military recruitment, forced child marriages and subjection to specific harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation. The Office has therefore proposed an initiative which will bring together Governments, non-governmental organizations and UNHCR staff to collectively examine protection concerns related to unaccompanied children in one asylum situation in 1998. Based on the results of this collective assessment, similar efforts may be extended to other locations in 1999.


21. UNHCR considers resettlement on medical grounds as the appropriate solution for refugees whose health condition is life-threatening without proper treatment, who risk irreversible loss of functions or whose health condition presents a significant obstacle to leading a normal life and achieving self-sufficiency. It may also be that the particular situation in the country of asylum is the reason for, or significantly worsens, the health condition and that already the relocation of the refugee satisfactorily addresses his/her particular health needs.

22. Resettlement of refugees with medical needs is pursued by UNHCR, when adequate treatment is not available in the country of asylum and when appropriate treatment cannot be ensured through temporary medical evacuation. To make resettlement a viable option, there should be a favourable prognosis that treatment and/or residence in the country of resettlement would successfully address the health problem. If possible, given the expected state of health after treatment, the individual should be able to gain partial or total independence.

23. The medical condition of refugees is often directly related to their persecution, flight or exile. Survivors of torture or other forms of deliberate and systematic violence will require coordinated medical care, counselling and other types of special assistance, in particular when they suffer from physical and/or serious psychological problems. It is important to remember that the families of the survivors may have complex feelings of trauma, guilt and helplessness and may in turn need special care and attention.

24. Survivors of violence and torture should be resettled to locations where adequate services, both medical and psychological, will be available to meet their needs. While it may be difficult to give assurances that the refugee will always and immediately have access to required counselling and support services, every effort should be made to this end.

25. The importance of resettlement opportunities for survivors of torture goes far beyond the help it provides to the individual refugee. The resettlement of and medical assistance for such survivors at the same time constitutes a concrete manifestation that the international community does not tolerate torture and that measures are taken to limit, if not compensate, the serious impact of severe human rights violations on those who suffered them.


26. Elderly refugees may be particularly vulnerable when confronted with the causes and effects of becoming a refugee. Some may have been separated from family, friends or community during their flight, or have witnessed the killing of family members. The physical hardship of exile may well take its toll on the elderly, who, if already frail, may not have the strength to ward off disease and illness. The stresses of being forced to flee and then having to adapt in a new environment during the first stages of exile, particularly for those without the support of family, place untold demands on the coping ability of many elderly refugees.

27. At the same time, UNHCR's experience with many older refugees shows that the widely-held assumption that being elderly is synonymous with being passive and dependent is not at all conclusive. Most older persons are highly motivated to make an active contribution to the well-being of their next-of-kin and become dependent in a full sense only in the final stages of disability or illness. Older people are more likely to be givers than receivers of aid. The tragedy of older people who have been forcibly displaced is not so much that they become dependent on others, but that they have been robbed of the means to provide for others in the manner they would wish.

28. In seeking durable solutions for elderly refugees, the international community should ensure that the tragedy of their exile is not compounded by an old age marked by neglect. In the context of resettlement, this is particularly relevant with regard to attempts to reunite elderly refugees with their families. UNHCR appeals to States to try to facilitate family reunification involving elderly members of a refugee family. While older refugees should benefit from family care and protection, in turn, the presence of elderly members will often greatly assist refugee families in their integration efforts. This was highlighted by a recent "Broad Survey on the Integration of Resettled Refugees" where barriers to family reunification were identified as a major constraint to successful integration of refugees in their host countries.

29. UNHCR strongly supports the adoption by States of broad and flexible criteria of family reunification, also with respect to efforts made to preserve the integrity of family groups in the course of resettlement operations and to promote the admission of refugees and in particular elderly members of a family who need to be resettled in countries where they have relatives or other personal ties.

30. The international community should make the forthcoming International Year of Older Persons an opportunity to address the issue of family reunification for elderly dependants as a matter of principle and promote family reunification between adult refugees and their dependent parents as a basic right.


31. Resettlement not only constitutes the preferred durable solution for some refugees, but functions as an urgent protection measure in individual cases, ensuring survival in safety and dignity of refugees with special needs. The link between resettlement and refugee protection has been recognized in theory and in practice both by States and by UNHCR. Several conclusions of the Executive Committee testify to the international community's commitment to provide resettlement places for these persons in order to ensure their protection. To continue approaching these issues in partnership will be critical to the effective and efficient identification and resettlement of refugees with special needs.

32. In its General Conclusion on Protection, in 1997, the Executive Committee recognized the continuing importance of resettlement as an instrument of protection and burden-sharing and as a durable solution in specific circumstances, and encouraged all Governments capable of doing so to make efforts to resettle refugees. In this spirit, States are invited to give particular consideration as to how resettlement places may rapidly be made available to respond to urgent protection situations.