One of three durable solutions traditionally available to refugees, third-country resettlement is an important part of the international commitment to refugee protection and support. This commitment has been reaffirmed in recent years in the 2018 Global Compact on Refugees, the first-ever 2019 Global Refugee Forum, and UNHCR’s Three-Year Strategy (2019 – 2021) on Resettlement and Complementary Pathways (3YS). Yet many of the estimated 1.4 million refugees in need of resettlement as a durable solution in 2020 are unlikely to be resettled. In 2019, only 63,727 (4.5%) of the total 1,428,011 refugees in need of resettlement were resettled. A wide range of challenges confront the refugee resettlement system, from growing numbers of refugees in need of long-term solutions, to funding deficits, to increasingly restrictive immigration policies of resettlement countries. Resettlement processes have become, in many cases, so administrative and bureaucratic that even refugees selected and approved for resettlement must wait months or years in precarious conditions to be resettled.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has deepened these challenges and will likely continue to constrain opportunities for refugees to secure meaningful protection and durable solutions. Within the first weeks of pandemic-related travel restrictions implemented by UNHCR and International Organization for Migration (IOM), thousands of refugees approved and booked for resettlement travel were unable to depart, and tens of thousands more remained stuck at various stages of resettlement processing. Though pragmatic, this decision was made without significant consultation with resettlement states or civil society partners and resulted in ambiguity about how and when resettlement operations might resume, who has the authority to make such decisions, and what will happen to those resettlement cases already in process.
What is next for refugee resettlement given these unprecedented challenges?
This paper seeks to understand contemporary refugee resettlement by analyzing its history, evaluating the assumptions underlying current practice, and exploring opportunities to strengthen the effectiveness and efficiency of refugee resettlement in three key areas: the identification of refugees for resettlement, the international processing of refugees by resettlement countries, and the promotion of alternative migration opportunities, or “complementary pathways,” to provide meaningful protection to refugees in need of resettlement.