Sharing Responsibility – Resettling Refugees

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When talking about a European resettlement scheme sharing the international responsibility could provide protection for refugees


by Doris Peschke 

According to UNHCR statistics around 11 million refugees are currently in need of international protection. Crisis situations such as repression against political organisation, e.g. in Burma/Myanmar, Zimbabwe, or conflict situations as in Iraq, Sudan, and other countries still force people to flee. In addition, a larger number of persons is fleeing violence and conflict regions, and again an other considerable number of persons is displaced in the country of origin. A more recent example is the military conflict between Georgia and Russia which led to thousands of persons loosing their homes.

The vast majority of the global refugees are hosted by the poorer countries in the world. There is financial and technical assistance granted by the more wealthy countries, but too often refugees are housed in camps with little perspectives for their lives.

Resettlement – a durable solution for refugee protection

Resettlement is one of the three durable solutions for refugee protection, the others are asylum and integration in the country of asylum, and repatriation to the country of origin when the situation allows.

Often resettlement is confused with repatriation, however resettlement is clearly defined: The country of resettlement ought to offer a permanent and durable solution, refugee status and a long-term residence with a possibility of naturalisation. This means that persons identified to be in need of international protection will be referred for resettlement, generally by UNHCR, and be granted a refugee status in the country of resettlement. Most countries with regular resettlement programmes grant a permanent status, in Canada for example, the refugees would qualify for citizenship after three years of residence.

Protracted refugee situations

According to research into various refugee situations undertaken in 2007, between 60-70 % of refugees live in protracted refugee situations. More refugees spent longer times – increasingly more than a decade - in camp situations with little prospect of finding a decent life for themselves or possibilities to take up jobs or make a living of their own. While children are offered education – often inside the camp – usual role models in society are scarce. Thus developing the skills of taking initiative on their own, creating opportunities and shaping their future, taking responsibility in society are not possible. The effects of “hospitalisation”, well known in social science in the fields of work with homeless people for example, or apathy, well known in the work with unemployed persons, are considerable risks.

There is often also a lack of protection in the country of first asylum. If various refugee groups are hosted in the same camp, some of the tensions between ethnic or culturally or ideologically diverse groups are living on. To give an example: Political activists against the Shah-regime of Iran had to flee the country when the Islamic government took over; they found refuge in Iraq and settle there for two decades. In the aftermath of the war, a Shiite majority takes over in their region, and they are no longer safe and again have to flee. Another example are mixed families who are often at risk in conflict situations, Bosnia may serve as an example.
Resettlement is in such situations the only option for refugees to truly rebuild their lives.

Refugee protection in the EU

With the completion of the first phase towards a common European asylum system, the adoption of the directives on reception conditions for asylum seekers, temporary protection, qualification and status of refugees and complementary forms of protection, the Dublin II regulation and EURODAC as well as the asylum procedures directive, the EU has developed a common framework for all member states to address refugee situations. In the consultation on the future of the Common European Asylum System undertaken in 2007, it has become clear, that the consequences are that fewer people have access to protection in the EU. The additional instruments and efforts to control “illegal migration” (carrier liabilities, stricter border controls in neighbouring countries East and South of the EU), but also restrictions for asylum applicants, have contributed to a rather disproportionate decrease of refugees applying for asylum in EU countries. At the end of 2006, 237.970 asylum applications were counted in all 27 EU Member States. While Germany had 130.130 asylum applications in 2002, in 2007 there were only 28.570 (s. Eurostat).  

While there has been a notable increase of asylum applications in the border countries of the EU, Greece had four times as many asylum applications from 2003 to 2007, or in Cyprus, where the asylum applications in 2007 were about 17 times the number received in 2003, or Malta, where the figure has doubled between 2003 and 2007. However, this multiplication is on the basis of rather small figures, Malta had 470 asylum applications in 2003 and 955 in 2007, Cyprus had 405 in 2003, and 7.170 in 2007, and Greece had 4.810 in 2003 and 20.990 in 2007. For these countries, the increase in asylum applications poses a real challenge, and other EU Member States ought to find ways to assist these countries which currently face problems. And yet, these increases are relative, as the absolute figure for all EU Member States has dropped dramatically. It is clear that the EU is far behind its possibilities of providing protection for refugees.

Malta and the Netherlands have introduced the notion of intra-EU resettlement, to relocate persons who arrived and were recognised as refugees from Malta to the Netherlands. While the process and definition is similar, the term relocation may be more appropriate. The need for such relocation may arise also for other countries guarding the EU’s borders, however, considerations and aspirations of refugees ought to be taken into account also in these procedures.

Governments of EU Member States have largely agreed in the consultations on the future European Common Asylum System that resettlement should be developed as an additional EU scheme for providing protection.

Resettlement by EU Member States

Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and Norway (part of Schengen) have maintained refugee resettlement programmes also at times when other European countries stopped their programmes at the end of the 70s. The Netherlands, UK and Ireland have started their programmes some years ago, and also Iceland (Schengen) has an annual quota. European countries have taken in 5-600 refugees per year.

In 2007, Portugal, Romania and Hungary as well as the Czech Republic have expressed their interest in resettlement. Portugal has established a small quota and started to resettle in 2007; in Romania a transit evacuation facility has been agreed with UNHCR, and Hungary has decided on a legal framework for resettlement in the parliament. After some debate, France has announced early in 2008 to resettle approximately 1000 refugees to France, 500 to be referred by UNHCR. In September 2008, the first refugees are expected to arrive in France.

Germany had some political and public debate on refugee resettlement in spring 2008, and there were hopes that Germany could resettle 20-30.000 of Iraqi refugees from Syria and Jordan. However, a European agreement was tied into this deliberation. There has also been some confusion between resettlement and evacuation, essentially different concepts.

Certainly, the Iraqi refugee crisis with around two million refugees in the neighbouring countries Syria and Jordan and an additional two million displaced persons inside Iraq deserves urgent attention and action. While a common EU approach would of course be desirable, the EU does not have a mandate to oblige Member States to resettle refugees. It will depend on the political will of each Member State to resettle, and thus such decisions ought to be taken as swiftly as possible. An EU resolution can complement these actions, it cannot replace it.

In the past years, Germany had taken in small numbers of refugees on an ad-hoc basis in emergency situations, such as for example the Uzbek refugees in 2005. It will be important for any resettlement programme, to reserve some places for such emergency cases. The importance of regular programmes is that they are regular and continuous, that a budget provides for the necessary expenses for selection and determination, preparation, travel, reception and integration programmes.

Europe’s role in refugee resettlement

Globally, the US, Canada and Australia and New Zealand have well established refugee programmes. The US for example resettles between 70-75.000 refugees per year. Resettlement, however, is not only about figures. The feasibility study commissioned by the European Commission in 2002/2003 highlighted also the strategic use of resettlement. To become strategic, political will and decisions and speedy and thorough action are required. With a common approach agreed between EU Member States as well as the US and Canada in the context of the Annual Tripartite Consultations of UNHCR some refugee crises could be considerably eased, if not even be resolved. The Bhutanese refugees in Nepal may serve as an example: some thousand refugees live for decades now in Nepal, a very poor country, with no prospects of returning and no prospects of integration in Nepal. If a sizeable number of refugees could be offered resettlement, a smaller number may find an integration option in Nepal. It appears that joint efforts in 2008, negotiated with UNHCR, may prove to be effective.

The size and success of the US and Canadian resettlement programmes is to a large degree possible, because the governments and authorities cooperate closely with civil society actors, faith communities and welfare organisations at all stages of resettlement. Civil society organisations have possibilities to point to desperate refugee situations and propose resettlement for group referrals, or in the case of Canada, also for individual cases. The decisions are of course taken by the authorities. Civil society actors are informed thoroughly throughout the process, in the case of the US programme; voluntary agencies also assist in preparations for cases for the authorities.

Pre-departure orientation programmes, and post-arrival orientation and integration programmes undertaken by civil society organisations have proven successful. This cooperation requires transparency regarding the criteria for the selection of refugee groups, and openness on the side of the authorities to discuss such criteria. In the European programmes, the cooperation with non-governmental organisations is still more an exception than a rule. It may be a fair assessment to say that the size and the acceptance of refugee resettlement as a humanitarian obligation of society as a whole are enhanced by the cooperation of all actors. As a consequence, European programmes would possibly grow more substantially if the cooperation was enhanced as well.

Refugee Resettlement and integration of refugees

A major discussion – and indeed a major challenge – is focussing on the integration potential of refugees. There are diverse views and positions, whether an assessment of the integration potential of refugees ought to be among the selection criteria. As a matter of principle, the humanitarian need and the vulnerability criteria as outlined in the UNHCR Handbook on Resettlement  ought to be the guiding principles for decisions.

As the Finnish Red Cross has outlined in a research study, integration is not a linear process, it is influenced by many subjective and objective factors. The expectations of refugees plan an important role: Particularly upon arrival, in many instances, refugees would like to start their new lives, initiate meetings, look for jobs, and learn the language. However, frustrations like not being able to communicate, lack of interest of receiving communities, difficulties to find a qualified job, non-recognition of qualifications, have also an effect on the motivations. For refugees as well as for society at large it is important to understand that integration has several phases, that there are hurdles and set-backs and that expectations and frustrations need to be managed.

The debate on integration has however also an other consequence: Older refugees, who may no longer be able to (re-)train and take up a job, who may have difficulties to acquire yet an other language, may find it difficult to be selected, although they are clearly in need of protection and many may deserve some quiet and peaceful years at the end of their often difficult lives. Such humanitarian concerns ought to be considered, too, when we talk about a European resettlement scheme sharing the international responsibility to provide protection.

Europe can do much more and much better than we currently do, in terms of figures and quality of programmes.

Towards a European Refugee Resettlement Programme

The European Commission will elaborate elements of an EU Resettlement scheme and make proposals in the coming year. An EU Refugee Resettlement Programme would hopefully be part of the future programme on asylum and migration, which will be adopted in autumn 2009 under the Swedish EU Presidency.

An EU programme would facilitate a more strategic use of resettlement, but also provide for practical cooperation between resettlement countries. Common selection missions, sharing information on refugee situations, but also providing specific services could be better planned. For example, refugees with disabilities could be offered specific rehabilitation at specialised centers available in European countries; or specific medical treatment, operations could be offered to those in need.

As long as European resettlement programmes are relatively small, they appear to be rather expensive because of the necessary infrastructure. But planning together, indicating specific options and joint operations particularly for selection allow both, reducing the relative expenses and increasing the value of the programmes. An EU programme needs to build in cooperation with non-governmental organisations at all stages, for the benefit of the programmes, and for the benefit of refugees. The EU is excellent in competition rules. Rather than competing on who is best at reducing the number of asylum seekers, could we envisage more competition in providing the best and highest quality of protection for refugees in the EU?

For more information on refugee resettlement, please see:

  • UNHCR Resettlement Handbook, 2004
  • A. Passarelli, D. Peschke (eds), Resettlement: Protecting Refugees, Sharing Responsibility, CCME 2006
  • CCME, Resettlement Fact Sheets, available in English, German, French, Czech, Finnish, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Brussels, 2007
  • ICMC, Welcome to Europe! ‘A Comparative Review of Resettlement in Europe’, Brussels, 2007


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Doris Peschke is General Secretary of the Churches' Commission for Migrants in Europe, an ecumenical agency of churches in Europe on migration, asylum and anti-racism.