Resettlement as a Durable Solution and Strategic Tool in Protracted Displacement Situations: Transatlantic Views and Visions

June 6th, 2011. | share by e-mail share | print this page print.

Experts Meeting
Washington, DC ― June 6, 2010
Summary of the Proceedings

The number of refugees world-wide who are in need of resettlement, including those experiencing protracted displacement, is daunting. The vast majority of them will not get the opportunity to resettle. Yet, resettlement can nonetheless be a valuable component of a comprehensive solutions strategy.

In recent years, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has done a great deal to establish resettlement as a durable solution, rather than the solution of last resort. Meanwhile, there have been cases where resettlement as a strategic tool has worked ― providing host governments with the confidence that they are not facing the challenge alone.

The participants urged the United States and the European Union (EU), as major donors assisting refugees, to explore ways to coordinate their efforts so as to ensure that refugee protection needs are met, lives are saved, and funds are well spent.

To what extent, and by whom, is the need for refugee resettlement currently being met? How does resettlement factor into the strategic thinking and policies of the European Union (EU) and the United States? What scope is there for the enhancement of EU-US dialogue and cooperation in order to employ resettlement more effectively as a durable solution and strategic tool? These are the principal questions addressed in the following summary.


The Global Resettlement Need–Response Gap

  • According to UNHCR, about 800,000 refugees are in need of resettlement. (This number constitutes a small fraction of the over 40 million refugee caseload worldwide.) About 70% of those in need of resettlement are experiencing protracted displacement.
  • Over the past year, Japan, Paraguay, and Romania have joined the ranks of resettlement-receiving countries. Nevertheless, the United States, Canada, and Australia remain the countries of destination for over 90% of those refugees who are resettled.

Europe: Realizing the Potential

  • Europe lacks a structured, robust system for resettling refugees. The European Union (EU) does not have the capacity to settle a large number of refugees. This is largely due to the fact that the EU receives a high number of “spontaneous” asylum seekers (around 250,000 per year) and that the locus of authority for resettlement is vested in the national governments.
  • Few EU Member States have integrated resettlement into their strategic thinking. Member States have tended to think of refugee flows primarily in terms of establishing internal procedures to deal with asylum applications efficiently, and on the external side, disbursing development assistance to countries/regions of origin.
  • At the national level, political leaders have seldom championed resettlement as a durable solution. Indeed, there are some who regard resettlement as being the Trojan horse for an externalization of asylum policy.
  • As a result, the total number of refugees resettled across the EU has been exceedingly low. Realistically, this is unlikely to change dramatically in the near term.
  • Nevertheless, there has been some progress in Europe in “demystifying” resettlement, including in explaining how resettlement can contribute to unlocking other durable solutions in regions of origin (e.g. local integration).
  • There also has been a paradigm shift in the discourse about resettlement ― from focusing on why resettlement is necessary/desirable to focusing on how to make resettlement work.
  • Recognizing the strategic importance of resettlement and that policy lies mainly within the purview of national governments, the EU has used its Refugee Fund as a lever to 1) to encourage more Member States to establish resettlement programs, 2) to increase the number of refugees resettled, 3) to finance projects designed to raise awareness across the European Union, and 4) to enhance dialogue and coordination between EU Member States.
  • This has resulted in a larger number of Member States developing some resettlement activity (though numbers remain low) and in resettlement becoming more “visible” politically. The fact that some EU Member States (e.g., France and Germany) established programs to resettle Iraqi refugees has had the salutary effect of increasing this visibility.
  • Most recently, the European Commission has pushed for the creation of an EU-wide resettlement program that would transform resettlement in a political exercise not only a matter of funding, to be implemented on a voluntary basis and bolstered by financial incentives. However, a power struggle between Council and European Parliament unrelated to the content of the proposal has blocked its adoption for the time being.
  • More could be done to enhance coordination within the European Union as well. The EC-proposed Asylum Support Office (opening this June) will have a division specifically focused on resettlement and thus have the human and financial resources to coordinate Member States efforts as well as the potential to develop expertise that could be tapped by Member States.
  • Resettlement of Iraqi refugees is a potential model of cooperation. Its success stemmed from: 1) media awareness, 2) strong advocacy in key Member States by grassroots organizations and the diaspora, 3) the participation of major EU countries (e.g., Germany and France), 4) a precise numerical target (i.e., 10,000), and 4) an EU support fund.

The United States: Reaffirming the Commitment

  • Resettlement is the most visible sign of the US commitment to assist refugees. Over the years, the resettlement program has enjoyed strong bipartisan Congressional and public support.
  • At the Federal level, US resettlement activity consists of individual “rescues” and administering reception, placement, and transitional assistance programs for newly arrived refugees.
  • In spite of the current fiscal pressure, there are signs that Congress will remain supportive.
  • The resettlement process is not without problems. For example, recently instituted background security checks have resulted in delays. And some receiving communities, not to mention those resettled in their midst, have negotiated the transition more smoothly than others.
  • In the coming years, the US will continue to play a leading role both in terms of the number of resettled refugees it accommodates and in terms of policy development.
  • US officials recognize that Europe will not approach the same scale. They also recognize the potential value of working with the EU so that both can conduct “rescue” and resettlement activities more effectively.


The US and European resettlement experiences differ in terms of:

  1. Basic outlook: Whereas for the US resettlement has long been a cornerstone of refugee policy and remains the engine that drives PRM’s work, for Europe resettlement has tended to be considered an “option”.
  2. Locus of authority: Whereas in the case of the United States authority for resettlement policy in is vested in the Federal Government and administered locally, in the case of the European Union it is lodged with the Member States.
  3. Longevity: Resettlement has been the bedrock of US refugee policy since its inception under the US Refugee Act of 1980. In contrast, refugee resettlement in Europe is of relatively recent vintage.
  4. Role of Civil Society: In the US case, civil society not only plays an important advocacy role but, to a much larger degree than in Europe, plays an essential role at the municipal level in implementing resettlement programs through a variety of public-private partnerships.
  5. Content: US refugee programs, unlike those of their European counterparts, are strongly oriented toward self-sufficiency.


  • US and EU officials recognize their respective strengths and limitations regarding resettlement. While the EU’s numbers are limited, they could be used to complement US efforts, by concentrating on specific groups which do not fit into US priorities (e.g., Palestinians in the past). They also recognize the potential synergy that can be achieved through enhanced EU-US cooperation with participation of all stakeholders.
  • This shared perspective should be confirmed by reinforcing existing mechanisms for cooperation, notably in the Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement (ATCR) and the Working Group on Resettlement (WRG).
  • There are ways to build upon/strengthen these mechanisms, including by 1) expanding the preparatory/coordination work leading to ATCR at the EU level, 2) using the ATCR as a vehicle for encouraging Member States to engaging in national discussions on resettlement, and 3) US officials participating in pre-ATCR talks in Brussels.
  • Besides working through such mechanisms, US officials and their EU counterparts need to find ways to open and improve channels of communication/outreach to the media, political leaders, asylum administrations, and receiving communities both in order to inject a sense of “urgency” into deliberations about resettlement and to “showcase” resettlement successes.
  • To earn a “strategic dividend”, it is necessary to raise the number of those resettled. While it is unlikely that the number of refugees resettled in Europe will rise substantially in the short term, there are nonetheless other steps that Europe could be encouraged to take, including the adoption of protection-sensitive strategies whereby refugees could have temporary access to the territory of the EU: this would be particularly useful in situations of emergency (e.g., the recent crisis in North Africa).
  • With a view towards achieving greater “complementarity” in employing resettlement as a durable solution and strategic tool, the US and EU could: 1) refer cases to each other to find places for those who need immediate rescue or a “safety net”, and 2) identify comparative advantages / competencies within EU and between US and EU (i.e. in terms of numbers, housing, medical services, etc.).
  • The EU and US could explore how to “leverage” resettlement, including how to bring diplomacy into the resettlement equation.
  • At the institutional level, there are a number of collaborative initiatives that the US and EU could undertake, ranging from planning joint missions and field visits to municipalities to obtain recipes for making resettlement work to hosting staff.
  • Exchanges of models and best practices could prove helpful in several areas related to resettlement policy/programs, including 1) the development of whole-of-government approaches and 2) the building of “constituencies for resettlement” at the municipal level.