FREE CHAPTER from ‘A Practical Guide to Refugee Resettlement in the United Kingdom’ by Sandra Akinbolu


International refugee law addresses the immediate recognition of refugees and the short-term protection for those fleeing situations of persecution in their home countries. It does not provide for long-term or durable solutions; that has been worked out in practice over the years. The preferred durable solution within the international community is for refugees to voluntarily return to their homes once the situation of persecution has been safely resolved, and international political will focusses on this option, both as a means of maintaining pressure on their home countries to resolve those situations and to avoid long term political and financial drains on refugee hosting countries, usually those adjacent to the home country. Nonetheless, many refugee populations remain outside from their home countries for considerable periods, and thus other durable solutions have had to be found.

Resettlement is one of the durable solutions proposed for those who have fled their countries of origin in order to seek international protection. The best definition for refugee resettlement can be found in the UNHCR Resettlement Handbook:

Resettlement involves the selection and transfer of refugees from a State in which they have protection to a third State that has agreed to admit them – as refugees – with permanent residence status. The status provided ensures protection against refoulement and provides a resettled refugee and his/her family or dependants with access to rights similar to those enjoyed by nationals. Resettlement also carries with it the opportunity to eventually become a naturalized citizen of the resettlement country.”1

Resettlement offers a mechanism for burden-sharing within the international community. The vast majority of refugees cross borders and remain in countries adjacent to their home country,2 placing sometimes enormous responsibility on countries that often do not have the financial and political capital to cope. In recent years, resettlement has increasingly been portrayed as a means of reducing irregular routes of migration and combatting the trade in trafficking of persons.3

Resettlement goes far beyond the relocation of refugees; resettlement States commit to receiving refugees and assisting with their integration into the host country. Integration is a complex and gradual process with legal, economic, social and cultural dimensions. It imposes considerable demands on both the individual and the receiving society, which will invest funds into providing access to education and the labour market, assisting with linguistic integration and providing for medical and other needs. It requires a willingness for host communities to be welcoming and responsive to refugees and for public institutions to meet the needs of a diverse population. On the part of the refugee, it involves an understanding that there will be a need to adapt to the lifestyle in the host country, without losing their cultural and ethnic identities.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] is the body charged by the international community with overseeing the resettlement process. It’s two core objectives, of “providing international protection” and “seeking permanent solutions for the problem of refugees”, mean that the resettlement of refugees falls squarely within its mandate.4 UNHCR notes that resettlement serves three functions: (i) resettlement is an important protection tool to meet the specific needs of refugees whose fundamental rights are at risk in the country where they sought asylum; (ii) resettlement offers refugees a long term solution by ending their displacement, and (iii) resettlement is an international responsibility sharing mechanism because it signals support for countries hosting large refugee populations.

Art 1A of the 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as a person “who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” UNHCR recognise a wider definition of refugees and supports those who are fleeing conflict or persecution. In both scenarios, to be a refugee, the person must be outside their country of nationality and in danger should they return there.

International refugee law sits within a body of international and regional human rights instruments. The right to seek asylum is recognized as a basic human right set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.5 The fundamental right of the refugee is not to be refouled, that is sent back to the country in which they fear persecution or ill-treatment.6 However none of the international legislative instruments set out any entitlement to residence in any particular location.

Resettlement was once a popular long-term solution; in 1979, approximately five percent of the global refugee population was resettled. Since that date, numbers have declined. The UNHCR Framework for Durable Solutions for Refugees and Persons of Concern, concluded in September 2003, was the first international instrument pointing towards a greater international responsibility for refugees, and promoting greater burden sharing. Resettlement was a key part of that program but recognised as an appropriate solution mainly for individual refugees with special protection needs, made usually “only in the absence of other options such as voluntary repatriation and local integration”.7 Few countries have official resettlement programs, although ad hoc agreements are made on occasion in response to urgent needs.8

On average now, therefore, less than one percent of the world’s refugee population benefit from resettlement. The vast majority of refugees cross borders closest to their home and remain there. This can cause destabilisation for the local communities, who suddenly have to cater for the irregular movement of large numbers of people, placing strain on water, food, housing and education systems, amongst others. Refugees end up residing for lengthy periods in camps built for temporary purposes, unable to integrate into the host communities, and with no ability to make progress with their lives. In 2019, UNHCR identified 1.4 million refugees in need of resettlement.9 Almost all of these individuals were in the Middle East or in Africa. This number was 19% higher than in 2018 and 77% higher than in 2011. 81,000 people were submitted for resettlement by the UNHCR and 56,000 people were resettled. These numbers have been diminishing since 2015.

Resettlement has the added benefit of commanding public support for the refugees in the host country and allowing States to control the entry of those in need. Those identified as refugees prior to their arrival are able to provide social, economic and financial contributions to their host State on arrival, obviating the need for expensive and often prolonged status determination procedures.

The UNHCR process

UNHCR continually seeks to increase the number of places world-wide, citing the protective functions for the refugees themselves, and the need for increased responsibility and burden sharing. However, only a small number of countries provide regular places, and those that regard resettlement as important commitment to the global community are fewer still.10 The UNHCR resettlement handbook, first published in 1996, has been used by hundreds of UNHCR staff, resettlement country operatives and partner NGOs to help hundreds of thousands of refugees find new settled lives in new countries. The handbook, last revised in 2011, but regularly updated to contain the various country programs, is an essential read for anyone involved in resettlement.

UNHCR operates in most countries in which there are large refugee communities. They will seek to address the protection concerns of refugees located in that country, often by finding a solution where they are located. Where a refugee’s protection concerns cannot be addressed where they are located, UNHCR may seek to resettle the refugee. The UNHCR office in the country of asylum where the refugee is located will review the case. If a refugee is identified for resettlement by UNHCR they will be referred to an appropriate resettlement country. When UNHCR submits refugees for resettlement, the resettlement country makes the final decision on whether to accept their case.

Resettlement is effected with the consent of the refugee. Art 31(2) of the Refugee Convention requires States to grant refugees the time and access to facilities to pursue resettlement options before settling on alternative long-term solutions in the host State. The includes affording the refugee time to apply for a visa or consideration within a scheme run or administrated by UNHCR, suspending removal or relocation plans of the host State for a “reasonable period”. Refugees should also be assisted with the process and permitted to travel to the relevant diplomatic or other offices necessary to make those arrangements.

UNHCR partners with various local and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to help with assessing needs and to build links with various resettlement programs. That partnership includes identifying refugees in particular need of resettlement, either because of a heightened risk, or a specific characteristic meaning resettlement is the most appropriate need for them. Such identification may take a variety of forms and may be brought to UNHCR’s attention in a variety of ways, from simply flagging the case, to a more in-depth case write-up.11 As such, in practice, referral to a particular scheme will often be done by an NGO working with the refugee community – often those providing legal, medical or psychosocial support in host camps. Referrals can also be made from legal partners in the resettlement country, either directly to bodies overseeing a particular resettlement scheme in the country of proposed resettlement, or more often to UNHCR.

NGOs conduct resettlement related assessments with refugees, often in the form of interviews, focussed on their experiences in the country of origin, details of their flight from that country, experiences in the country of asylum, opportunities for other durable solutions such as local integration or voluntary repatriation, and any immediate protection concerns and/or specific profile for resettlement consideration (e.g. women-at-risk, unaccompanied minors etc), and then referring the case to UNHCR for review, approval and onward submission to a resettlement country. Submission can be made directly to the country of proposed resettlement, subject to the specific terms of that program. NGOs can assist with identifying groups of refugees with similar backgrounds and protection needs and who might qualify for resettlement. In these cases, NGOs can document the situation of the group and their need for resettlement according to UNHCR’s guidelines, and then forward information to UNHCR and/or a resettlement country for consideration.

Upon receipt of internal or external referrals of cases potentially in need of resettlement, UNHCR assesses resettlement needs of the referred cases in line with UNHCR resettlement criteria, guidelines, priorities and policy considerations. Once the decision has been made to submit the case for resettlement, UNHCR prepares a resettlement submission. This process includes preparing the Resettlement Registration Form (RRF) and appropriate documentation, depending on the applicable resettlement criterion. Upon reaching a final decision based on a thorough review of documentation, UNHCR submits the case to a resettlement State

UNHCR Preconditions for Resettlement Consideration

UNHCR operates a general set of conditions for individuals to be considered as eligible for resettlement, independent of the additional criteria imposed for specific schemes.12 An applicant must have been determined to be a refugee by UNHCR – ie has gone through a status identification process; and the prospects for all durable solutions have been assessed, and resettlement is identified as the most appropriate solution. Thereafter, referrals for resettlement are considered according to 3 priority levels:

  • Emergency:

    • Security and/or medical condition requires immediate removal. Ideally, there would be a seven-day maximum between the submission of an emergency case and the refugee’s departure.

  • Urgent:

    • Serious medical risks or other vulnerabilities requiring expedited resettlement within six weeks of submission.

  • Normal:

    • The majority of cases without immediate medical, social or security concerns which would merit expedited processing

UNHCR operates seven categories for submission for resettlement:13

  • Legal and/or physical protection needs, identified where there is

    • Risk of immediate or long-term threat of refoulement to the country of origin or expulsion to another country from where the refugee may be refouled; or

    • Threat of arbitrary arrest, detention or imprisonment: or

    • Threat to physical safety or human rights in the country of refuge which renders asylum untenable

  • Survivors of violence and/or torture, where the individual produces evidence that they have

    • has experienced torture and/or violence either in the country of origin or the country of asylum; and

    • may have lingering physical or psychological effects from the torture or violence, although there may be no apparent physical signs or symptoms; and

    • could face further traumatization and/or heightened risk due to the conditions of asylum or repatriation; and

    • may require medical or psychological care, support or counselling not available in the country of asylum; and

    • requires resettlement to meet their specific needs

  • Medical needs (very limited)

    • must provide evidence of a condition that is life-threatening, or involves an irreversible loss of functions, for which there is no accessible treatment in the country of asylum

    • identifiable and favourable treatment is available on resettlement

  • Women and girls at risk, defined as those who:

    • face a precarious security or physical protection threat as a result of her gender;

    • have specific needs arising from past persecution and/or trauma;

    • face severe hardship resulting in exposure to exploitation and abuse; or

    • lack access to traditional or alternative support and protection mechanisms.

  • Family reunification with family in a resettlement country

  • Children and adolescents at risk

    • subject to a best interests determination

    • considerations of family links to host country and country of origin

    • considerations of the services and support packages available are relevant

  • Lack of foreseeable alternative durable solutions

    • Commonly used for group resettlement where there is a protracted crisis in the country of origin and large refugee populations causing crises in the country of asylum.

Individuals may meet one or several of the categories. The most common resettlement affects those with legal and/or physical protection needs, often combined with medical emergencies. In areas of largescale displacement, medical facilities are rarely capable of catering to severe medical conditions.

Once identified as a person in need of resettlement, UNHCR will seek to refer the individual or family to an appropriate program. UNHCR resettlement staff member will prepare and submit a Resettlement Registration Form (RRF), that includes biographical information on each person on the case, a comprehensive outline of the refugee claim and of the UNHCR determination for each adult, a detailed explanation of the need for resettlement, information on any specific needs and vulnerabilities, and any additional information including dependency assessments.

UNHCR will also identify a suitable resettlement State. Suitability considerations will include: family links, particularly those in resettlement States; UNHCR resettlement submission priority, vulnerability, and the resettlement country’s average processing time and capacity for urgent processing; selection criteria and admission priorities of resettlement countries; allocation of annual quotas of resettlement States; health requirements and the availability of treatment in the resettlement country; language abilities; cultural aspects; nationality; family configuration; and, if possible: the refugee’s expressed preference for a resettlement country.

UNHCR makes a referral to the resettlement State, which will then undertake its own assessment. Each State has its own procedures for making the assessment. If accepted, UNHCR works with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to provide medical screening, access to travel documentation and to organise travel, where possible with the assistance of the resettlement country. IOM will also provide support with post-arrival integration where needed.

State Selection

Actual resettlement depends on the identification of a suitable resettlement country, and the willingness of the country to accept the referral, in accordance with its own policies and laws. Each case must include a principal applicant who has been identified as a refugee, and meet the resettlement needs identified in accordance with the identification categories above.14 Thereafter, UNHCR will consider a number of factors, in order to determine which of the various global resettlement schemes is appropriate for the particular family. Those factors will include:15

  • family links, particularly those in resettlement States;

  • resettlement submission priority, vulnerability, and the resettlement country’s average processing time and capacity for urgent processing;

  • selection criteria and admission priorities of resettlement countries;

  • allocation of annual quotas of resettlement States;

  • health requirements/availability of treatment;

  • language abilities;

  • cultural aspects;

  • nationality;

  • family configuration; and, if possible:

  • the refugees expressed preference for a resettlement country

Resettlement countries consider referrals usually on the basis of the written referral, and do not interview the refugee personally. Some States will identify a particular refugee population or region from which they will accept referrals; others leave it to UNHCR to determine. UNHCR may also approach countries without a specific resettlement scheme, as some States accept resettled refugees on an ad hoc basis. A useful list of the various country programs can be found on the Country Chapters of the UNHCR Handbook.

Some States undergo selection missions, allowing them to conduct assessments and gain familiarity with the context in which a particular refugee population is living. Such missions are planned in conjunction with UNHCR and usually require an agreement ahead of time as to the proposed number of families the mission will accept. State may conduct interviews with selected families, which allows family members to provide any such additional information as they feel necessary. States may request additional information but UNHCR may only disclose such information as is necessary, in conjunction with its own Confidentiality Guidelines.16

Decisions by the resettlement country will be communicated to the UNHCR field office from which the referral has come. It is then for the UNHCR staff to inform the refugee family of that decision. Where the decision is a positive decision, the next step is make arrangement for departure, and UNHCR will collaborate with the IOM and governments in both the host States and the resettlement country to ensure that pre-departure preparation are completed. If the decision is a rejection, the reasons should be carefully considered, and UNHCR will determine whether the case warrant a resubmission or not. That in turn will be communicated with the refugee family, who have a right to be provided with the reasons for the rejection. Where there is further information or the circumstances change, UNHCR may approach the resettlement country and request a review. In the alternative, UNHCR may consider resubmitting the application to a different resettlement State, although given the disparity in numbers seeking resettlement and places offered, that is rare.17

On occasion, a decision will be made to accept the referral on behalf of some members of a family, and not others. UNHCR will normally seek to advocate in favour of keeping the family together but if the resettlement country refuses to reconsider, UNHCR will normally advise the family to withdraw their application and try another country. Refugee families may choose to take the pragmatic step of splitting the family, and in such cases, UNHCR provides some counselling in making that decision.

Resettlement is an international commitment, requiring global cooperation and organisation. UNHCR lies at the heart of the movements, integral both to the refugee status determination procedure, and the identification and referral of relevant refugees to suitable programs. Most resettlement countries, including the UK, work closely with UNHCR and thus it is vital that those working with resettled refugees understand the processes adopted.


1UNHCR Resettlement Handbook, Geneva, Revised edition July 2011 (available at

2UNHCR Refugee Data Finder, accessible at

3See for example Explanatory Memorandum to the Proposal for a Regulation of The European Parliament and Of The Council establishing a Union Resettlement Framework and amending Regulation (EU) No 516/2014 of the European Parliament and the Council

4The 1950 Statute of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, adopted by the General Assembly on 14 December 1950

5UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III)

6Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 28 July 1951, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 189, p. 137, Article 33

7UNHCR, Resettlement Handbook, at 2.

8See for example the response of the European Union to the vast displacement of people following the war in Ukraine

9UNHCR Resettlement Data, accessible on

10In its report, Final Report: The Three-Year Strategy (2019-2021) on Resettlement and Complementary Pathways, UNHCR note that in 2019, the last pre-pandemic year, resettlement submissions were accepted by just 29 countries. The number fell in the next 2 years.

11For more information, see the UNHCR-NGO Toolkit for Practical Cooperation on Resettlement

12UNHCR Resettlement Handbook, Chapter 6

13UNHCR Resettlement Handbook: Chapter 6

14UNHCR Resettlement Handbook, Chapter 7.6

15UNHCR Resettlement Handbook, Chapter 7.6

16UNHCR, Confidentiality Guidelines, 1 August 2001

17For more detail, see UNHCR, Guidelines on the Resubmission of Resettlement Cases, June 2011