Survey the Potential for Refugee Responsibility-Sharing through Expanded Third Country Resettlement

Prospects for expanded third country resettlement programs are diminishing. More countries are either reducing programs or creating limited special pathways for select groups of refugees. Fewer countries are indicating more systemic support for all groups of refugees.

As the numbers of displaced people continues to rise globally, the responsibility-sharing of refugee resettlement continues to remain highly uneven. Though the UN Global Compact on Refugees initiated in 2016 and formally adopted in December 2018 specifically addressed equitable responsibility sharing, third country resettlement efforts have continued to lag. The wave of support for Ukrainian refugees last year, generated more public sympathy and support in some countries for those fleeing conflict as we explain below. Therefore, there seemed to be a potential for greater acceptance of refugees in general for new and expanded resettlement programs. Though some also feared that the Ukrainian crisis would lead to declining resources for other, longer-term refugee groups and programs. A year after the beginning of the war in Ukraine, we reviewed support for refugee resettlement across a range of countries, and the trends in refugee policies globally as part of a US Department of State Diplomacy Lab project. This project was meant to assess the potential for expanding the currently narrow third country resettlement space and take a look ahead at the future of refugee resettlement. The selection of countries for this project was based on surveying places where there might be a potential for change. In this short narrative we summarize our findings focusing on the countries within our survey where found the most change.

As per the latest UNHCR Global Trends Report the initial refugee hosting responsibility falls disproportionately on just a few countries globally. Turkey continues to be the host for the largest number of refugees in the world with a total of 3.8 million refugees, followed by Colombia with 1.8 million and Uganda and Pakistan with 1.5 million each. Low and middle-income countries disproportionally host 83% of the world’s refugees while high-income countries only host 16% of the world’s refugees. An important way for this to be eased is to expand third country resettlement efforts.

Such efforts however have been very limited. The United States used to have the largest resettlement program in the world, taking in a yearly average of about 90,000 refugees since it began in 1980. However, reduced political support from the Trump administration led to a substantial reduction in the intake in the years 2016-2020. Canada overtook the U.S., resettling the highest number of 20,400 refugees through the traditional UNHCR resettlement in 2021 and expanded this number to over 55,000 in 2022. It has also announced plans to continue with these expanded numbers over the next few years. The U.S has remained the second largest program, resettling 25,000 refugees in 2022 and has announced expanded refugee admission cap closer to its previous totals for 2023. Sweden was a distance third with 6,700 refugees resettled in 2021. The overall resettlement numbers therefore remain woefully inadequate; UNHCR estimated that only 4% of the total 1.4 million people who require resettlement were resettled in 2021.

It is in this context that we examined a range of countries in Asia, Europe, and Latin America to determine the potential for new or expanded resettlement programs. The suggestion to explore the range of countries began with a collaboration with the U.S. Department of State. As part of the Diplomacy Lab initiative, the U.S. Department of State collaborates with universities by providing topics/questions for research. We then independently pursued this research, and the methods, findings and analysis are entirely ours and do not reflect any State Department priorities. For each country, we examined their historical engagement with refugee issues, current resettlement process if any, and data on accepted numbers of refugees from UN and other sources. We also analyzed in country media coverage on refugee issues, and overall political support for refugees by examining general political rhetoric and available statements on the topics from current heads of state and ruling parties.

We found that in Asia there was a potential for new and expanded resettlement programs to emerge in Japan and South Korea, two countries which have historically not been very open to refugees or migrants in general. Since it began recognizing refugee applications in 1982, Japan has resettled only 1,400 refugees. However, in 2021 there was a marked shift in policy when refugee status was granted to 72 individuals who were then eligible for resettlement in Japan. This represented the biggest number of refugees resettled in Japan in any previous year. A larger group of refugees were from Myanmar, followed by Afghanistan. In 2022 refugee status was granted to a little over 200 individuals, including about 133 Afghans. Also, in 2022 Japan accepted over 2,000 Ukrainians fleeing the war and made temporarily resident permits available to them. Some have questioned the quicker response to the Ukrainian crisis versus the still small numbers of asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Myanmar However, many, including some scholars we spoke to expect Japan to continue to raise its annual refugee quota to a few hundred in the next few years, suggesting that the Ukrainian crisis led to more openness in overall support for refugees. Japan therefore is making a small but hopeful departure from its past hesitation in having a substantial refugee resettlement program. Similarly in South Korea, there was not much of a history of resettlement prior to 2022. On average only 30 refugees were being resettled each year and at times there has been active hostility and suspicion against refugee claimants. However, in 2022 the new administration of President Yoon Suk Yeol extended support for the Ukrainian Crisis through humanitarian assistance and has vocalized a new openness to adhering to global refugee protection as part of a vision for a greater role for South Korea in global citizenship. There is therefore an expectation that like Japan, South Korea could also begin expanding refugee resettlement.

In Europe on the other hand there is much less hope for expansion of third country resettlement programs. Countries like Poland and Romania with very scant prior histories of hosting refugees now host some of the highest numbers of temporary Ukrainian refugees. Romania was also the first EU country to implement a longer-term plan for aiding and resettling Ukrainian refugees with the National Plan adopted in July 2022. However, these countries have also made it clear that such plans are only for Ukrainian refugees and explicitly exclude any other groups of refugees or asylum seekers. The scope of refugee resettlement for other groups has also narrowed in other part of Europe with declining political support for example in UK, France, and Italy. After being the third largest resettlement country, Sweden announced a drastic reduction in the annual resettlement quota from over 5.000 to 900 in early 2023. Reflecting the priorities of the new center-right government coalition which came into power in 2022, this reduction is part of an overall efforts to tighten immigration policies. The incoming Prime Minister had indicated that immigration to Sweden had overall become unsustainable.

Countries in Latin America such as Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Argentina have been focusing their attention and humanitarian efforts on the Venezuelan refugee crisis. Many have created special extended residency permits for Venezuelan Refugees. Colombia for example created the temporary protection status for Venezuelans fleeing the economic crisis in 2021. This enabled them to get 10-year resident permits. By creating this alternative path, Venezuelans no longer needed to apply for refugee status. This also meant that the same option would not be available more generally to other groups of refugees.

Similarly, Brazil was one of the earlier countries in the region to provide immediate regularization and recognition of refugee status for Venezuelan asylum seekers beginning in 2019 which included two-year residence permits. Brazil was also one of the few countries to issue humanitarian visas to Afghans attempting to leave after the Taliban takeover in 2021. However, there was no official program of support for them which made it hard to apply for and seek support for resettlement in Brazil once they arrived there. This has led to questions about the disparate treatment of Afghan refugees versus Venezuelans. However, there is some progress towards an overall improvement in the political climate towards refugees. Brazil rejoined the UN compact on global migration in 2023, from which it had withdrawn under the previous Bolsonaro government. The new government of President Lula Da Silva has indicated they would prioritize a National Policy on refugees which would include allocating funds for resettlement.

Overall, our survey pointed towards two trends. One there is a small opening of potential newer or expanded third country resettlement programs to emerge in countries like Japan, Korea, Brazil, and Canada. However, it is unlikely that this will lead to a significant expansion in global resettlement soon, given the contraction in programs in much of Europe. The problem of highly unequal refugee burdens seems likely to continue. The second trend points to a potential fragmentation in refugee policy and practice. In several regions, new programs that are limited to special categories of refugees have emerged. For example, the special provisions for Ukrainian refugees and the temporary residence programs for Venezuelans in Latin American.  Fewer countries are indicating more systematic support for refugees or implementing policies for all refugees.

It is not clear that the lessons from the Ukrainian and Venezuelan experience can be applied more universally. This raises crucial questions about the future of global refugee protection in the spirit of the 1951 Refugee Convention and Protocol (1967) and the troubling potential for hierarchies in refugee status. In both these cases neighboring middle-and high-income countries have been quick to create special pathways. However, in a different regional context, neighboring countries may not have similar resources to create these pathways. Refugees emerging from conflicts in poorer regions of the world will continue to be disadvantaged and face greater uncertainties if this trend to create special pathways continues to reflect narrow regional priorities. It is for this reason that we hope our efforts and others can continue to renew attention on general third country resettlement programs by recognizing expanding or new programs and greater scrutiny of those seeking to contract such programs.


Author information:

Ramya Vijaya has extensive research experience on refugee resettlement issues. She has published several pieces on the topic, both scholarly articles Link as well as media pieces Link. LinkedIn Profil: Link

Ingrid Rivero-Bautista is a graduate research assistant persuing a Master’s in Refugee Displacement Studies.

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