The COVID-19 Resettlement Suspension: Impact, Exemptions and the Road Ahead


COVID-19 has considerably reduced international mobility, including refugee resettlement travel. On 17 March 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) announced the suspension of international resettlement departures for refugees except for ‘the most critical emergency cases wherever possible’. This blog post (also published in German) assesses the global impact of the resettlement suspension on the admission of resettled refugees, discusses exemptions to the suspension, and offers brief reflections on the road ahead.


Assessing the impact of the COVID-19 resettlement suspension

Refugee resettlement aims to provide a long-term settlement perspective for refugees who already live outside of their country of origin yet are unable to return and or to sustainably remain in their first country of refuge. Contrary to asylum, refugee resettlement is not based on international law. Globally, a few dozen states voluntarily engage in refugee resettlement, yet still heavily rely on UNHCR and IOM for the selection of potential resettlement candidates and the organization of resettlement travel. Resettlement remains a marginal form of international protection. In 2019, according to UNHCR, there were 25.9 million refugees and 92,400 refugees were resettled globally.

Many refugees are resettled following a referral of their case by UNHCR to resettling states. This is the main mode of resettlement in European Union (EU) member states engaging in resettlement, such as Sweden, Germany, and France. However, internal relocation of refugees between EU member states is not counted as part of UNHCR referrals. In addition, many other resettlement cases are not based on UNHCR referrals, notably in traditional resettlement countries such as the United States of America (USA), Canada and Australia. Therefore, the following paragraphs use a range of statistics to assess the numerical impact of the resettlement freeze.

In late April 2020, IOM reported that the resettlement suspension led to the cancellation of travel plans ‘for 9353 refugees it had planned to help resettle’ between February and May 2020. The impact of the COVID-19 resettlement freeze on resettlement cases referred by UNHCR can be measured using UNHCR’s Resettlement Data Finder. UNHCR had planned the departure of 70,000 refugees for resettlement in 2020. According to its Resettlement Data Finder, as of June 9,758 refugees had been resettled worldwide.

Canada, currently the global resettlement leader, had planned to resettle 30,000 refugees in 2020, including 10,000 government-assisted refugees and 1,700 blended visa office referred refugees (two resettlement categories always based on a UNHCR referral), as well as 20,000 privately sponsored refugees. According to UNHCR’s Resettlement Data Finder, 1465 refugees had been resettled to Canada as of June 2020. No data on the number of privately sponsored refugees resettled in 2020 has been made publicly available so far.

Quite detailed data is available on resettlement to the USA, the second-largest resettling state, where a large proportion of resettlement also occurs outside of UNHCR referrals. The USA had set of resettlement target of 18,000 for the financial year 2019/2020, and by 12 March 2020 had resettled 7,163 refugees.

Germany has in the last decade become one of the largest resettling states of the EU, and had pledged to resettle 5,500 refugees in 2020. In 2020 and concretely until June 2020, Germany had resettled 1113 refugees according to UNHCR’s Resettlement Data Finder and Caritas.

This brief overview shows that as we are approaching the middle of the year, considerable efforts would have to be made to ensure that refugees eligible for resettlement in 2020 can indeed do so.

Meanwhile, individuals and families that were set to go are in limbo for the foreseeable future. The resettlement suspension is extending family separations, and is particularly hard to bear for refugees awaiting resettlement in particularly precarious situations, such as LGBTQ refugees. Some refugees whose resettlement was imminent, sold all their belongings and find themselves in increased precarity. Refugees who were resettled shortly before the resettlement freeze also had to start a new life with restricted access to support services such as translation and interpreting, access to adequate housing or basic furniture, and many lost jobs they had just found. This is particularly worrisome when newly resettled refugees are excluded from welfare measures adopted to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, which in many cases excludes newcomers with precarious status. The freeze is also problematic for private refugee sponsors (often themselves former refugees), as they have to put on hold organized housing and jobs for refugees who have to wait for an undefined period of time, and it is unclear whether accomodations and jobs will still be available once resettlement travel resumes.


Exemptions to the current resettlement suspension

As mentioned at the beginning of this blog, IOM and UNHCR have pledged to exempt ‘most critical emergency cases’ from the resettlement suspension. The press release on the resettlement freeze does not further define emergency cases. UNHCR’s Resettlement Handbook, which is the main source of ‘soft law’ aiming to guide resettlement globally, states that there are three resettlement priority levels, the most urgent being ‘emergency priority’ that applies to resettlement cases in which a refugee’s security or health is so compromised that resettlement has to occur within hours.

Extensive data on exemptions to the current resettlement suspension is not available, yet the next paragraphs offer an analysis of various press releases and media reports on resettlement during COVID-19 to gauge the situation.

In late April 2020, IOM noted that it had arranged ‘the emergency resettlement of 102 refugees to Germany, USA, Canada, Luxembourg and Australia’ since March, without providing further publicly available information on these cases. In late May 2020, the Centre for Migration Studies New York reported that 118 refugees had been resettled to the USA between mid-March and 22 May.

It is likely the IOM figures includes around 60 minor refugees relocated from Greek refugee camps to Germany and Luxembourg as part of a pledge for intra-EU refugee relocation by several EU member states made on 6 March 2020, and therefore just days before international travel bans and the resettlement freeze.

Originally, Germany intended to resettle unaccompanied minors, with prioritisation of girls under the age of 14 years in ill health, and Luxembourg intended to resettle Syrian children under 14 years of age with prospects of family reunification. Germany changed its relocation criteria several times from early March; according to NGOs working with refugees in Greece it was hard to know which criteria were eventually to be used, and to communicate the rationale for this to children and families waiting for resettlement. Luxembourg’s original selection criteria were found to not reflect the reality of the Greek refugee camps, where most unaccompanied minors are boys. Eventually, 12 children were resettled in Luxembourg and 47 in Germany. Most of the selected children did have family members in either country, some were older than 14 and most were boys. Very sick children were not able to travel given the speed at which paperwork had to be organised. In Germany, it was noted that many children could have been admitted under EU family reunification rules instead.

Thus, the selection of children eventually relocated to Germany and Luxembourg during the pandemic was the object of negotiations between various stakeholders, and bureaucratic considerations played a key role in determining priorities. Though certainly all unaccompanied minors are unsafe in overcrowded refugee camps, many practitioners on the ground have argued that particularly vulnerable children were not prioritised. France is set to receive 750 unaccompanied minors from Greece in July; which relocation criteria will be used is unclear so far.

Another exemption to the COVID-19 resettlement freeze has occurred between Australia and the USA. In 2016, the USA accepted to resettle refugees whom Australia is denying resettlement on its territory because of their arrival as undocumented asylum-seekers on the seas, and who have been living in Australia-funded accommodations in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, or had been transferred to Australia from these countries for medical treatment. So far between March and June 2020, more than 40 refugees in this situation have left Australia or Papua New Guinea for the USA. Media reports noted that several of the 40 resettled refugees had underlying medical conditions, yet also noted that the USA was keen for the transfers between Australia and the USA to finish as soon as possible. It is likely that political considerations played a role in gauging the urgency of this resettlement operation.


Refugee resettlement post-COVID 19

Pledges have been made by various resettlement stakeholders, including the European Commission, to focus on resettlement preparation during the pandemic, so as to be best able to swiftly resume resettlement travel operations once travel bans are lifted. Yet the longer these bans are in place, the unlikelier it is that 2020 resettlement objectives will be met, and it is so far unclear whether resettling states will add planned departures for 2020 to their 2021 resettlement targets, or de facto reduce 2020 resettlement admissions.

As colleagues and I wrote elsewhere, the resettlement suspension came at an inopportune time for refugee resettlement, whose numbers have declined in recent years because of the considerable reduction of resettlement admission in the USA under the Trump administration. Historically, however, resettlement has experienced strong ebbs and flows, depending on the willingness of states to resettle as well as international events with global impacts, such as the end of the Cold War, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and past outbreaks of contagious diseases.

It is likely that refugee resettlement will endure as a discretionary instrument of humanitarian governance, combining care and control and riddled with power dynamics. Even exemptions to the resettlement suspension are an example of this: UNHCR’s ‘emergency resettlement’ definition was not strictly followed as implementation reflected humanitarian concerns as much as political motives and bureaucratic rationales. More than ever, mobilisation at all levels is necessary to ensure that refugees’ interests and concerns are not left out of refugee resettlement.


This blog post was also published in German and is part of the series Consequences of COVID-19 for Forced Migration and Refugees on the FluchtforschungsBlog.


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