Refugee resettlement is a tried and tested protection tool, pathway to safety, and means of supporting displaced people and the countries that welcome them. As multiple crises around the world lead to a greater number of displaced people than ever before, it is imperative that EU countries not only honour their existing pledges, but commit to growing and future-proofing their resettlement programmes in the years to come.

In October 2022, EU countries will be reporting their pledges for how many refugees they plan to welcome through this protection pathway in 2023.

The IRC is calling on EU member states to revive and scale up their resettlement pledges for 2023, including resettling at least 40,000 refugees next year from across regions in need, and pledging a minimum of 8,500 additional places for Afghan refugees.  

Here are seven reasons why this is so important:

1. Resettlement needs have increased dramatically in the past decade, reaching unprecedented heights in 2023

Over 100 million people

forcibly displaced as of May 2022

This number represents a record high of 1% of the global population and includes refugees, asylum seekers as well as many millions of people displaced inside their own countries.

Of these 100 million people, 26.3 million are refugees, displaced across borders globally, as of May 2022.

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2 million refugees

in need of resettlement in 2023

The majority of people in need of resettlement originate from Syria, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and Myanmar.

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Only 39,266 refugees resettled

globally in 2021 - only 2.7% of needs.

Despite these rapidly rising needs and more people being in need of resettlement than ever before, global efforts have failed to keep pace.

EU countries resettled 15,660 refugees - far below its ability and less than 1.1% of global needs.

The deadly combination of conflict, climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and increasing inequality are contributing to these rapidly rising needs, while making it harder for major refugee-hosting countries to welcome and adequately support refugees. 

Yet current resettlement efforts by the international community are severely lagging behind needs. 

The impact will be most felt by particularly vulnerable refugees, who cannot receive lasting support or access long-term integration in the country where they have sought asylum, or cannot safely return to their homes. 

Resettlement is critical to relieve the pressures on countries receiving large numbers of refugees and provide lasting support to refugees in situations of particular vulnerability to enable them to rebuild their lives.

2. The world’s poorest countries have long shouldered the greatest responsibility for hosting refugees

It is very often the neighbouring countries of crisis areas that host the majority of refugees fleeing violence and hardship.

83% of refugees worldwide are hosted by low and middle-income countries, and 27% are hosted by countries accounting for less than 1.3% of the global GDP.

Many of these countries already face difficulties of their own, including conflict or insecurity, economic instability, food insecurity or health crises that limit their ability to provide adequate support and protection to refugees.

The humanitarian consequences of the conflict in Ukraine have only made these situations worse, with food insecurity reaching catastrophic levels due to disrupted grain exports and rising food and fuel prices. Major refugee-hosting countries and regions including Lebanon, Jordan and the Sahel are particularly affected by the increasing food insecurity.

In 2021, Turkey hosted 3.8 million refugees and asylum seekers, followed by Colombia, Uganda, and Pakistan

Graph showing breakdown of top 30 countries hosting refugees in 2021

Only three EU countries (Germany, France and Sweden) were among the top thirty refugee-hosting countries, and only Germany was in the top ten.

In the last decade, high-income countries have never hosted more than 19% of refugees.

3. EU resettlement consistently falls short of global needs

Despite the rapidly rising number of refugees in need of resettlement globally, resettlement efforts have failed to keep pace. This is partly due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which all but brought international travel to a halt and resulted in the lowest resettlement levels in a decade. 

However, while most travel restrictions have now been lifted, global resettlement programmes have yet to resume at their normal scale.

Resettlement efforts by EU countries are also falling short of addressing global needs.

In 2021, EU states resettled 15,660 refugees - less than 1.1% of global needs.

At the current pace, it would take the EU more than 60 years to meet just half of today’s refugee resettlement needs.

4. EU efforts also fall far short of countries’ ability

While most EU countries have launched some form of resettlement programme since 2015, many have allowed these to shrink or be dismantled since then.

For instance, in 2017, 20 EU countries (as well as the UK) were resettling refugees. This number fell to 15 EU countries (and the UK) in 2019. 

In 2021, only 12 EU countries were resettling refugees, and merely 10 countries so far in 2022. 

Not all EU countries contribute equally to resettlement. In 2021, 78% of all refugees resettled in the EU arrived in just three countries: Sweden, Germany and France. 

However, Sweden - the top EU country in terms of resettlement per capita - resettles only 0.43 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants each year, based on the last five years. Finland resettles 0.15 refugees per 1,000 people, whereas France and Germany both resettle fewer than 0.05 refugees per 1,000 people each year.

Lastly, EU efforts are falling short of states’ own commitments, with annual pledged places often not being honoured in full nor in time.  

Member states had pledged to resettle more than 20,000 refugees in 2022. However, as of July, only 7,240 resettled refugees have arrived in the EU - making it likely that these commitments will not be met in time, and that valuable protection places will be wasted. As a result, thousands of refugees who could have been given access to lasting protection will instead remain in limbo. 

Europe’s response to the several million refugees fleeing Ukraine has shown that EU countries have the capacity to welcome a far greater number of people in need of international protection, when a political decision is taken to do so. 

5. Opportunities for resettlement are not equal among refugee groups and many groups in serious need are overlooked

There are important geographic inequities in the countries from which resettlement to the EU takes place - meaning that this vital protection tool and safe pathway is not equally accessible for refugees in need across regions, and that resettlement places are not always offered to the host countries that need them the most.

Most resettlement to EU countries has taken place from Turkey and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, with Syrian refugees being the primary beneficiaries - the nationality with the greatest needs for seven years in a row. However, other nationalities in high need are at risk of being left behind. 

Refugees from Afghanistan have the second highest resettlement needs globally for 2023 (14%), with over a quarter of a million Afghan refugees in need of resettlement in Iran and Pakistan alone. Despite this, only 4,356 Afghan refugees have been resettled to the EU’s 27 member states since 2010.

Similarly, there is very limited resettlement to EU countries from the rest of the African continent - the region with greatest refugee resettlement needs and which continues to experience several displacement crises.

In 2019, 660,000 refugees hosted in African countries were in need of resettlement, but only 24,248 resettlement places were offered globally. 77% of these were pledged by countries outside the EU, including the US, Canada and Australia.

Similarly, solutions like Emergency Transit Mechanisms (ETMs), which aim to evacuate vulnerable refugees from Libya to Rwanda and Niger with a view to their onward resettlement or local integration, continue to be under-supported. Only 8,785 asylum seekers and refugees have departed from Libya on direct resettlement and evacuation flights, as well as through complementary pathways including humanitarian visas and family reunification, between 2017 and August 2022.

In Libya, an estimated 2,469 refugees and asylum seekers remain trapped in arbitrary detention in horrific conditions, and others continue to be denied access to services and protection or exposed to human rights violations. Further, UNHCR estimates that 394,600 refugees along the Central Mediterranean Route and Rwanda will be in need of resettlement in 2023. 

Long-term solutions and pathways to safety are urgently needed to address these gaps.

6. Everyone wins with resettlement - refugees, countries of first asylum and the countries that welcome them

Every single resettlement place filled by a refugee in need has an immensely positive impact: 

  • For refugees, resettlement provides an opportunity for a fresh start in a stable new home, empowering people to regain control of their lives and integrate into a society that recognises their rights;
  • For countries of first asylum, it demonstrates international solidarity, and frees up resources to better protect and support refugees remaining on their territory - both encouraging and enabling them to continue offering a safe haven; and
  • For receiving communities, resettlement allows for the effective reception and integration of recognised refugees. Refugees often thrive and contribute immensely to their communities, building their families and careers, and gaining citizenship.

However the inverse - delays or failures in upholding resettlement places - has catastrophic and costly consequences, not just for refugees but for countries of first asylum and resettlement countries alike.

Delays and shortfalls result in large numbers of refugees being forced to wait without any certainty as to their futures, which has a severe, negative impact on their lives and wellbeing.

For the countries of first asylum that shoulder the majority of refugees, failures by other countries in upholding their resettlement commitments simply adds to the pressure of hosting people in need, rather than relieving it.

It can also be costly for resettling states. Once resettlement systems are allowed to shrink or be dismantled, it is an expensive, complex and time-consuming process to rebuild them. The IRC witnessed this ourselves in the United States, when severe cuts were made to resettlement programmes during the Trump Administration.

In Europe, important expertise has been secured around resettlement in recent years. Yet, resettlement programmes have faced successive hits, including the suspension of resettlement flights during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Afghanistan emergency in 2021 prompting a focus on urgent evacuations - which however came at the expense of long-term resettlement programmes, and mass displacement from Ukraine contributing to pressure on European reception systems and requiring renewed investment. 

Without urgent investment and renewed commitment, lasting and tragic damage could be done to this crucial protection tool and safe pathway.

7. The EU can and should do far more to support refugees in need, starting with ambitious new commitments for 2023

Between now and October 2022, EU countries will be preparing their commitments for how many refugees they will welcome through resettlement next year, with financial support from the European Commission. 

In response to the rapidly rising needs, all EU countries should invest into expanding and kickstarting their resettlement programmes and demonstrate true global leadership in upholding refugee protection.

Refugee resettlement: What the EU must do

To provide a lifeline to refugees in situations of particular vulnerability, build on its existing commitments to expanding pathways to protection and demonstrating global solidarity, and maintain credibility as a geopolitical and humanitarian actor, the EU and its member states must:

Meet their pledges to welcome over 20,000 refugees in 2022
Honour their commitment to admit nearly 40,000 Afghans at risk this year
Make investments to minimise bottlenecks and delays in resettlement programmes
Increase future pledges: 40,000 refugees in 2023 + 8,500 places for Afghan refugees
Strengthen and future-proof their resettlement programmes
Create a more structured, longstanding EU policy on resettlement

For more information about refugee resettlement, visit our explainer article.

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