Resettlement as a life saving tool

Refugees are already extremely vulnerable. However, there are some refugees who are threatened with refoulement to their country of origin or whose physical safety is seriously threatened in the country where they have sought refuge and who are at greater immediate risk. Therefore, they may have to be resettled on an emergency or urgent basis to ensure their safety. The following is one such story:

Due to war in her country of origin, Samira* and her family fled to a neighbouring country when she was very young. She was married at 14 years of age and returned to her country of origin with her husband some time later. Her husband and her in-laws were abusive and beat her regularly. Her husband also tried to force her to engage in prostitution for money when he could not find work. When she refused, he beat her. After spending years in this abusive relationship, she had no choice but to leave him and seek a better life.

Samira then remarried, but was located and attacked by her first husband’s family for “dis-honoring” them. Afraid for their lives, Samira and her new husband tried to flee, but they were arrested by the police and detained because they had married without the consent of Samira’s first husband. While in prison, Samira gave birth to their child.

Samira was eventually released from prison after more than a year, but her second husband was executed. Samira continued to suffer threats from her first husband’s family, which forced her to flee to again. It was at this point that she contacted UNHCR in her new country of refuge and was subsequently granted UNHCR Mandate refugee status.

Having suffered through years of physical and mental torture, which was continuing to have an effect on her well-being, and in the absence of any other permanent solution, her case for resettlement was prioritized as urgent. Submitted to a resettlement country with a specialized programme for urgent and emergency resettlement, her case was accepted within two days, and she and her child departed for a new life of safety some six weeks later.


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

Resettlement is one of three durable solutions UNHCR is mandated to implement in cooperation with States. It has a vital role for refugees whose life, liberty, safety, health or other human rights are at risk in the country where they sought refuge. Resettlement is thus an important tool for international protection as well as a durable solution. Where local integration is not an option for legal or socio-economic reasons, and voluntary repatriation is not viable or feasible in the near future, resettlement may be the only durable solution available, especially in protracted refugee situations.

While the process of selection and departure for resettlement can often take from several months to a year to complete, resettlement on an emergency or urgent basis can enable individuals who face life-threatening conditions, such as those described above, to access immediate and life-saving protection. Although over 7,000 refugees are submitted for resettlement on an emergency or urgent basis each year, of the 27 resettlement countries, only eight countries currently offer specialized programmes for emergency and urgent resettlement, and primarily on a dossier basis. These programmes provide a combined total of some 900 places per year.

Dossier submissions themselves complement those places made available on selection missions. Moreover, they enable expedited resettlement processing for refugees with acute protection or health needs, and most particularly in countries of asylum that do not host regular selection missions or where security conditions restrict access to refugees.

All other cases submitted on an emergency and urgent basis are submitted under resettlement countries’ regular resettlement programmes. The capacity of these countries to expedite processing for emergency and urgent cases under their regular programmes is limited and, at best, these cases can be prioritised in the processing queue, but are rarely able to be processed within the ideal timeframes of seven days for emergency and six weeks for urgent cases set out in the UNHCR Resettlement Handbook. Even where cases are submitted under specialized programmes for emergency and urgent resettlement, only a few of the countries offering such programmes have the capacity to process them within the ideal timeframes.

The effectiveness of emergency and urgent resettlement processing is limited not only by the need for an increase in available dossier places, but also due to a range of other factors, from procedural constraints and lengthy security screening regulations, to challenges in identifying sufficient reception capacity in resettlement countries. This combination of factors can prolong the stay of refugees in some host countries and increase their exposure to protection risks. In fact, there have been cases in which refugees have been refouled or have died before a decision was made on their case for resettlement. Therefore, increasing opportunities for UNHCR to make emergency and urgent dossier submissions, and strengthening procedures for their expedited processing are critical to saving lives and enhancing the effectiveness of the resettlement programme.


UNHCR resettlement submissions have three priority levels: Emergency, Urgent and Normal. Resettlement submissions designated Emergency priority refers to cases where the immediacy of the security and/or medical condition necessitates removal from the threatening conditions within a few days, if not within hours. As mentioned, it may be necessary to ensure the security of refugees who are threatened with refoulement to their country of origin or who face serious or life-threatening risks to their physical safety in the country where they have sought refuge. Ideally, there is a seven-day maximum time period between the submission of an emergency case for acceptance by the resettlement country and the refugee’s departure. Some States have allocated emergency sub-quotas and have developed accelerated procedures to meet emergency needs, whereas other States, including some countries who do not have annual quotas, will consider emergency resettlement submissions and respond rapidly when the circumstances warrant.

Urgent resettlement applies to refugees who face conditions requiring their expeditious resettlement, but within a less limited time frame than indicated above. These refugees have serious medical risks or other vulnerabilities requiring expedited resettlement within six weeks of submission. Generally, urgent cases should be prepared and submitted to a resettlement State within two weeks of identification.

However, while some resettlement States are able to process cases within these established timeframes, the processing times for most emergency and urgent cases are typically longer, with several months elapsing from submission to departure. Some States face challenges in ensuring sufficient available reception capacity, while others lack the mechanisms to expedite cases prioritized as emergency or urgent within these timeframes.

Outside of these two categories, resettlement under Normal priority reflects the majority of cases, and applies to those where there are no immediate medical, social, or security concerns that would merit expedited processing. UNHCR expects decisions and departure for this category within 12 months of submission.


To increase the organizational capacity to provide protection in emergency and urgent situations, UNHCR and IOM have negotiated arrangements under which refugees may be evacuated temporarily to facilitate their processing for resettlement in what are collectively termed Emergency Transit Facilities. Two models of temporary transit facilities have been established: the Emergency Transit Centre (ETC) model in Romania (2008) and Slovakia (2010), which have facilities for housing evacuated refugees, and an Emergency Transit Mechanism (ETM) in the Philippines (2009), where there is no facility per se, but where refugees are accommodated in a variety of housing arrangements.

The ETFs offer the possibility for refugees to be evacuated to safety while their cases are waiting for the onward movement to the resettlement country.

Presently, the ETC in Romania (Timisoara) can accommodate up to 200 refugees and the ETC in Slovakia (Humenné), up to 150 refugees. In 2012, both ETCs facilitated the evacuation of 150 and 168 refugees respectively (318 refugees in total) for onward resettlement, and were utilised by the Netherlands, Finland, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, in addition to the United States.

The ETFs provide a number of benefits, including:

- Timely and effective protection to an individual or group of individuals of concern to UNHCR;

- Enabling officials from UNHCR and resettlement countries to undertake interviews in a safe and secure environment.

Those refugees at risk and in need of evacuation to an ETF include:

- Refugees at immediate risk of refoulement or those facing other acute, life-threatening situations;

- Refugees in detention, where resettlement is warranted as the most appropriate form of protection;

- Refugees whose cases are particularly sensitive or high profile and who face imminent or serious protection problems;

- Refugees for whom resettlement processing cannot be completed in the host country due to inaccessibility to the refugees concerned (for example, for security reasons).

To learn more of how the ETCs operate and the tremendous value that they provide to the most vulnerable refugees, we encourage you to view the documentary below (© Gina Christensen Florescu & Nina Salomons/2011), which focuses on the ETC in Timisoara, Romania. You can also access an article on a refugee's experience of ETC Timisoara here.

*Name and identifying details have been changed to protect confidentiality.


Picture 1:

The first group of "1972 Burundians" being resettled to the US board a plane at Kibondo airstrip, Tanzania. © UNHCR / I. Brandau / 18 May 2006

Picture 2:

Refugees who have to be resettled urgently to a third country stay in the Emergency Transit Centre in Humenné, Slovakia. © UNHCR/Z. Tóth/2009

Picture 3:

Sudanese refugee children from Iraq stay in the Emergency Transit Centre in Timişoara, Romania. © UNHCR/B. Szandelszky/2009