Resettlement is one important contribution to refugee protection

On Human Rights Day, we spoke with Katharina Lumpp (UNHCR) about international refugee protection, resettlement, and complementary pathways for refugees

On 10 December 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Every year on this day we celebrate the Declaration and the rights it gives to every human being. What influence did the Declaration have on today's refugee law?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is one of the most important foundations for international refugee protection. It preceded the adoption of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and is the foundation of international law focused on the protection of human dignity and rights. In Article 14, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also formulates a right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution in other countries.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights thus paved the way for the Refugee Convention, which then elaborates on the details. 

Exactly. On the one hand, the Refugee Convention defines the criteria for protection against persecution due to serious violations of human rights, such as those stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On the other hand, the aim – according to the preamble of the Refugee Convention – is to ensure that refugees can exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms to the widest possible extent. The Refugee Convention, therefore, takes the perspective of refugees seeking protection. The guardian of the refugee's human rights and fundamental freedoms is the new host country since the country of origin no longer guarantees this protection. The Refugee Convention thus ensures that human rights, such as those provided for in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, can also be exercised by refugees in the host country.

As a result, what are the rights of refugees and persons seeking protection today?

The rights formulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are reflected in the refugee definition in that persecution in the country of origin is understood as a serious violation of human rights. If, for example, there is a threat of a violation of Art. 5 of the Universal Declaration – the prohibition of torture, inhumane or degrading treatment – in the country of origin, this would constitute an act of persecution in the sense of the 1951 Refugee Convention. This is a central element of the definition of a refugee as stipulated in the Refugee Convention. At the same time, rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are reflected in the provisions on the status of refugees in the host country. For example, Art. 13 of the Universal Declaration protects freedom of movement within a country, which has been incorporated into Art. 26 of the Refugee Convention on the freedom of movement of a refugee in a host country.  

In addition to territorial asylum, over the years, other safe pathways such as resettlement and humanitarian admission programmes have been developed. The recently published FES publication "Towards a Global Resettlement Alliance" points to the fact that these newer pathways are sometimes pitted against asylum in the political debate. How do you see the relationship between these instruments? How should they be employed?

Access to protection and the opportunity to seek asylum are the foundation of international refugee protection. When people seek protection at the borders or on the territory of a state, they must not be turned away or rejected without an assessment of their need for protection. This principle, which is the cornerstone of international refugee law, is the principle of non-refoulement.

Protection instruments such as resettlement complement refugee protection for certain, usually particularly vulnerable groups of refugees who cannot find the necessary protection in a country of first asylum. Resettlement and other complementary pathways are important complements to international refugee protection, as well as important instruments of international responsibility-sharing. However, international legal obligations towards persons seeking protection at international borders or in their own country remain unaffected.

In recent years, resettlement numbers have plummeted under the Trump administration and due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the USA has announced 125,000 new places for 2022, a more than tenfold increase in admissions compared to 2020. Could this be a turning point?

UNHCR welcomes the strong commitment of the USA to increase safe pathways for particularly vulnerable refugees through resettlement. This offers refugees effective protection which they could not obtain in the country of first asylum. In addition, resettlement sends an important political signal to the – often overburdened – countries of first asylum: They are thus receiving support, not only financially, but also through the actual humanitarian admission of refugees.

For a real change of trend in global resettlement, however, it is also necessary for other countries to significantly increase the number of refugees they take in, such as in the European Union.  This would be achieved, for example, if the number of resettlement places were to be significantly higher than in 2016. At that time, 125,000 refugees were admitted via resettlement.

The FES publication outlines a path towards a potential Global Resettlement Alliance. With a view to short-, medium-, and long-term targets, increased international cooperation could lead to an alliance of countries such as Germany, France, Sweden, the USA, and Canada. Which European and global cooperation initiatives could facilitate this process?

Refugee protection is a global task, which therefore also involves global responsibility-sharing and solidarity with host countries. Given the global scale of flight and displacement, strengthening cooperation and exchange between states and other stakeholders is essential. The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Global Compact on Refugees in December 2018, exactly three years ago. Among the goals of the Global Compact on Refugees is to expand third-country solutions for refugees. To achieve this, measures have been envisaged to establish or expand, scale up and improve resettlement programs. The Global Compact on Refugees provides a platform through which measures can be coordinated, and exchanges, including in the area of resettlement, can be facilitated. It is important that we encourage more countries to receive refugees through resettlement programs.

The current FES publication claims that it would be feasible to meet the current resettlement needs within just 10 years through a moderate annual increase in the number of admissions. How do you assess this objective and, from UNHCR's point of view, what would you wish for the future?

The goal must be to enable as many refugees as possible to live in safety and dignity and to align the annual quotas for resettlement with the actual needs to a much greater extent than is the case today.

Firstly, UNHCR, States and other relevant stakeholders should implement the 3-year strategy as envisaged in the Global Compact for Refugees. This strategy aims at a significant increase in resettlement numbers, with more states participating in resettlement and more reception places being made available by those already engaged.

Second, there should be a focus on fostering social acceptance to welcome refugees in order to pave the way for further admissions.

And thirdly, complementary pathways other from resettlement that focus on groups of refugees should be further developed, such as family reunification programmes and safe pathways for students.

In all of this, it is most important that pathways to protection complement each other in a meaningful way. Essentially, the international protection system as a whole works only if such humanitarian admissions complement and do not attempt to replace the possibility to seek asylum.



UNHCR defines resettlement as the transfer of refugees from an asylum country to another state that has agreed to admit them and ultimately grant them permanent residence. Resettlement aims to offer a durable solution for refugees who are in a particularly vulnerable situation in the country of first asylum, such as refugees with medical, legal or physical needs, survivors of torture, or women, girls and children at risk.

Katharina Lumpp

is the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Germany. She has worked for UNHCR for more than 25 years, including posts in Brussels, Bonn, Geneva headquarters, Cairo, Rome, Athens and Amman, as well as multi-year assignments in Afghanistan. And on short assignments in DR Congo, Northern Macedonia and Côte d'Ivoire. Most recently, she headed UNHCR's operation in Turkey for three years before being appointed to her current position in Berlin earlier this year.

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