Number of refugees safely resettled at record low, says UNHCR

By Jamie Grierson Home affairs correspondent
UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection, Gillian Triggs
UNHCR’s Gillian Triggs said 2020 resettlement rates point to one of the lowest ‘in almost two decades’. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

The number of refugees resettled in safe countries will hit a record low in 2020, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has warned, as it urged the UK government to restart its flagship programme.

According to the latest data from the UNHCR, as at the end September, only 15,425 refugees have been resettled globally, compared with 63,726 in 2019, 55,680 in 2018, 65,108 in 2017 and 126,291 in 2016.

In the UK, ministers recently said they would soon restart resettlement flights, which were suspended in March due to Covid.

However, the cases will fall under the almost-completed vulnerable persons resettlement scheme (VPRS), which is supposed to have been replaced by the new global resettlement programme, initially announced in June 2019.

“It’s really heartening that the UK has restarted resettlement,” said Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, UNHCR’s representative in the UK.

“The VPRS scheme was a real success but is almost complete. The needs are huge and growing due to the pandemic. We urge the government to provide clarity and confirm when its new, global programme will start.”

The UNHCR has urged states to resettle as many refugees as possible in 2020 in order not to lose those resettlement opportunities for refugees, and to maintain resettlement quotas for 2021.

The agency estimates that, primarily due to the impact of Covid-19 on resettlement processing and travel, as many as 15,000 resettlement places will be lost in 2020.

Despite the impact of the pandemic, UNHCR resettlement operations have been working to identify and process cases throughout the year, submitting resettlement files for more than 31,000 refugees.

Of the refugees that were resettled this year, Syrians comprised the bulk – 41% – followed by Congolese, 16%. Others were from 47 countries of origin, including Afghanistan, Iraq and Myanmar.

UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection, Gillian Triggs, said: “We are dealing with a disappointingly low resettlement ceiling to begin with – a quota of less than 50,000 for the entire year – and this was further impacted by Covid-19 delaying departures and pausing some states’ resettlement programmes.

“Current rates point to one of the lowest levels of resettlement witnessed in almost two decades. This is a blow for refugee protection and for the ability to save lives and protect those most at risk.

“Expanding safe and legal pathways to protection, including through resettlement, saves refugees’ lives and it can also mitigate their resort to dangerous journeys by land or sea.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK’s world-leading resettlement programme is resuming following a temporary pause as a result of the pandemic.

“Resuming will mean we are able to deliver our commitment to bring 20,000 refugees who have fled the conflict in Syria to rebuild their lives safely in the UK, and we will roll out a new global resettlement scheme as soon as coronavirus circumstances allow.

“We have to help more people directly from the affected regions and that is exactly what we are planning with the new firm and fair asylum system, which will welcome people through safe and legal routes.”

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