21st Feb 2024


EU leaders have until Friday for refugee resettlement pledges

  • Member states now have until Friday (7 October) to make bold, ambitious resettlement commitments for 2023 for the European Commission's deadline (Photo: International Rescue Committee)
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Last summer, the EU hosted an unprecedented forum on refugee resettlement — bringing together EU countries, Canada, the US and civil society organisations — with the goal of reviving this vital refugee protection tool.

"I want more people to come safely to Europe, so fewer people will risk their lives," EU commissioner Ylva Johansson told attendees. "If we show leadership and ambition, I am sure that many more will follow our lead".

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Johansson's words were a welcome reminder that the EU can and should lead by example on refugee protection.

But, worryingly, the commitments made by EU leaders at the forum have not translated into action. A record 2 million refugees are projected to be in need of resettlement in 2023 — a dramatic increase of 36 percent over the past year — but global efforts to support them remain slumped at record lows.

In 2021, only 40,000 refugees were resettled globally.

Of these, just 15,660 arrived in EU countries, accounting for just over one percent of global needs.

At this pace, it would take the EU more than 60 years to meet just half of today's resettlement needs. This year, despite Covid-related travel restrictions being largely lifted, the EU's efforts remain at rock bottom.

Of the over 20,000 resettlement places pledged by EU countries for this year, only 7,240 people had arrived via this route by July. It now looks extremely unlikely that these pledges will be met in time, leaving thousands of refugees needlessly stuck in limbo.

Sweden, Germany, France

It's particularly alarming that just a few EU countries are doing the majority of this important work. Last year, 78 percent of all refugees resettled in the EU arrived in just three countries: Sweden, Germany and France.

The number of EU states involved in resettlement has also halved in less than a decade, from 20 countries (excluding the UK) in 2017, to 15 countries (excluding the UK) in 2019, and merely 10 countries so far this year.

As the number of people displaced globally tops 100 million for the first time ever and more active conflicts rage than at any time since World War II, it has never been so pressing for EU states to kickstart their resettlement programmes.

And while there's still time for them to save face, this is running out fast.

Member states now have until Friday (7 October) to make bold, ambitious resettlement commitments for 2023 before the European Commission's deadline.

The International Rescue Committee is calling on EU states to make bold pledges in the coming weeks, committing to resettle more than 40,000 refugees across regions in need next year, in addition to at least 8,500 Afghan refugees.

This figure is entirely achievable, and just a drop in the ocean compared to the 4 million Ukrainian refugees they welcomed over the past seven months. Reaching these targets would bring the EU to meet 2.4 percent of global resettlement needs, a proportion which is well within its ability.

These bold new commitments are vital for three key reasons.

Firstly, Europe must live up to its word. Growing its resettlement programmes year-on-year to meet rapidly rising needs is not only a humanitarian imperative, it would mean European leaders standing by the commitments made at last year's High Level Resettlement Forum and, before that, the Global Compact on Refugees.

Each and every delay has a direct impact on refugees in vulnerable situations, often leaving them languishing in camps and stuck in limbo. It also ramps up pressure on the low- and middle-income countries that currently host some 83 percent of the world's refugees, including Turkey, Colombia, Uganda and Pakistan, making it even harder for them to offer lasting, dignified protection.

Secondly, a number of unexpected emergencies in the past few years — including the Covid-19 pandemic, a shift to urgent evacuations from Afghanistan, and the Ukraine refugee response — have resulted in the EU's priorities being diverted.

Many resettlement programmes are now at grave risk of being suspended, delayed or downscaled.

Unless efforts are urgently refocused, resettlement now risks taking a permanent blow. Once these programmes shrink, it is costly and time-consuming to rebuild them. Expertise, networks and local engagement on refugee resettlement have blossomed across Europe over the past decade.

We cannot afford to lose these now.

Finally, over the past year, European states have shown real commitment to protecting and welcoming refugees forced to flee Ukraine.

While their response has not been not perfect, this time, grand statements on refugee protection were matched with equally bold action.

Global, geopolitical, and humanitarian actor

In order to maintain the EU's credibility as a global geopolitical and humanitarian actor, it must now extend the same approach to people fleeing equally devastating contexts elsewhere.

If it fails to do so, the EU should expect to face accusations of creating a two-tier asylum system whereby some refugees are welcomed with dignity and respect, and others face discriminatory treatment.

At a time of mounting humanitarian and protection needs worldwide, the EU must lead by example. The short window until the pledging deadline on Friday provides a golden opportunity for them to do just that.

We urge leaders to kickstart Europe's lifesaving resettlement programmes before it's too late, and create the 'success story' they once promised — not just for EU policymakers, but the lives of millions of refugees across the globe.

Author bio

Harlem Désir is senior vice-president for Europe for the International Rescue Committee.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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