The road to third country resettlement for Iraqi refugees

Only a tiny fraction of the estimated two million Iraqi refugees and asylum-seekers in the Middle East end up being resettled in a third country. Why is this, and how does the system work?

Third country resettlement is a possible option for those unable to repatriate or integrate into their host country, according to refugee agencies.

Resettlement is explored when refugees are unable to repatriate voluntarily and their life, liberty, safety, health or fundamental human rights are at risk in their country of origin or in the country where they have sought refuge, according to Vincent Cochetel, deputy director of the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) Division of International Protection Services.

Under this option, a refugee legally travels to and settles in a third country. Each country determines the status of the refugee. In the USA, for example, the resettled refugee has residence for the first 12 months. After that they can apply for the status of permanent resident alien, and after five years, for US citizenship.

Some experts see third country resettlement as an important protection tool, but hitherto the number of people involved has been small, and depends on the willingness of third countries to take a refugee.

Elizabeth Campbell, a senior advocate with Refugees International, wrote in her blog in November that in a recent survey, 83 percent of Iraqi refugees interviewed in Jordan and Syria said they had no plans to return to Iraq due to insecurity, lack of jobs, and their inability to access or petition for their original homes and property. Most host governments in the region are not actively considering any form of permanent residence for Iraqis, Campbell said.

The Regional Response Plan for Iraqi Refugees (RRP) adopted by dozens of NGOs and government representatives in January 2010 in Damascus said that of the 260,000 registered Iraqi refugees in Syria, fewer than 1,000 had sought assistance to return home under the UNHCR voluntary repatriation programme, though many had returned on their own. According to UNHCR, about 37,000 Iraqi refugees repatriated in 2009.

Photo: ReliefWeb
A map of Iraq and surrounding countries


“A refugee cannot apply for resettlement, but his case is submitted by UNHCR and then accepted or rejected by the resettlement country,” said Farah Dakhlallah, a UNHCR spokesperson in Syria.

Each country has an annual quota of refugees it will take. UNHCR identifies potential cases for resettlement. Those people are then interviewed by UNHCR and if considered eligible, a standard case file is prepared and submitted to a particular resettlement country by UNHCR.

Refugees do not have a choice as to which country their case is submitted to, although the presence of relatives in a particular country may be taken into consideration. A refugee has the right to refuse resettlement in a particular country but this does not mean their application will then automatically be submitted for resettlement in another country, UNHCR experts say.

UNHCR says it assesses the eligibility of refugees for resettlement on the basis of their vulnerability.

“UNHCR has a specific set of criteria based on vulnerabilities,” says Dakhlallah. “We take the whole situation into consideration.”

UNHCR’s Handbook on Resettlement lists the following criteria:

- Legal and physical protection needs

- Survivors of violence and torture

- Medical needs

- Women at risk

- Family reunification

- Children and adolescents

- Older refugees

- Refugees without local integration prospects

Photo: M.Bernard/UNHCR
Kids play in a neighbourhood populated mostly by Iraqi refugees

How do countries choose who to take?

“Each country makes its own decision about which refugees they will accept for resettlement,” said Dakhlallah.

Resettlement countries process the files received from UNHCR and may apply their own criteria to the cases. Their representatives usually interview the proposed resettlement candidates in the host country before making a decision on which refugees to accept. They may also require a medical examination.

A spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Immigration and Resettlement, for example, said priority was given to those who had been assessed by UNHCR. Beyond that, judgments were made on a case-by-case basis. “There are no special arrangements for specific religious or ethnic groups.”

Once a refugee has been accepted or rejected by a country, he or she is notified by UNHCR. The time until departure to the resettlement country depends on the resettlement country, and the time needed to complete paperwork for exit from the host country. If a refugee is rejected, they may be re-submitted to another country if UNHCR sees fit.

Resettlement outside of UNHCR

Refugees can also apply for private sponsorship by a relative, individual or organization in their target country. This process has nothing to do with UNHCR. Each country’s procedures and requirements will differ. Australia, for example, offers a special humanitarian visa. Relevant considerations include the degree of persecution in the home country, the applicant’s connection with Australia, whether another country is available for the applicant, and the capacity of the Australian community to provide for the settlement of the person.

How many Iraqi refugees have been resettled? 

Resettlement departures of Iraqi refugees from first asylum countries, 2007-2009
Country of asylum (departure)200720082009
Turkey9802,415   -
Egypt99 *(90)149 *(101)   -

Source: UNHCR (2009 figures for Jordan and Lebanon are the numbers accepted for resettlement)

Since 2007 the cases of 38,889 Iraqi refugees have been submitted for resettlement by UNHCR Syria. Of that number 17,293, or around 50 percent, have departed. There were 218,363 Iraqi refugees registered with UNHCR Syria as of December 2009.

Resettlement countries

As of October 2009, UNHCR has referred more than 80,000 refugees from Iraq for third country resettlement, UNHCR spokesman in Geneva Andrej Mahecic said. UNHCR’s resettlement programme for Iraqi refugees began in 2007.

Around 75 percent - or just fewer than 62,000 - Iraqi refugees have been referred to the USA, he said. The remaining 25 percent of cases have been referred to a total of 14 countries, including Canada, Australia, Germany and Sweden.

Mahecic said 28,500 Iraqi refugees were put forward for resettlement in 2009 - around 75 percent to the USA.