Clarifying UNHCR Resettlement: A few considerations from a legal perspective

The resettlement of a refugee to a third country from the country in which he or she first sought asylum is one of the three durable solutions (voluntary repatriation, local integration, and resettlement) that the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is mandated to seek, in addition to its core function of providing international protection to its persons of concern.

Academic studies on refugee resettlement under the auspices of UNHCR are largely classified into three disciplinary approaches. One is a historical approach that examines the evolution of UNHCR resettlement in the macro-political landscape. The second approach is anthropological and reveals the micro-politics most specifically related to the identification of
refugees for resettlement . The third approach is to examine resettlement from a legal viewpoint; only a few studies have been conducted from this perspective.3 One critique of UNHCR resettlement notes that it ‘lacks a clear definition and it has been manipulated as a major tool for States to apply discretionary policies.’4 In particular, the resettlement of African refugees ‘has been shaped by the continuing tension between political imperatives and humanitarian obligations.’5 It is also noted that these three durable solutions ‘find loose support from legal instruments and are mainly derived from the regular practice of states and international organisations.’ Consequently, ‘they are embedded in a complex set of political, economic, and strategic interests that often go far beyond humanitarian concerns on refugees’ protection.’

The UNHCR resettlement operates within a complex matrix of human rights, humanitarian and political considerations. It is therefore essential that we carefully analyse the two propositions that have been made: first, that there is no clear definition of resettlement, and second, that resettlement has only loose support from legal instruments. There has been no studies conducted that analysed the resettlement mechanisms in relation to legal frameworks. Close examinations of the definition and the functions of resettlement would achieve more clarity on the UNHCR resettlement.