A protracted refugee situation is one in which 25,000 or more refugees originating from the same country have sought asylum in another country (or countries) for at least five consecutive years. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defines protracted refugee situations as those "in which refugees find themselves in a long-lasting and intractable state of limbo. Their lives may not be at risk, but their basic rights and essential economic, social, and psychological needs remain unfulfilled after years in exile."
Protracted refugee situations are some of the most compelling humanitarian challenges confronting governments around the world. People in protracted refugee situations are often deprived of freedom of movement, access to land, and legal employment. UNHCR estimates that the average length of major protracted refugee situations has increased from 9 years in 1993 to 17 years at the end of 2003.
Two-thirds of the global refugee population – over 10 million refugees – live in protracted refugee situations in 30 countries. Protracted refugee situations exist in most regions of the world; however, the largest are found in the Middle East (4.8 million Palestinian refugees) and South Asia (2.6 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran). See this map for more information.
Protracted refugee situations stem from political impasses that prevent refugees from returning home voluntarily in safety and dignity, and from integrating into their countries of asylum. Such situations are the result of political action and inaction that fails to address the root causes of persecution and violence that led to flight, or to accept refugees as full members of their host communities. Most refugees living in protracted situations, including Afghans, Burmese, Somalis, and Iraqis, come from countries where conflict and persecution have persisted for years.
Refugees in protracted refugee situations often face protection and human rights challenges, such as restricted movement or confinement in camps, sexual and physical violence, and lack of access to legal employment, police protection, and systems of justice. Due to these restrictions, refugees may be unable to earn livelihoods and achieve full self-reliance and may become dependent on international assistance to fulfill basic needs such as food, potable water, shelter and health care. Tensions between refugees and their host communities over scarce resources can become a source of insecurity.
Resolving protracted situations requires at least one of the three durable solutions for refugees: voluntary return to their home countries in safety and dignity; local integration in their country of asylum; or third-country resettlement.
Ameliorating protracted refugee situations is a U.S. foreign policy goal and a humanitarian priority. The U.S. Government supports international programs that address protracted refugee situations in every part of the world.
To accelerate progress, the Department of State has led the development of strategies to strengthen U.S. diplomatic, assistance, and resettlement efforts in six protracted refugee situations. These particular situations were selected based on the extent of deprivation among the populations, and on the U.S. government’s capacity to make a positive difference. In most situations, making a positive difference means achieving durable solutions. Where solutions remain elusive, it means enhancing the protection and living conditions of refugees where they reside. The six focus situations are:
|1. Afghans in Pakistan: Although over five million Afghan refugees have returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan and Iran since 2002, Pakistan continues to host some 1.7 million registered Afghans, the majority of whom have resided there since the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan three decades ago.|
|2. Bhutanese in Nepal: Over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese refugees from Bhutan were living in camps in southeastern Nepal since the early 1990s. Since 2007, more than 35,000 of these refugees have been resettled to the United States, and over 5,000 more to Australia, Canada, Denmark, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom. Approximately 70,000 Bhutanese refugees remain in camps as of January 2011.|
|3. Burmese in Thailand: Roughly 150,000 Burmese refugees live in nine official camps on the Thai-Burma border, including an estimated 50,000 who have not been registered. Many refugees have lived in these camps for more than 25 years. Third-country resettlement has provided durable solutions for more than 60,000 Burmese refugees since 2005, with 48,000 of these refugees resettled to the United States.|
|5. Liberians in West Africa: Liberia’s civil war produced several waves of refugees who at one point numbered over 700,000. The United States has resettled more than 30,000 Liberian refugees. The invocation of the cessation clause for refugees1 will likely compel remaining Liberian refugees in West Africa to take advantage of local integration or assisted repatriation.|
|6. Somalis in Kenya: Somali refugees have fled to Kenya in significant waves since the early 1990s. Approximately 300,000 Somali refugees are registered in the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya. The Kakuma camp also hosts some 44,000 Somali refugees. The United States is working with UNHCR to resettle refugees and to strengthen protection and assistance programs for those who remain in the camps.|
This strategy seeks to strengthen U.S. diplomatic efforts and international cooperation, improve U.S. humanitarian assistance, and use the U.S. Refugee Admissions program to make progress in six protracted refugee situations selected based on their importance to U.S. foreign policy; the extent of deprivation among the particular populations; and/or our capacity to make a positive difference. In some cases, a positive difference means a clear, durable solution; in other cases, it simply means enhancing quality of life in circumstances that will not yet yield a durable solution. Our focus on these six particular protracted refugee situations does not diminish ongoing U.S. support to other populations around the world, such as Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, or Colombian refugees in the Andes region.
Two of the five situations included in the High Commissioner’s initiative launched in 2008 are also among PRM’s focus populations (those two being Afghan refugees in Pakistan and refugees from Bosnia and Croatia in Serbia). The U.S. Government strategy incorporates elements highlighted in the HC’s initiative and emphasizes close coordination with UNHCR on these and other protracted refugee situations.
The U.S. Government provides strong support to humanitarian issues in multilateral fora, including as a member of UNHCR’s Executive Committee. This strategy is a way to enhance support for humanitarian goals in our bilateral relations with host countries. The U.S. strategy supports the High Commissioner’s Initiative in a number of ways. For example, in the Balkans, the U.S. Government is helping to facilitate agreement among governments of the region to resolve the protracted situation of Croatian and Bosnian refugees in Serbia, through sustained efforts to resolve outstanding occupancy and tenancy rights under the leadership of UNHCR. In Pakistan, the U.S. Government will work to provide assistance programs that benefit both Afghan and Pakistani communities, including those communities hosting refugees, and the United States will continue funding both humanitarian and development programs that assist Afghan returnees to reintegrate in Afghanistan.
The United States will remain engaged in the other situations highlighted by the High Commissioner’s Initiative: Rohinyga in Bangladesh, Eritreans in Eastern Sudan, and Burundi in Tanzania. For example, the U.S. Government is planning to work with Canada and other donors to support strategic resettlement for Eritreans in Eastern Sudan; the United States has continued its diplomatic, humanitarian assistance and resettlement efforts on behalf of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh; and the United States provides assistance programs in Tanzania, including in areas where Burundi refugees reside.
Like the High Commissioner’s Initiative, the U.S. Government’s focus on certain populations does not diminish its support for other refugee populations. Instead, having a public diplomatic strategy will help elevate the humanitarian agenda within U.S. policy and increase cooperation with UNHCR, other donors, and host governments.
1 Fundamental changes in refugees’ country of origin – such as the end of conflict and continued peace and stability - remove the basis of the fear of persecution that originally caused refugees to flee across international borders. These positive changes make it possible for those who fled to return home, and for States Parties to declare an end to refugee status for those who still remain outside of their country of origin by invoking the cessation clause of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, its 1967 Protocol, and the 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa.