Approximately three out of four refugees (15.7 million persons) under the mandate of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are in protracted situations, defined by UNHCR as when 25,000 or more refugees from the same nationality have been in exile for five or more years in a given asylum country.  UNHCR describes 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.”  People in protracted refugee situations are often deprived of freedom of movement, access to land, and legal employment.  Only 317,200 refugees returned to their home countries in 2019.[1]  

Protracted displacement not only creates significant personal hardship on those who are displaced but can pose additional challenges for the development and poverty reduction strategies of the primarily low and middle-income countries that host refugees.  The duration of crises today therefore lends the call for enhanced coherence between humanitarian and development activitiesa U.S. government priority, even greater urgency.   

U.S. Government Strategy 

Resolving 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 sought to strengthen U.S. diplomatic engagement on these issues, improve coherence between humanitarian and development assistance for protracted populations, and offer resettlement for some of the most vulnerable refugees.  In most situations, making a positive difference means achieving durable solutions (voluntary return, local integration, or third country resettlement).  Where solutions remain elusive, supporting protracted populations often means enhancing the protection of refugees and improving their living conditions. 

Development programs and expertise can complement humanitarian efforts and  facilitate refugees’ access to jobs, education, and training.  At the community and national levels, development assistance can strengthen and expand public services, reinforce infrastructure, and grow local economies, which benefit refugees as well as host communities.  Development actors support refugees through a variety of means, including technical advice and support to host government and assistance programs. 

In the absence of opportunities for durable solutions, increasing the economic security and dignity of refugees, particularly through opportunities for self-reliance, is critical.  Although not the only contributors to self-reliance, employment, education, and freedom of movement play a key role in advancing self-reliance and are further described below.  

Employment 

Promoting the ability for refugees to earn a livelihood in every phase of their displacement is paramount.  These activities allow refugees to: retain dignity; contribute to the economy of their host country; reduce pressure on direct aid programs; and retain, or even build, skills, that can be used in exile, upon return home, or in a third country.  Allowing refugees to pursue livelihood activities can also improve their safety and reduce their vulnerability. 

Education 

When families flee their countries for asylum they not only leave their homes, but their schools.  Access to education is a human right and is proven to contribute to poverty reduction, peace and stability, economic growth, and better health and wellbeing for children, families, and communities.  Without access to education, generations of refugees remain illiterate and unable to integrate into society, and they face diminished chances of future employment  Education increases opportunities for refugee children to contribute to the welfare of their host country as they mature and positively shape the future of their country once they return. 

Freedom of Movement 

Freedom of movement is enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol as well as in human rights instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  When refugees have the ability to move from place to place in countries of asylum, they are more likely to be able to pursue legal work opportunities, attend school and university, and be contributing members of their host society. 

[1] UNHCR, “UNHCR Global Trends 2019.” 

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future