Some two out of three refugees under the UNHCR mandate (13.4 million) 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. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (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 667,400 refugees returned to their home countries in 2017.[1] 

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 these populations, and offer resettlement for some of the most vulnerable refugees. In most situations, making a positive difference means achieving durable solutions. Where solutions remain elusive, it means enhancing the protection of refugees and improving their living conditions.

Building Self-Reliance

In the absence of opportunities for durable solutions, increasing the economic security and dignity of refugees, particularly through opportunities for self-reliance, is critical.


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 utilized 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.


When families flee their countries for asylum they not only leave their homes, but their schools. Refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school than non-refugee children. Without access to education, generations of refugees remain illiterate and unable to integrate into society. They face diminished chances of future employment. Education is not only a tool for protection, but also transformation. If children are educated when they are refugees they are better able 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. Freedom of movement is an important tenet of PRM’s Urban Policy and UNHCR’s Alternatives to Camps policy.


Protracted displacement not only creates significant personal hardship on those 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 activities even greater urgency. Development programs and expertise can complement humanitarian efforts and contribute to solutions to protracted refugee situations in countries of asylum and origin. Development programs can also 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.

[1] UNHCR, “Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2017.”

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future