Europe’s refugee resettlement programs are at an inflection point. Since 2017, more than 40 percent of all refugees resettled globally through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have found new homes in Europe, a sharp uptick from the 8 percent share the continent represented a decade ago. This is the result both of the dramatic growth of resettlement capacity in Europe—places have more than doubled since 2014 as countries such as Croatia and Slovenia have begun resettlement operations—alongside the dramatic shrinking of the U.S. resettlement program under the Trump administration. Beyond the numbers, Europe has increasingly become the center of gravity for innovation in resettlement. Today, new ideas for how to grow and strengthen resettlement are born in Europe.
These developments mark a potentially important shift in agenda-setting power from what have been the “Big Three” resettlement programs (the United States, Canada, and Australia). As national and EU leaders consider a new European migration agenda this spring, they face a choice: to claim a leadership role in shaping the global resettlement space, or to fall into this position by default.
An Emerging Center for Innovation
The growth of Europe’s resettlement programs, which resettled more than 29,000 refugees in 2019, has been due in no small part to the evolution of its resettlement infrastructure. Initiatives such as Sweden’s EU-funded EU-FRANK project and the European Asylum Support Office’s (EASO) Resettlement and Humanitarian Admission Network have invested deeply in building up knowledge on how to design and manage resettlement operations. The result is a growing community of practice within Europe with significant expertise in refugee resettlement.
European resettlement programs, both new and long established, have also become engines of innovation. Complementary pathways to resettlement, now a priority under UNHCR’s three-year resettlement strategy, were given new life in Europe. Of the eight countries worldwide that have piloted the community sponsorship approach to resettlement, where private citizens and community groups undertake some responsibilities for settling and integrating refugees, five are in Europe. The United Kingdom, which pioneered this approach based on the Canadian private sponsorship model, has become a global leader in seeding the development of its model in other countries, including Germany.
Europeans have also been at the forefront of innovation in the design of traditional resettlement programs, including thinking creatively about how to structure the resettlement process to better support integration postarrival. The LINK-IT program, for example, developed a tool to profile Syrian refugees’ skills prior to departure, a unique initiative intended to speed up access to targeted training and work opportunities after arrival. And five countries (Germany, Norway, Portugal, Romania, and the United Kingdom) now offer information sessions to local service providers and other members of refugee-receiving communities. The SHARE network, a civil-society initiative supporting refugee inclusion at the local level, has also piloted community orientation courses in smaller cities and rural areas across eight European countries.
In addition, EU countries have piloted novel approaches to pool their resettlement resources, as a way to reduce the start-up costs for new resettlement states and improve the efficiency of existing programs. EU Member States have, for example, experimented with conducting joint missions in Jordan and Turkey to interview refugees for resettlement, which allow governments to share costs for interview facilities or interpreters. These and similar approaches may provide lessons for new and smaller resettlement countries outside of Europe seeking to establish or grow their programs amid resource constraints.
A New European Stamp on Resettlement?
While Europe’s innovative turn was driven primarily by internal needs, with less attention to how these actions will influence the resettlement space beyond its borders, it may offer much needed and timely inspiration at the global level. As resettlement countries globally seek to fulfill the commitments of UNHCR’s three-year resettlement strategy, adopted in June 2019 under the Global Compact for Refugees, resettlement programs must learn and evolve. They will need to prove themselves able to extend their processing and reception capacities to welcome greater numbers of refugees without sacrificing the quality of support they provide. And they must find ways to address legitimate questions and concerns on the part of communities resettling refugees regarding how newcomers will be integrated. More than ever, it is European resettlement countries that are proving themselves to have the creativity and adaptability to address these challenges. As the availability of resettlement spaces on the global level continues to dwindle, due in large part to the deep cuts to resettlement commitments made by the United States, this energy and creativity will be needed more than ever.
Europe’s new role as a resettlement innovator and the largest collective provider of resettlement spaces globally offer both an opportunity and responsibility. The question European and EU leaders face is what to do with their newfound resettlement muscle. The seating of the new European Commission and ongoing deliberations around how to implement UNHCR’s resettlement strategy offer an opportunity for European leaders to define an answer. They should be guided by three considerations:
First, European resettlement leaders will need to be more intentional about exercising leadership at the global level. Europe’s emergence as a resettlement leader has happened, to a large extent, by default. Yet the gains Europe has made in expanding resettlement program capacity, bringing in new countries, and experimenting with complementary pathways exactly mirror global priorities. As European resettlement continues to grow, it may be time for policymakers to define a more specific agenda regarding their role and influence in the international space.
Second, European programs will need continued investment to shore up and build on their gains, particularly as the momentum that contributed to the addition of several new resettlement countries in 2016 and 2017 has slowed. No new countries launched programs in the last year and some existing countries, such as Austria, have actually halted theirs. One priority will thus need to be exploring how to best encourage those states that have so far remained reluctant to undertake resettlement to engage, or re-engage, in it.
Finally, European countries will need to continue to strengthen their collaboration around resettlement, including both by pooling resources and, to the extent useful, establishing joint priorities. Europe’s strength in resettlement, as in other areas, comes from the ability of European countries to combine efforts, share resources, and act as a coherent whole. The new EASO Humanitarian Admission and Resettlement Network offers an opportunity to consolidate this collaboration on an operational level. However, there is also room for greater ambition on the policy level. A new EU resettlement scheme, for example, could help to clarify these priorities.
Resettlement programs in Europe have advanced rapidly over the last decade. European countries now occupy a significant share of resettlement space globally and have developed a robust and innovative resettlement infrastructure. These programs have a great deal to offer in support of resettlement on the international level—if European leaders are willing and able to seize the opportunity.