Protracted Refugee Situations

Protracted refugee situations are some of the most compelling humanitarian challenges confronting governments around the world

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.


Protracted refugee situations generally stem from political impasses that prevent refugees from both returning home voluntarily in safety and with dignity, and from integrating into their countries of asylum. These situations are the result of a failure to resolve the root causes that led to flight, be it conflict, persecution or systemic violations of human rights. Most refugees living in protracted situations, such as Afghans, Colombians, Burmese, Somalis, or Iraqis, come from countries where those conditions have persisted for decades.


Populations in protracted refugee situations often face protection and human rights challenges, such as restricted movements and confinement to camps; sexual and physical violence; as well as the lack of access to legal employment, police protection, and judicial systems. Refugees in these environments may be unable to earn livelihoods or achieve self-reliance and depend on international assistance to fulfill basic needs. The need to share scarce resources between refugees and their host communities can become a source of tension and insecurity.

Durable Solutions

Resolving protracted situations requires at least one of the three durable solutions for refugees:

1) Voluntary return to their home countries in safety and with dignity;

2) Local integration in their country of asylum; or

3) Third-country resettlement.

U.S. Government Strategy

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 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.

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 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.

Education: 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. Only 50 percent have access to primary school, compared with a global level of more than 90 percent. These percentages plummet as children get older, with only 22 percent of refugee adolescents in school. Just one percent of refugees attend higher education. Without access to education, generations of refugees remain illiterate and unable to integrate into society. They face diminished chances of future employment. Evidence shows that the likelihood of their exploitation through child marriage, child labor, trafficking and recruitment to armed groups increases when refugee children are out of school. 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.

Relief and Development Coherence

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 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.

The U.S. Government is advancing relief and development coherence in protracted refugee situations by:

• Increasing joint humanitarian-development planning through the annual budget build process;

• Reorienting development programs to support refugees and hosting communities in areas of large refugee influxes, such as Jordan and Lebanon;

• Making the economic case for refugee self-reliance;

• Supporting new financing tools to assist countries hosting large numbers of refugees;

• Encouraging research to understand the methods, consequences, case studies, and lessons learned.

Protracted Refugees in Numbers

• According to UNHCR, a protracted refugee situation exists when at least 25,000 refugees of the same nationality have been in exile for five years or longer in a given asylum country.[1]

• In 2015, nearly 6.7 million refugees under UNHCR’s mandate were in a protracted displacement situation.[2]

• The average duration of the 32 protracted refugee situations at the end of 2015 was approximately 26 years. Twenty-three of these 32 situations have lasted for more than 20 years.[3]

[1] UNHCR Global Trends 2015

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.