Answer to a question from a reader

Can refugees in South Africa apply for resettlement to another country?

The short answer

Unfortunately not. UNHCR says that refugees are identified for Resettlement based on their protection needs.

The long answer

Unfortunately, a refugee cannot apply for Resettlement. Cases for Resettlement are identified by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) through information they gather from different channels. The UNHCR website says that refugees are identified for Resettlement based on their protection needs and that UNHCR continuously reviews the situation of highly vulnerable families to see if they meet the criteria for resettlement. 

It is the Resettlement Countries that decide each year how many refugees they will resettle among the millions of refugees in the world, and UNHCR has to work within these limits.  

UNHCR says that there is no automatic right to Resettlement after a refugee has spent a certain number of years as a refugee. The Resettlement countries decide each year how many refugees to resettle, and UNHCR emphasises that there are many more refugees wanting Resettlement than the limited number of places allocated by the Resettlement countries. For that reason, they advise that a refugee should be realistic about the chances of being submitted for Resettlement by UNHCR.  

Though UNHCR processes the cases and submits the recommendation for Resettlement to the Resettlement countries, it is the Resettlement countries, not the UNHCR, that make the final decision about the resettlement of a refugee.

Only if you are interviewed by a UNHCR resettlement staff member and told that you are invited to a Resettlement Interview will you know that you are being considered for Resettlement and the whole process will be explained to you. If, after the Resettlement Interview, your case is positively assessed and meets the criteria, it will be submitted to the Resettlement Country and you will be notified.

UNHCR sets out what will happen if they decide to recommend a refugee’s case for Resettlement:

  • Step 1: The case is submitted to the most suitable Resettlement Country

  • Step 2: The Resettlement Country will assess the refugee’s case and may conduct interview(s) based on which a decision to accept or reject the case is made by the Resettlement Country.

  • Step 3: A final decision is issued to the refugee by the Resettlement Country

  • Step 4: If accepted each family member will undergo medical screenings and security

  • Step 5: A cultural orientation is arranged

  • Step 6: Travel Arrangements are made by IOM (the International Organisation for Migration) upon receiving notice from the Resettlement Countries

  • Step 7: Reception and Integration in the country of Resettlement is provided for refugees arriving in the Resettlement country

UNHCR will tell you if and when your case is submitted to a Resettlement Country. If you haven’t heard from UNHCR three months after your Resettlement Interview, you can ask what is happening through the UNHCR Helpline at 0800 100 030, Monday to Thursday from 9am to 4pm and Friday from 9am to 1 pm. If the Helpline operator cannot answer your query, you will be included in the queue for Resettlement Counselling with the team.

But UNHCR warns that after the case has been submitted, the Resettlement process can take months, or even years.

UNHCR emphasizes that Resettlement is free of charge, and you should not pay anyone to refer your case to Resettlement. They ask that corruption/bribery involving a UNHCR staff member should be reported to the UNHCR Inspector General Office of the UNHCR Inspector General:

  • Telephone: +41-22-739-884 

  • Confidential e-mail: or can be reported via letters placed in UNHCR Complaint Boxes.

UNHCR does not tolerate corruption of any sort and they say that any attempt by a refugee to commit fraud of any kind may result in that refugee being permanently disqualified from Resettlement. 

Wishing you the best,

Answered on Oct. 12, 2023, 1:14 p.m.

See more questions and answers

Please note. We are not lawyers or financial advisors. We do our best to make the answers accurate, but we cannot accept any legal liability if there are errors.