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By Dr Jeff Crisp, Associate Fellow at Chatham House & Research Associate at Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford


Those of us who work in the humanitarian sector tend to be a pessimistic group of people. Whenever a new emergency breaks out and large numbers of people are obliged to abandon their homes, we can be guaranteed to describe it as an “unprecedented crisis.” We constantly draw attention to the fact that there is a growing gap between the needs of people affected by disasters and the resources available to assist them. And we are equally keen to point out that human rights violations are on the rise, with states and other actors demonstrating a diminishing level of respect for international law and humanitarian principles. 

In some respects, such pessimism is unwarranted. Since it came into force almost exactly 65 years ago, the 1951 UN Refugee Convention has enabled millions of people to escape from persecution and armed conflict in their country of origin, to find a safe sanctuary elsewhere and to establish peaceful and productive new lives. The humanitarian enterprise has grown enormously in scale and scope during the past 25 years, becoming more effective, efficient and professional in the process. And a vast global network of non-governmental and civil society organizations has been established to report on human rights abuses and advocate on behalf of principled humanitarian action.

A dark period in refugee protection

At the same time, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we are currently living through a particularly dark period with respect to refugee protection. 

UNHCR, which was also established in 1951, recently announced that around 65 million people around the world have now been displaced by violence, the largest number in the organization’s history. This is largely the result of a spate of recent emergencies, involving war-torn countries such as the Central African Republic, Iraq, Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen. At the same time, longstanding armed conflicts in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Somalia and Sudan have gone unresolved, making it impossible for refugees to return to their own countries. Indeed, repatriation levels are now at an all-time low. In the 1990s, it was common for up to a million refugees to go back to their homeland each year. That figure is now in the region of 150,000.

Further evidence of the current protection crisis can be found in the refugee policies pursued by states. 

Australia, for example, has persisted with its practices of interdiction, forced return and offshore detention, despite their illegality, immorality and unconscionable cost in both human and financial terms. Taking its cue from Australia, the European Union has entered into a contentious agreement that allows refugees to be returned from Greece to Turkey, despite the violence and human rights violations taking place in the latter country. Japan, the third most prosperous country in the world, rejected 99 per cent of the asylum applications it received in 2015, recognizing just 27 people as refugees.

Negative developments are also taking place in lower-income regions of the world, where some 85 per cent of the world’s refugees are to be found. Jordan, which was initially very generous in its response to the arrival of refugees from Syria, has now closed its borders, leaving many thousands of displaced people trapped in that war-torn country. Kenya has recently has announced the closure of the world’s largest refugee camp complex at Dadaab, and is threatening to force its 350,000 Somali refugee residents to repatriate, despite the continuing armed conflict and humanitarian emergency in their country of origin. 

Pakistan is pushing for the early return of its large and longstanding Afghan refugee population, despite the continued violence and instability in their country of origin. And Mexico is in official denial with respect to the acute protection problems experienced by its growing population of internally displaced citizens and Central American refugees, victims alike of gang and narcotics-related violence.

Recent initiatives and their outcomes

It would be misleading to suggest that states, and the international community as a whole, have been oblivious to these developments. Indeed, recent months have witnessed a flurry of activities and initiatives that are intended to address and resolve the world’s growing refugee problem. For example:  

  • since the middle of 2015, the EU  has held a non-stop succession of summit meetings and launched a variety of different action plans in response to the continued arrival of refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia;
  • in February this year, the international community met in London for the ‘Supporting Syria and the Region’ conference, an ambitious effort to mobilize additional funding for refugees and host communities in the Middle East;
  • in March 2016, UNHCR organized a high-level meeting in Geneva, intended to increase the number of resettlement places available to Syrian refugees and to establish safe, legal and “alternative pathways” for them to leave the region;
  • in May 2016, the UN Secretary-General convened the first World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, an event attended by more than 7,500 government and non-governmental representatives, so as to “end conflict, alleviate suffering and reduce risk and vulnerability” throughout the world;
  • and in mid-September this year, the Secretary-General will be convening a summit meeting at the UN General Assembly in New York, intended to address “large movements of refugees and migrants,” and, more specifically, to establish “a global compact on responsibility-sharing for refugees.”

However well-intentioned they are, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that these initiatives have failed to live up to the hopes and expectations which they have raised. 

EU member states, for example, have signally failed to forge a common approach to the refugee and migration issue. As well as disagreeing fundamentally with each other on the admission and onward movement of refugees, a number have resisted the European Commission’s efforts to address the situation by means of a region-wide resettlement and relocation programme. In the absence of any consensus on such constructive approaches, the EU is now hoping to reduce the number of new arrivals by means of military deployments in the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, and by incentivizing authoritarian and dysfunctional states such as Eritrea, Libya, Sudan and Turkey to control their borders more rigorously.

At first sight, the ‘Supporting Syria’ conference was a significant success, with more than $12 billion being pledged by states for assistance to refugees and host communities in the Middle East. On closer inspection, however, the outcomes of the gathering are less impressive. Less than 25 per cent of the pledges made in London have actually come on-stream, and despite the urgency of the situation, half of the funding promised will only become available between 2017 and 2020. As for the pledges that have already been honoured, very little information has been made available as to how and by who they are being used. 

The practical outcomes of UNHCR’s ‘alternative pathways’ meeting in Geneva were similarly disappointing. Few additional resettlement places were offered, and states generally made it clear that they had no intention of admitting additional numbers of refugees, even if they were to arrive in an orderly and controlled manner. 

With respect to the World Humanitarian Summit, some useful progress was certainly made on a number of issues, most notably the need for better linkages between humanitarian and development programmes, an expansion of the role of local NGOs in relief operations, and the increased provision of cash assistance to people in need of aid. But the Summit had little to say on the question of refugee and civilian protection, by far the most pressing item on the global humanitarian agenda. 

September in New York   

That leaves the forthcoming UN Summit in New York on the large-scale movement of refugees and migrants. To what extent will that event be able to deliver outcomes that are commensurate with the scale of the current displacement crisis? Unfortunately, the omens are not good. 

On April 26 this year, the UN Secretary-General published a background report for the September meeting.  It concluded that “the world is facing an unprecedented number of refugees” and that “a greater sharing of responsibilities for refugees is urgently needed… so that the impact of their flight is not borne disproportionately by some countries and regions on the basis of their proximity to countries of origin.” More specifically, it proposed a “global compact” amongst states which would, inter alia, provide “resettlement spaces or other legal pathways for admission to at least 10 per cent of the global refugee population annually.” In numerical terms, that would entail the resettlement of some 1.6 million refugees in 2017, compared to the current annual level of around 80,000. 

It appears highly unlikely that such goals will be attained. The world is currently preoccupied by the question of terrorism, especially that committed by foreign nationals and ethnic minorities. Isolationism is growing, as witnessed by the support gained by populist political parties in the USA and across much of Europe. While the transnational ‘welcome refugees’ movement remains extremely active, the huge amount of public sympathy generated by the tragic death of Alan Kurdi in September 2015 appears to have subsided. 

In the protracted negotiating process that has followed the release of the Secretary-General’s report, the impact of these trends has been all too evident. According to reports from New York, the EU, Australia and a group of a sovereignty-conscious states including China, Egypt, Pakistan and Russia, have rejected the notion of a global compact, even if it is non-binding in nature. Eritrea has complained that the ‘outcome document’ being prepared for the summit makes excessive reference to the issue of human rights, while the US has insisted that it should not rule out the detention of children who have travelled in an irregular manner.  

As a result of these different pressures, the game-changing global deal that the summit was intended to forge now appears to be dead in the water. In the gloomy words of Amnesty International, “instead of pledging to take concrete measures, states have watered down the original proposals… Instead of a historic breakthrough, we could now be facing a historic failure... We may end up with tentative half-measures that merely reinforce the status quo or even weaken existing protection.”   

There is certainly some evidence to support that last suggestion. The latest draft of the outcome document, for example, “reaffirms that voluntary repatriation should not necessarily be conditioned on the accomplishment of political solutions in the country of origin.” It is a statement that will give considerable encouragement and legitimacy to states such as Kenya and Pakistan, which are eager to ensure that refugees return to countries (Somalia and Afghanistan respectively) where durable political solutions remain beyond reach and where violence continues to occur on a daily basis.

Responding to the most recent developments in the negotiating process, UNHCR has chosen to maintain an upbeat approach, describing the outcome document as a “minor miracle” which “reaffirms the 1951 Refugee Convention, reaffirms the institution of asylum and reaffirms the principle of non-refoulement.”   

That may well be the case. But such statements cannot disguise the fact that the September summit was intended to reinvigorate and bring new commitments to the international refugee regime, rather than to reaffirm a set of principles that have been in place for 65 years. They do not take account of the fact that non-binding declarations are likely have little impact on the behaviour of states that are prepared to flout the international conventions to which they have acceded. And such sanguine statements appear to lacking in passion at a time when 25 NGOs have released a joint statement, saying that “an outcome that does not more than repeat existing commitments - or worse, diminishes them – cannot be considered a success.”  

Dr Jeff Crisp has held senior positions with UNHCR (Head of Policy Development and Evaluation), Refugees International (Senior Director for Policy and Advocacy) and the Global Commission on International Migration (Director of Policy and Research). He has also worked as an academic, journalist and in the NGO sector. Dr Crisp has first-hand experience of refugee situations throughout the world and has published, lectured and broadcast extensively on refugee-related issues. He holds a Masters degree and PhD in African Studies and Political Science from the University of Birmingham. He is currently a Research Associate at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, an Associate Fellow at Chatham House, and an Honorary Professor at the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex. 

This opinion piece is adapted from a presentation made by Dr Crisp at a Kaldor Centre public seminar titled 'Global responses to refugees: what is the world thinking?' held the 28 June.  A full podcast from this event is available here. 

Visit the Kaldor Centre's September Summits resource page for more analysis and resources on the two international summits on refugees: the United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants on 19 September, and the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees hosted by US President Barack Obama on 20 September.

The Kaldor Centre plays a vital role in developing legal, sustainable and humane solutions for displaced people around the world.