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What’s Driving the Global Refugee Crisis?
What’s Driving the Global Refugee Crisis?
The Global Refugee Crisis: Statement by the Board of Trustees of the International Crisis Group
The Global Refugee Crisis: Statement by the Board of Trustees of the International Crisis Group
A boat with 158 migrants is spotted by the Italian coast guard in Lampedusa, Italy, on 8 July 2011. MAGNUM/Patrick Zachmann

What’s Driving the Global Refugee Crisis?

A record 65 million people have been displaced from their homes, mostly by war. Half are children. Crisis Group looks at the UN’s list of the top ten countries driving the exodus to explain what’s happened.

When world leaders gather in New York on 19 September for summit meetings hosted by the UN and the U.S. to tackle the global refugee crisis, they must redouble their efforts to resolve those conflicts driving the global exodus and to prevent new conflicts before the emergency is compounded. Additionally, leaders should commit to resettle at least 10 per cent of the world’s refugees annually, share responsibilities more equitably, increase support for front-line states facing the greatest challenges, and respect fully the rights of refugees.

The number of refugees and internally displaced now stands at more than 65 million, the largest figure ever recorded. According to the UN Refugee Agency, more than half of the world’s refugees come from just three countries ravaged by conflict – Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia (these figures do not include the 5.2 million Palestinians registered by the UN Relief and Works Agency). For front-line states such as Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the pressures caused by massive influxes of people can be overwhelming. The cost to future generations is even more alarming: half of all refugees in 2015 were children.

The failure to respond to the refugee crisis risks further conflict, triggering further refugee flows.

Crisis Group presents below a summary of decades of research on conflict and political instability in the Top Ten Source Countries of Refugees, based on data compiled by the UN Refugee Agency. In each case we have summed up Crisis Group’s recommendations for action to resolve these crises and improve the lives of their victims.

1. Syria

Some 12 million Syrians have been uprooted by the conflict since 2011 – including 4.9 million registered refugees, 6.6 million internally displaced people and nearly 250,000 asylum-seekers. The total is more than half the pre-war population, by some estimates. The exodus is likely to continue so long as the war grinds on, with dim prospects for a diplomatic solution or decisive military victory by either side. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad has so far shown little interest in compromise, and has used collective punishment against civilians in opposition areas as a pillar of its strategy. The opposition is divided between non-jihadist and jihadist elements, and is supported by an array of external powers with competing interests. The conflict threatens to further draw in the region as forces on both sides of the Syria-Turkey border have escalated hostilities. Although Russia and the U.S. recently announced a new agreement to support a ceasefire in Syria, the deal is fraught with difficulties.

Despite the geopolitical mess, immediate steps can be taken to tackle the refugee crisis: world leaders should push for and facilitate the negotiation of a nationwide cessation of hostilities, or put in place other measures that would better protect Syrian civilians and civilian objects, such as hospitals, schools and markets; increase support for the large numbers of displaced people inside Syria and those in front-line states such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan; and uphold international law and standards governing the treatment of refugees everywhere.

2. Afghanistan

More than four decades of war and unresolved conflict in Afghanistan have displaced millions, with the vast majority living in Pakistan and Iran in often precarious circumstances. In addition to the 2.7 million Afghan refugees registered by UNHCR, another 3 million undocumented Afghans are estimated to be living in the region. Ongoing violence is a major push factor. Today, the Taliban is expanding, controlling more territory than before; militants, particularly the Haqqani network, are responsible for successive attacks in major cities, including Kabul; and the Islamic State has established a presence in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar.

Civilians face dangers from militant groups, as well as from the Afghan security forces meant to protect them. They often fare no better in countries where they sought sanctuary. In early September, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) warned of a looming humanitarian crisis as thousands of Afghan refugees fled from Pakistan amid increased incidents of violence, arbitrary arrest, detention and harassment. Since 2014, a growing number of Afghans have undertaken the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. The EU plans to deport many of them back to Afghanistan, where they are likely to face security threats as well as acute financial hardships amid a shrinking war economy. As the security situation deteriorates, the number of internally displaced refugees is likely to grow, increasing the burden on a state that is ill-equipped to support them.

3. Somalia

Decades of almost continuous conflict have made Somalia the third largest source country of refugees. Some 1.12 million Somalis have sought sanctuary abroad, and just as many have been displaced inside the country. Ongoing attacks by the Islamist insurgency Al-Shabaab make them reluctant to return to their homes. Though Al-Shabaab has suffered setbacks in recent months, including territorial losses and the killing of high-ranking commanders, it has proved highly resilient and could make a comeback. Under pressure in Somalia, the group has launched attacks in Kenya, where it has exploited local grievances and communal tensions to recruit new followers. In May, the Kenyan government pledged to close Dadaab refugee camp, which shelters mostly Somalis, due to security concerns. In July, UNHCR announced a plan to reduce the population of Dadaab – the world’s largest refugee camp – from 343,043 to 150,000 by the end of 2016. The issue has become a highly sensitive national and international concern in the run-up to Kenya’s elections in 2017. Navigating this dilemma – pitting humanitarian need against security risks – requires pragmatic and inclusive political approaches in both source and host countries.

4. South Sudan

The world’s newest nation has swiftly become a leading source of refugees. There were 778,700 refugees at the end of 2015, and that number could pass the 1 million mark this year if current trends continue. The majority of refugees have fled to Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda. More than 1.6 million people are internally displaced. The UN is sheltering around 200,000 people at six sites across the country designated for the Protection of Civilians, although these sites have repeatedly come under direct attack. International agencies report that the country is facing a humanitarian crisis, including an unprecedented level of food insecurity. Though the main warring parties signed a peace deal in 2015, implementing the agreement has proved highly contentious. As of September 2016, South Sudan stood at a risky impasse. Negotiations with the government over the deployment of a new regional protection force, operating under the UN Mission in South Sudan, appear likely to occupy key stakeholders at the expense of deeper political engagement. Greater coordination between regional and international actors is needed to prevent a return to more widespread violence and new waves of refugees.

The failure to address the situation risks further conflict, triggering further refugee flows.

5. Sudan

The conflict in South Sudan has drawn attention away from its northern neighbour, but Sudan remains the fifth-largest source country for refugees in the world. Over 620,000 Sudanese had fled the country by the end of 2015, most living in Chad and South Sudan. Keeping them away is a regime in survival mode, as yet unwilling to make the compromises needed to end internal conflicts, especially those in Darfur and the Two Areas, South Kordofan and Blue Nile states. To help end the fighting, the international community should encourage a renewed commitment by the Sudanese government, rebel groups and opposition political parties to the African Union mediated peace process on Darfur and the Two Areas. Improved relations between Sudan and South Sudan, which remain closely tied due to economic and security arrangements across their shared border, will also help. With humanitarian actors facing restricted access to conflict areas, assessing the scale of internal displacement remains a major challenge, but as of December 2015, an estimated 3.2 million people had been uprooted from their homes inside the country.

6. Democratic Republic of Congo

At the end of 2015, there were over 540,000 Congolese refugees, and another 1.6 million internally displaced. Most of these people fled their homes during the civil wars that raged in Congo between 1996 and 2002, but remain fearful to return or unable to reclaim their land and property. Recent violence perpetrated by increasingly fragmented armed groups in the east, operations by the army and chronic disputes over land and leadership have triggered new waves of displacement. Complicating matters, Congo is also a leading host of refugees – with more than 380,000 refugees who fled crises in Burundi, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Rwanda.

Serious tensions in the resource-rich region of Katanga – including between local ethnic groups, migrants and the internally displaced, whose numbers increased from 50,000 to 500,000 between 2011 and 2014 – may be the precursor of a violent escalation in the run-up to national elections due in November. President Joseph Kabila’s determination to cling to power beyond his constitutionally-mandated second term is pushing Congo to the brink of disaster. The legacy of past conflict and the current political crisis present grave challenges for the world’s largest peacekeeping mission, the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). Without more concerted international political engagement, the country could descend again into civil war, fuelling further cycles of suffering and displacement.

7. Central African Republic

Surges of violence in the Central African Republic have driven more than 470,000 refugees out of the country, mostly to Cameroon, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Another 421,000 people have been internally displaced. Taken together, about one fifth of the country’s population has been uprooted. Criminality and intercommunal tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims are very high. The permanent relocation of Muslims from the west, fleeing attacks by anti-balaka fighters, to cities in the east, where ex-Seleka hold sway, has changed the demographic balance. The crisis has created ethnic or religious borders within some cities and transformed formerly mixed neighbourhoods into religiously-homogeneous ones. The inauguration this March of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra marked the end of an arduous three-year political transition, however the new democratic regime is under threat from armed groups and faces a host of challenges. The government and international community must focus their efforts on four urgent priorities: advancing reconciliation, developing a strategy to help refugees return home, fighting impunity and making progress toward the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of militia members.

8. Myanmar

Decades of conflict and political repression in Myanmar have left 451,800 people living as refugees or in refugee-like situations, mostly in Thailand and Bangladesh. Several hundreds of thousands more are internally displaced, with many living in appalling conditions in camps where they have very little access to protection or government services. Even larger numbers have left Myanmar to join the migrant labour pool, particularly in Thailand; many are economic migrants, but a significant number fled conflict and repression. Myanmar’s new government led by Aung San Suu Kyi benefits from a powerful electoral mandate and popular legitimacy, but still faces huge challenges. Priorities include delivering on the promise of the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement to find a negotiated political solution to the six-decade civil war with the country’s many armed groups, and creating a sustainable peace on the ground. The government must also address the plight of the Rohingya and other Muslim communities in Rakhine state amid hostility from Buddhist nationalists, which forced the internal displacement of some 145,000 people when intercommunal violence erupted in 2012-13. International support will remain vital in sustaining the peace process, promoting the conditions for safe return in north-east and south-east Myanmar and in Rakhine state, and providing the government with financial and technical assistance.

9. Eritrea

By the end of 2015, there were an estimated 411,300 registered refugees from Eritrea – one slice of a wider exodus of people leaving their homeland. During the first half of 2016, Eritreans making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean comprised the largest group of arrivals in Italy. This mass migration is driven by repression and abuses committed by the authoritarian government of President Isaias Afwerki, rejection of compulsory military service, and widespread poverty. While recent geopolitical shifts have seen an easing of the country’s economic isolation and could lead to better prospects at home, a June 2016 flare-up in the long-running border dispute with Ethiopia points to the risk of a new round of conflict. To ensure stability and curb the exodus, the government needs to resolve its border issues and pursue domestic reforms, especially by opening up political space and intensifying engagement with international partners.

10. Colombia

Over five decades of conflict have left Colombia with the world’s largest internally displaced population at 6.9 million, and another 340,200 refugees. Finding solutions for those forced from their homes during the war is essential to secure lasting peace. The landmark peace agreement announced in August between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) features a clear and credible approach to transitional justice for the victims of crimes committed during the conflict, including forced displacement. The 2011 Victims and Land Restitution Law has already established a strong framework, but for many victims the promise of comprehensive reparations is yet to be fulfilled. Land reform and rural development are also needed to improve the lives of millions in Colombia’s most impoverished regions, where the war cut off access to economic opportunities, basic public services and security. Immediate challenges – aside from the 2 October referendum on the peace accord – are to implement a full cessation of hostilities and disarm and reintegrate some 15,000 FARC fighters, while guaranteeing their security and that of rural communities previously under their control.

Statement / Global

The Global Refugee Crisis: Statement by the Board of Trustees of the International Crisis Group

The challenge

The Board of Trustees of the International Crisis Group calls on world leaders to take more coordinated, better principled action to address the global refugee crisis. The scale of the tragedy shines the spotlight on just how remiss the international order has been in managing, much less settling, the conflicts that generate so much of today’s human flight.

By many indicators, deadly conflict is on the rise: the concurrent spike in flight is no coincidence. The Syrian war alone has dislodged twelve million people, raising the global number of refugees and internally displaced to 60 million, the largest figure ever. More than half the world’s approximately 20 million refugees come from just three conflict-ravaged countries – Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.

Left unaddressed, this crisis threatens worse. For frontline states such as Lebanon and Jordan, Turkey and Greece, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Tanzania, the economic, social, human rights, political and security implications of rapid, massive influxes of people are overwhelming. The failure to address the situation risks further conflict, triggering further refugee flows. The cost to future generations is no less alarming; among all child refugees globally some 50 per cent receive no schooling.

Importantly, this crisis is neither uniquely nor even predominantly European. It is states immediately adjacent to conflict that bear the biggest burden: 95 per cent of Syria’s refugees are in countries next door. Burundi’s neighbours receive increasing numbers fleeing violence; while Dadaab, in northern Kenya, is cited as the largest refugee camp in the world, hosting nearly 330,000 Somalis. Organised crime and the absence of state protection in Central America’s Northern Triangle trigger large-scale flight. Overall, some 86 per cent of the global total of displaced, including refugees, are in developing countries.

In recognising that it is largely Europe’s angst which has generated such focus on the plight of refugees, Crisis Group notes that uncomfortable questions will and should be asked about the continent’s apparent exceptionalism. Countries as far apart as Kenya, Pakistan, Chad, Thailand, Tanzania, Jordan and Ethiopia have hosted refugees on a massive scale for years, often with scant attention paid to the burdens this places on them.

Those valid questions notwithstanding, there are particular reasons for focusing on Europe: that it is a target destination for many; its developmental and humanitarian capacity; its real and aspirational foreign policy ambitions; and its central role in the elaboration of humanitarian norms. Further, left unresolved, this crisis threatens the continued viability of the Union, arguably the most successful inter-state peace project of the last century.

European states, as do all, have a legitimate concern in regulating access to their territory. Yet the current situation is marked by inadequate mobilisation of resources; unequal burdens between states; a deficit in popular faith that the situation is under control; and a push, in essence, to outsource the issue to others. The result threatens the worst of all worlds: policies that do little to reduce numbers of those seeking entry into Europe; a crumbling adherence to humanitarian and human rights law; a narrative infused with anxiety; and a fraying union.

The response

In framing an effective response, the following should be borne in mind:

  • The scale of the humanitarian crisis is beyond the capacity of any one state or regional grouping to resolve alone. Some states are playing a grossly outsized role in handling the crisis’ fallout in a fashion that is neither fair nor sustainable;
     
  • The refugee crisis is a distinct phenomenon, to be treated as such. But it is part of the larger dynamic of the mass movement of people. There are some 170 million migrants globally. Demographic trends, economic stress, state weakness, climate change and growing inequality suggest that this trend is unlikely to recede imminently; and,
     
  • Managing all aspects of the crisis – and for states concerned there are factors in play of domestic politics, security, absorptive capacity, legal obligation, and international relations – will be beyond any one electoral cycle. It will demand a complex blend of immediate response, long-term strategy and careful, honest messaging.

With that in mind, Crisis Group asserts that there are actions that all member states of the United Nations, particularly its most powerful and affluent, can take to work in unison toward bringing this crisis under control. These include:

  • The full, prompt financing of the humanitarian response. In 2015, funding gaps meant some 1.6 million Syrian refugees had food rations cut; while refugee response plans for Burundi, the Central African Republic and South Sudan were less than a quarter funded;
     
  • Respecting fully the rights of refugees. Here, the European Union, founded on the supremacy of the rule of law, must unequivocally take the lead and desist from actions which in perception, if not reality, appear to short-circuit its commitments under international law. Meanwhile, a better organised and accelerated system of processing asylum claims is urgently required;
     
  • Addressing as a priority the longer-term developmental dimensions of this crisis. Ramped-up support is vital to front-line states, and those of transit and resettlement; it is an upfront investment that will pay dividends in helping guard against state failure, conflict, and further refugee flight; and,
     
  • More expansive action on how to improve prospects for the resettlement or local integration of refugees, or on the provision of temporary residency measures, easing family reunification, and the generation of jobs for both refugees and host communities.

Tackling conflict

Ultimately, any credible response to the crisis must address its principal driver – war. This starts with greater acknowledgement that conflict is, indeed, the primary cause of flight: the fear of violence, more than the allure of a new world. Refugee flows do not begin with the onset of violence; they begin as violence intensifies and hope for its resolution fades.

The increasing virulence of major and regional power rivalries has seriously weakened collective conflict management capacity. We cannot wish this away. There are, however, measures that can be taken; they will require more concerted leadership from the United Nations Security Council, and particularly its five permanent members, than that body has shown in recent times. These include:

  • Reasserting the primacy of international humanitarian and human rights law. More must be done to protect civilians caught up in, and fleeing from, conflict. Where violence metastasizes, both in complexity and horror, prospects for its resolution recede commensurately;
     
  • Renewing efforts to resolve those conflicts which generate today’s refugee emergency. Exploring all avenues for dialogue and placing a premium on inclusivity must be at the core of these endeavours, as must doing more to highlight the destructive role played by spoilers and third parties in many of today’s wars. Crisis Group will continue its work to inform and support these processes in pursuit of sustainable peace; and,
     
  • Lastly, states must make better use of the global institutions they created, in particular the United Nations system. Permanent members of the Security Council must not allow their rivalries to bleed into all their interactions but rather seek to find ways to strengthen the work of those aspects of the United Nations – including its mediation, peacekeeping, humanitarian and development capacities – which can and do contribute to the better management of conflict.

The refugee emergency is resolvable, both in its present incarnation and its prospects of more to come. Crisis Group will work to develop intelligent solutions to tackle these challenges at their root.

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