Feature: The real migration crises

Yola Verbruggen, IBA Multimedia JournalistWednesday 19 July 2023

As millions of refugees spill from the world’s conflict zones, it’s often the most beleaguered and impoverished countries that are bearing the brunt.

Hundreds of thousands of Sudanese people have been driven from their homes. Urban areas have become a battleground for the power struggle between two generals of rival military factions. Most have fled to Egypt and tens of thousands of refugees have ended up in Chad – one of the poorest countries in the world – that is already host to over 500,000 refugees from its neighbours. Many of its own citizens are displaced, due to conflict and the effects of the climate crisis. Many South Sudanese, who had found refuge in Sudan, have since returned south where their lives are at risk.

At the same time, tens of thousands of Somali refugees have made their way to Ethiopia, fleeing fighting in the east of the country. They joined over 800,000 refugees already in the landlocked nation, which only recently signed a peace deal that ended a two-year armed conflict with the leaders of the Tigray region. Following years of drought, more than 20 million people in Ethiopia depend on food aid, which was suspended by the UN World Food Programme and the US Agency for International Development in June, following the discovery of widespread diversion of supplies.


While coverage of ‘migration crises’ in the US and European countries dominates mainstream media, nations with far fewer resources are receiving by far the largest number of the world’s refugees as most – 70 per cent – flee to neighbouring states. A huge majority stay for years, as protracted crises prevent them from going home. 

Syria’s neighbours Jordan and Lebanon both host huge numbers of refugees from Palestine and Syria relative to their populations – one in four people are refugees – and have just been reclassified downwards as lower-middle-income countries by the World Bank. Lebanon is still recovering from its own civil war and a delicate balance between different ethnic and religious groups remains. On top of that, in 2020, a huge explosion in Beirut left 300,000 people homeless. 

Afghans make up the third highest refugee population in the world, after Syrians and Ukrainians, according to UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency. Most fled to Iran and Pakistan, where some have been for 40 years ever since the Soviet invasion. Many refugees from Somalia have lived in camps for 30 years. 

While Europeans and Americans are hardening their borders and paying governments with questionable human rights records on the [African] continent, Kenya provides an example of how refugees can be handled

Abdullahi Boru Halakhe
Senior Advocate, Refugees International

Despite the huge pressures that these refugee populations put on their often-struggling host communities, countries continue to welcome refugees. 

Bangladesh, a country massively impacted by the climate crisis, is hosting around one million Rohingya people from neighbouring Myanmar. It has not signed the Refugee Convention, but its Prime Minister of 14 years, Sheikh Hasina, has welcomed them saying: ‘Bangladesh is not a rich country, it is true […] But if we can feed 160 million people, another 500 or 700,000 people, we can do it. We can share our food. We are ready to do it and our people are already doing it.’ Rohingya people are denied access to education in Bangladesh to avoid their integration into society, as their presence is assumed to be temporary. 

Colombia hosts 2.5 million Venezuelan refugees on top of its own internally displaced population of over six million and has given Venezuelans temporary protection status. UNHCR spokesperson in the Americas, Luiz Fernando Godinho, says, ‘countries hosting Venezuelan citizens have offered different mechanisms to regularize their stay, not limited to the recognition of their refugee status. Such mechanisms, such as documentation and resident visas (temporary or permanent), have provided protection-based arrangements that guarantee access to basic services and fundamental rights on an equal and non-discriminatory basis’.

Model world citizens

Much-touted examples of countries that welcome refugees are Uganda and, more recently, Kenya. In Uganda, which is host to about 1.5 million refugees – the largest number in sub-Saharan Africa – displaced people have right of movement and the right to work, and those registered in one of the settlements are given a plot of land to cultivate. 

Evan Easton-Calabria is a Senior Researcher at the Feinstein International Center, Tufts University. ‘There has been this strong Pan-African tradition of welcoming people in’, she says. ‘A lot of the Ugandans that I've spoken with who aren't in politics, they say “we were up in South Sudan, we had to leave too, and we understand that”. So I think there is a lot less xenophobia probably than a lot of people experience in other countries.’

But shortfalls remain. Refugees living outside Kampala are not recognised, and therefore are not eligible to receive support from non-governmental organisations. ‘This means that there is a lot of urban destitution and that isn't known or recognised’, says Easton-Calabria. ‘From the one perspective, self-reliance saves money and it has this illusion of independence. On the other hand, it’s urban destitution and people working in a very volatile informal sector within which they are marginalised because they are not nationals.’

Fraud scandals around the registration of fake refugees came to light in 2018 and again just recently.

Neighbouring Kenya, which for some time had a much stricter refugee policy, has more recently adopted a new refugee law that allows freedom of movement and access to the labour market. The legislation is a significant step, according to Abdullahi Boru Halakhe, East, Horn and Southern Africa Senior Advocate at Refugees International.

‘It's very easy to look at all the refugee problems in the world, not improving, but it is in some areas, very small baby steps are being taken to really change the very restrictive refugee regime. While in particular the Europeans and Americans are hardening their borders and are paying governments with questionable human rights records on the continent, Kenya provides an example of how refugees can be handled. Uganda did it before Kenya’, says Halakhe. European leaders have discussed deals with countries, such as Libya, Rwanda and Tunisia, to keep asylum seekers from reaching the bloc’s shores. 

On a recent visit to Tunisia, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen offered €100m for border management and anti-smuggling operations to stop migrants from reaching Europe, as part of a wider support package. In violation of the right to non-refoulement, Tunisia has since forcibly evicted hundreds of Black African migrants and asylum seekers, leaving them without any support at the Tunisia–Libya border, according to Human Rights Watch. 

In East Africa, a bloc is also forming. The East African Community (EAC) – a regional intergovernmental organisation including Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda – allows refugees to give up their protected status in order to work and live in any other country in the pact.

Refugees, internally displaced people, and host communities in low and middle-income countries are facing the brunt of this funding short fall

Kaela Glass
Head of Partnership Unit, Norwegian Refugee Council

While over half of refugees in Kenya would not qualify for this arrangement, this might soon change as Somalia is set to join the EAC later this year. EAC Secretary-General Peter Mathuki has expressed the hope that Ethiopia would be next. 

‘Having eight or nine countries where, as a refugee, you can move between upon giving up your refugee status is a game changer’, says Halakhe.

The Economic Community of West African States and the Intergovernmental Authority for Development of states from the Horn of Africa also have different degrees of freedom of movement for their citizens. 

The implementation of these treaties in still in progress, as policies don’t always seem to be enforced. ‘My sense is that there are huge gaps in terms of what’s on paper and the application. But I think it's important in terms of being able to have more of these flexibilities’, says Easton-Calabria.

UNHCR, as part of the Global Compact on Refugees which it calls its ‘blueprint’ for refugee and host community responses, supports countries to implement protocols that focus on the inclusion of refugees in their host countries – through education, livelihoods and providing support for host communities. 

But when it comes to a blueprint, the 1951 Refugee Convention may be all we need. ‘A non-camp-based model, the right to work, freedom of movement and the right to education. For all of those, it is about going back to the 1951 Convention and trying to live up to what was envisioned for that, because the rights are all there. So I think the blueprint is the ‘51 Convention’, says Easton-Calabria.

Funding shortages and hunger

Displacement numbers in 2022 were up compared to the previous year, according to UNHCR. While people displaced as a result of ongoing crises in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Yemen until now had largely stayed within their countries’ borders, increased violence and hunger is driving more people to find refuge elsewhere. Crises in Afghanistan, DRC, Myanmar, Ukraine and Venezuela continue to cause the movement of people outside the borders of their countries. 

Aid organisations say that the increases in donor funding are not happening proportionately with the rise of people in need, leaving them no choice but to cut much-needed support. 

‘While donor funding has grown substantially, the system continues to rely on the generosity of a handful of donors, with the US, Germany, and the EU contributing two-thirds of all humanitarian assistance. While humanitarian needs among populations affected by displacement, conflict, catastrophe and crises are bigger than ever before, the funding available to meet these needs is not growing at the same pace’, says Kaela Glass, Head of Partnership Unit at the Norwegian Refugee Council. 

Climate refugees

Many of the low- and lower-middle-income countries that host or produce most refugees are also most affected by the climate crisis. Bangladesh is susceptible to floods and cyclones, especially along the Bay of Bengal, where Rohingya refugees live in Kutupalong – the world’s largest refugee camp. Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya is currently at risk of overcrowding, as more people are fleeing an extended drought in Somalia. The camp itself is regularly subjected to flooding. Severe floods in Pakistan affected 33 million people, including 800,000 refugees, in 2022.
The level of displacement linked to the climate crisis has unleashed global debates about protection for those displaced by extreme weather events. 

Ian Fry, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change, has called on the Human Rights Council to prepare a resolution for submission to the UN General Assembly urging the body to develop an optional protocol under the Refugee Convention to address displacement and legal protection for people all over the world affected by the climate crisis. 

While outside of the scope of the Refugee Convention, which protects people fleeing persecution, regional treaties in Africa and Latin America offer refugee status to those fleeing events or circumstances ‘seriously disturbing public order’.

In South America, many countries have integrated this definition of the non-binding Cartagena declaration into their domestic legislation – though only Brazil and Mexico have used it to award refugee status to people on the move from Venezuela, where economic and political instability continues to lead to their displacement. The African Union declaration is binding. 

‘The African Union Convention’s broader definition which includes events “disrupting public order in part and in whole” can easily mean climate change, or conflict. African countries have accepted and signed onto this’, says Halakhe.

Estimates of the number of people that will be displaced by the climate crisis within the next 30 years vary widely, up to many millions. Yet, not many legal experts advocate for changing the Refugee Convention, to expand protection to those people whose countries might become uninhabitable due to hot weather or flooding. 

‘We cannot open up the ‘51 Convention because what is there is really so aspirational, and we've never lived it. And were it to be opened up and presented now, it would just get immediately watered down. We are not in a space to hold on to what we have there’, says Easton-Calabria.

In a landmark case against New Zealand in 2020, the UN Human Rights Council ruled that the principle of non-refoulement, of not sending refugees back to countries where their lives would be in danger, should also be applied if the climate crisis is the cause of this threat. Ioane Teitiota from the Pacific nation of Kiribati initially lost his case in 2015, because the New Zealand authorities found that his life was not in immediate danger as a result of land conflicts and the difficulty of accessing clean drinking water. Kiribati is extremely affected by the climate crisis due to rising sea levels and coastal erosion, and the Council ruled in his favour accordingly.

The case has set a significant precedent in the application of the non-refoulement principle. ‘Due to its broad acceptance and widespread application by the majority of the global community, this principle has integrated into the corpus of customary international law, thereby imposing an obligation on all states to adhere to this rule, irrespective of their ratification of the Refugee Convention’, says Marial Lewis, Refugee Officer of the IBA Immigration and Nationality Law Committee.

A year after Teitota filed his case at the Human Rights Commission, New Zealand announced that it would start providing climate refugee visas for Pacific Islanders displaced by climate change. The plan was soon dropped, as Pacific Islanders had no interest in becoming refugees. Instead, they asked the government to reduce its emissions and support the island to adapt to climate change so residents wouldn’t have to leave. If they had to leave, they asked for legal routes to protection to be created. 

Regional free movement treaties could also provide routes to safety for people fleeing climate shocks. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development in East Africa is the first regional body to include special provisions for the movement of people as a result of climate change in its 2020 Free Movement Protocol. Also in the Caribbean, free movement and additional protections have been used during the hurricane season, when people were given temporary permits to stay, also without documents if they had got lost, and access to work.

‘Refugees, internally displaced people, and host communities in low and middle-income countries are facing the brunt of this funding shortfall’, says Glass.

In Uganda, a lack of funding and a higher number of refugees arriving at its borders is causing tensions between host and refugee communities. 

In the Horn of Africa, this is resulting in alarming levels of food insecurity not being addressed as countries importing a large amount of their food supplies are affected by inflation and rising food prices as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, on top of the drought and conflict affecting some countries in the region. In refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, the World Food Programme has cut food rations by up to 50 per cent. 

‘The global food crisis deepened the peril of millions already facing hunger, while underfunding forced the World Food Programme to cut rations for refugees, asylum seekers and other forcibly displaced populations’, says Godinho.

But, as political priorities shift, so does the funding. The Ukraine crisis has clearly shown the unequal distribution of global aid. For example, an appeal for funding from a group of charities in the UK received more funding for aid in response to the Ukrainian crisis than it had for its nine previous appeals combined, according to a report by Refugees International.

It's really a self-defeating approach to not fund more of these countries to host refugees locally. It then means that those people…end up getting into small boats and coming to the UK

Nicolas Rollason
Chair, IBA Immigration and Nationality Law Committee

‘One of the structural problems within the aid industry is that we cannot be running from one crisis to another just because CNN, the BBC or Reuters are publishing images that we feel uncomfortable with’, says Halakhe, the author of the Refugees International report. 

‘Donors and states must sustain or increase humanitarian support, particularly for neglected and underfunded contexts, to ensure more equitable responses. We must reduce the discrepancy between funding levels to crises that make the headlines and forgotten crises and other neglected contexts, distributing funding based on needs’, says Glass.

The lack of funding may also compel people into onward, often dangerous, journeys such as those across the sea to Europe. ‘Many operations have had to scale back essential programmes to cope with tighter funding. The danger is that funding shortages will push families to make irreversible choices such as taking on unmanageable debt, sending children to work rather than school, embarking on dangerous journeys further afield’, says Shabia Mantoo, a UNHCR spokesperson.

More crossings have been reported already this year, with disastrous consequences. Over 1,000 people have died this year alone in the central Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration, an increase from the same period last year. More people are reportedly also attempting to cross the Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama. Close to 350 Rohingya people, in an attempt to escape desperate living conditions in camps in Bangladesh and Myanmar by boat, were reported dead or missing in 2022.

‘It's really a self-defeating approach to not fund more of these countries to host refugees locally. It then means that those people move on through multiple countries and end up getting into small boats and coming to the UK or coming across the Mediterranean. It has a knock-on effect, which is pretty obvious’, says Nicolas Rollason, Chair of the IBA Immigration and Nationality Law Committee.

Yola Verbruggen is a freelance journalist and can be contacted at yolav@protonmail.com

Image credit: Sudanese refugees gather to receive relief items at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) transit centre in Renk, near the border crossing point, South Sudan, 1 May 2023. REUTERS/Jok Solomun