Has the World Learned the Lessons of the 2015 Refugee Crisis?

Has the World Learned the Lessons of the 2015 Refugee Crisis?
The “Wall of Welcome” in front of European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Sept. 14, 2015 (Photo by Wiktor Dabkowski for dpa via AP Images).
In 2015, more than 1 million people, mostly from Syria but also Eritrea, Sudan and other countries wracked by conflict and economic turmoil, found their way to Europe in search of asylum, where they struggled to rebuild their lives, often in the face of xenophobia and exclusion. Those were the lucky ones. Thousands of other refugees and migrants died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, a tragic waste of human life that was symbolized in a photograph of the lifeless body of a four-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, which washed up on the shore of a beach in Greece. 2015 was a signal moment for the Global North in its dealings with refugees, when the appalling circumstances of asylum-seekers were starkly laid out for everyone to see. But while some borders closed and immigration restrictions were imposed in many parts of Europe, there were other, more positive signs, and a willingness to think anew about the treatment of refugees. Some citizens who had once bayed for stricter immigration policies urged their governments to admit more refugees. Many others joined civil society groups to assist arriving refugees, sometimes even opening their own homes to provide shelter. Nowhere was this empathetic response clearer than in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel encouraged it by reassuring her compatriots that “Wir schaffen das!”—“We can do it!”—and implementing an open-door policy that allowed around 1 million refugees to settle in Germany over the next year. A similar spirit was evident across the Atlantic in Canada, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, invoking his country’s reputed history of tolerance and openness to refugees, offered to resettle tens of thousands of Syrians who had fled civil war. This more encouraging shift in sentiment went beyond national politics. Although the European Union, riven by disagreement among its members, flailed about in response to the influx of refugees, the United Nations General Assembly produced, in under two years, a new agreement on the need to reform international protections for refugees and asylum-seekers. “The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants,” adopted unanimously in 2016, committed U.N. member states to more “equitable burden-sharing” and to providing increased resources for the displaced. It paved the way for the new U.N.-sponsored Global Compact on Refugees, which was finally ratified in 2018. For many refugees, 2015 was a time of tragedy. But even amid populist backlashes to refugees and migrants, across Europe as well as in the United States, the attempt to create more humane refugee policies through efforts like the Global Compact raised hopes for a new direction in the future. Yet how much has really changed, especially in many Western countries where refugees have largely faded from the headlines?

2015 and Its Aftermath

What made the events of 2015 a moment of truth for Western countries, most of all in Europe, was not the refugee numbers as such. There was no radical spike in the number of refugees and asylum-seekers around the world that year, relative to the preceding five years. Instead, it was a turning point because, suddenly, Western countries could no longer assume that the work of actually hosting refugees would primarily be done by countries of the Global South. In a situation that has rarely occurred since 1945, European countries were unable to insulate themselves from the mass displacements of war. It had a lot to do with geography. The key international legal norm for a country’s responsibility toward refugees is the principle of “non-refoulement,” or the obligation not to send refugees back to home countries where they could face persecution. But there is no corresponding norm compelling other states to help that host country protect, support or resettle the refugees that arrive within its borders. Effectively, a state’s responsibility for any particular refugee is determined entirely on the basis of location: A country has a legal duty to protect refugees who arrive at or within its territory. It has no obligation, though, to take in refugees hosted by other countries, or to help out countries that are overwhelmed. This system of hosting and distributing refugees has generally served rich and developed countries like those in Europe well. In recent decades, most mass displacements, whether from war or otherwise, have occurred in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America, and the obligation to take care of refugees has thus fallen on countries in those regions. Furthermore, wealthy Western countries have been able to use visa requirements and the threat of fines on airline, shipping and train companies to prevent refugees from traveling between continents in search of asylum. For the proportionally low numbers of refugees using the services of human smugglers, getting to Europe, for example, has typically been a dangerous, expensive and therefore unpopular option. As a result, most refugees have remained contained, as it were, in the poorest and most unstable regions of the world.

Suddenly, in 2015, Western countries could no longer assume that the work of hosting refugees would be done by countries of the Global South.

However, the Syrian civil war changed the equation when it began in 2011. A country on the edge of Europe was now displacing huge amounts of people. Refugees from Syria who made it to Turkey needed only to travel across a small stretch of the Aegean Sea to find themselves on European territory, and in principle subject to protections against refoulement. At first, the number of arrivals in Europe was relatively small, as refugees from Syria initially sought protection in neighboring countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. But as Syria’s war dragged on into 2015, it became clear to many refugees that returning home would not be a viable option anytime soon. Many then sought out the apparent security of Europe, where they hoped to be granted asylum, and find jobs and educational opportunities for their children. They weren’t alone. Forced migrants from African countries, including Eritrea, Sudan and Nigeria, were already trying to reach Europe—more perilously, by crossing the Mediterranean, often on small, overcrowded boats arranged by human smugglers. But when they made it to Greece, Italy and elsewhere, these new arrivals entered countries that were generally reluctant to receive them, and also unable to cooperate together to reduce the challenges of this influx. A beggar-thy-neighbor response prevailed, with different European states imposing their own restrictive, unilateral measures. The United Kingdom implemented new visa requirements; Hungary and Greece built new fences and detention facilities; Italy put in place measures to encourage the onward movement of refugees to other countries. Only a handful of countries in Europe, led by Germany and Sweden, proved willing to remain open to large numbers of refugees for any length of time. 2015 made two things obvious. First, it debunked the notion that countries in Europe could insulate themselves from flows of refugees outside the continent. Second, it made clear that they would have to cooperate and coordinate if there was any hope of a more efficient, humane response to the mass arrivals of refugees. But cooperation wasn’t the most common response. Instead, some European countries doubled down on harsh measures to prevent, as much as possible, new refugees arriving at their borders. Yet these restrictions risked bringing European countries, and the European Union at large, into conflict with the Geneva Convention if they involved turning back or detaining refugees. As an alternative, others in Europe sought to invest money, time and resources into improving conditions in countries hosting refugees in the Global South, so that refugees would have less incentive to try to reach Europe in the first place. Such plans, it was hoped, would ensure the containment of refugees beyond Europe’s shores, but achieve it in a way that was both humanitarian and voluntary. A third possibility involved abandoning the strategy of containing refugees and forced migrants altogether and providing new means and mechanisms for them to come to Europe through orderly and legal routes. This approach would involve new humanitarian visas, increased refugee resettlement and other pathways to protection through opportunities for student and work visas. It would undercut human smuggling and demonstrate a commitment to global solidarity for refugees by countries in the Global North.
A meeting at the U.N.
A meeting on the Global Compact on Refugees during the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 24, 2018 (AP photo by Craig Ruttle).
For 18 months between 2017 and 2018, states, NGOs, international organizations and civil society groups convened to discuss these alternative pathways. They ultimately produced the Global Compact on Refugees, arguably the most important indicator of a willingness to reform international refugee policy. The Compact is a set of commitments that tasks signatory states to act together to achieve four key objectives: to ease the pressure on refugee host countries; to enhance refugee self-reliance; to expand refugees’ access to third country resettlement; and to support conditions in countries of origin so that refugees can later return in safety and dignity. The Compact received the support of 181 states in a resolution of the U.N. General Assembly in December 2018. Only two states, the United States and Hungary, opposed its adoption. Filippo Grandi, the head of the U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has described the Compact as “a historic achievement” and “a powerful statement of political commitment that reflects a realistic balance of the interests and aspirations of hosting countries, of donors and others, informed by decades of experience in addressing refugee crises.” It will take years to fully realize the Compact’s objectives. Yet so far, despite the Compact’s promise, implementing its commitments has been uneven and, at times, discouraging. The hard-won lessons of 2015 have certainly resulted in greater international cooperation, but there is little sign that highly restrictionist policies and practices toward refugees are being rolled back.

Signs of Progress

In simple terms, the Global Compact on Refugees offers alternatives to the exclusion and containment policies that certain countries in the Global North—such as Hungary, which built a fence along its border with Serbia to keep refugees and migrants out—turned to during the height of the 2015 crisis. With its commitment to improve conditions for refugees in countries in the Global South and provide refugees with greater access to third-country resettlement solutions, the Compact has already led to some positive changes. It has essentially humanized efforts that seek to contain refugees in the less developed countries that have for so long hosted the majority of refugees by aligning those countries’ interests with the Global North: Host states in the Global South get resources and investment, while countries in the Global North reduce the number of refugees at their borders.

So far, despite the Global Compact’s promise, implementing its commitments has been uneven and, at times, discouraging.

Refugees also benefit. The Compact demonstrates an international commitment to move away from the model of sequestering refugees in camps to more socially inclusive approaches that recognize the importance to refugees of paid work, education, freedom of movement and involvement in creating their own futures. The Compact emphasizes the role of refugees as economic participants in their countries of asylum and extols the virtues of self-reliance and resilience. At its best, the Compact aspires to create the conditions in which refugees will be reconceived as positive additions to host countries rather than dependent and captive populations. As Jeff Crisp, a former senior official at UNHCR, somewhat skeptically put it, refugees are now to be viewed “as resilient entrepreneurs, rather than long-term dependents on international assistance.” This new market-based approach is evinced in the role of the World Bank in the Global Compact. The World Bank is expected to provide much of the funding to underpin the Compact’s microfinance initiatives and development projects that are meant to build the resilience of refugees, and, importantly, improve the host country generally. Countries in the Global South that host many refugees have the chance to benefit systematically from the support of global institutions and more developed countries. Furthermore, the Compact’s effort to include a diverse range of actors—NGOs and private companies, in addition to the World Bank—is undoubtedly impressive. The partnerships yield a more coordinated approach to the large-scale movement of refugees, and suggest a new degree of seriousness by the international community toward rethinking refugee approaches in the decade ahead. Will these investments into humanizing the containment of refugees lead to real and lasting change? UNHCR is optimistic. Fourteen governments that host refugees have already been approved for $2 billion in World Bank-funded projects to support health, education, water and sanitation for refugees. Individual countries are also making progress—like Ethiopia, which has expanded access for refugees to education, jobs and legal documentation, and Djibouti, where new, inclusive laws have ended a policy of keeping refugees in harsh encampments. In Lebanon, microfinance loans are being extended to Syrian refugees. These are promising signs, and there are many others. But it is still too early to judge whether states in the Global North will display the necessary long-term commitment to the vision of the Compact and, in turn, whether this complicated and multifaceted approach will do much to change the patterns of asylum-seekers. The second commitment set out by the Compact—improving third-country resettlement options in order to distribute the responsibility for refugees more equitably among countries—has not been as successful. So far, there have been few signs that wealthy and developed countries in Europe and elsewhere in the Global North are willing to open their borders to more refugees. Some states have boosted their refugee resettlement, such as the United Kingdom, which, in a radical departure from historical practice, committed in 2015 to take 20,000 refugees over a five-year period. Around 17,000 of these refugees had arrived by the beginning of 2020.

The cuts to refugee resettlement under Trump have led overall refugee resettlement numbers to stagnate around the world despite slightly higher intakes in other countries.

However, progress toward increasing the number of refugees resettled from camps in Turkey, Bangladesh and Kenya, among other countries, has been undermined by the United States, which still refuses to sign the Compact. Long the primary destination for resettled refugees from the Global South, the U.S. has slashed its refugee intake under President Donald Trump. Between 2016 and 2018, the numbers of refugees resettled in the U.S. fell from 97,000 to 23,000, due largely to the Trump administration’s hard-line and restrictionist immigration policies, which include casting refugees as potential security threats. The cuts to refugee resettlement under Trump have led overall refugee resettlement numbers worldwide to stagnate despite slightly higher intakes in other countries like Australia, the U.K. and Canada in recent years. Notwithstanding commitments under the Compact to share the refugee burden, states were only able to increase the number of resettled refugees worldwide by 14 percent between 2018 and 2019. According to UNHCR, “a tremendous gap remains between resettlement needs and the places made available by governments around the world.” Nor is there much sign of countries in the Global North opening up alternative routes for entry for refugees through work permits or family and education visas. A recent survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found only a modest increase in the number of non-humanitarian entrance permits granted to nationals of Syria, Eritrea, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, which together account for more than half of the world’s refugees under UNHCR’s mandate since 2010. Ultimately, despite high hopes, the Compact has so far produced mixed results. While states have increased their support for host countries in the Global South, their investments will take time to substantively improve the lives of refugees. Gains in third-country resettlement have also been undermined by declines elsewhere in the world. The Compact is a powerful document that focuses global attention on positive responses to refugees—but true change, it seems, is slow to arrive.

Exclusion Over Entry

What is depressingly clear is that some countries are still implementing exclusionary measures designed to keep refugees out. Since 2015, many wealthy and developed nations have steadily intensified their efforts to repel and deter asylum-seekers, in violation of even the most basic commitments to refugees under international law. Consider Australia, which for two decades has engaged in extremely harsh policies to prevent asylum-seekers from Iraq, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan from reaching its shores by boat. The Australian government has detained asylum-seekers in offshore detention centers on the Pacific islands of Nauru and Manus, which is part of Papua New Guinea. Yet even those highly controversial policies at least respected the minimal international legal requirement of non-refoulement. Starting in 2013, though, the Australian government seemed to drop even that pretense of respect for international law, as its naval and coast guard vessels began capturing boats of asylum-seekers heading to Australia and towing them directly back to countries like Indonesia as part of its harsh “Operation Sovereign Borders” program. In other cases, Australia has even arranged the return of asylum-seekers to their home countries while they are still at sea. These practices hardened in the wake of 2015. In 2016, the Australian government announced that individuals attempting to arrive in Australia by boat would face a lifetime ban on entering the country. Last April, the Australian Ministry of Home Affairs reported that 33 vessels with 827 people were returned to their country of origin or departure between 2013 and September 2018. While the government’s position is that the people returned were not refugees, this claim is difficult to justify, given that refugees who are intercepted at sea are in no position to substantiate their asylum claims. U.N. Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard condemned Australia’s actions in a formal report to the U.N. General Assembly in 2017, stating that its “‘push-back’ measures, in addition to violating the principle of non-refoulement, may also amount to excessive use of force whenever officials place refugees or migrants intentionally and knowingly in circumstances where they may be killed.”
Migrants take cover during clashes with the Greek riot police.
Clashes between migrants and Greek police on the Turkish-Greek border, March 7, 2020 (AP photo by Felipe Dana).
The EU is currently engaged in very similar practices in the Mediterranean Sea to keep forced migrants from countries including Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Mali, Sudan and Eritrea from reaching Europe by boat. Rather than towing the boats back themselves, however, the EU has effectively hired Libya’s coast guard to do the work for it. In 2016, some four years after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Italian authorities violated human rights standards by returning boats to Libya without assessing asylum claims, the EU began providing resources and funding to Libyan coast guard patrols to intercept and return boats leaving the North African country. The EU justified the move by citing real concerns about human smuggling and the deaths of migrants at sea, but it has resulted in a chilling effect on those trying to escape violence and instability in Libya. Even more alarmingly, Libyan authorities have routinely delivered the apprehended migrants to detention centers in Tripoli where sexual abuse, torture, forced labor and kidnapping are rife. Twenty-two migrants and refugees reportedly died from tuberculosis and other diseases in one detention center alone between September 2018 and May 2019. As one forced migrant who made it to Italy’s shores from Libya said in 2016, “If someone escapes hell, how can you grab them and take them back to hell?” According to Human Rights Watch, “European Union migration cooperation with Libya is contributing to a cycle of extreme abuse.” At the same time, in the United States, the Trump administration has adopted a policy of hostility toward asylum-seekers, particularly at the U.S.-Mexico border. U.S. asylum claims rose to new levels in 2017 and 2018, partly driven by forced migrants fleeing violence and economic insecurity in Venezuela, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. The Trump administration’s response of separating parents and children at the border and placing children in detention centers has galvanized media attention, but this is only one of a raft of measures designed to repel new arrivals and limit U.S. responsibilities to refugees. Another is the government’s so-called “metering” process, which limits the number of asylum applications border officials will accept in a single day. A similar scheme forces asylum-seekers who do manage to submit their claims to wait in Mexico until a U.S. judge hears their claim. These policies upend the traditional presumption under international law that those seeking asylum will have safe haven while their claim for protection is heard.

Since 2015, many wealthy nations have intensified their efforts to repel asylum-seekers, in violation of even the most basic commitments to refugees under international law.

More drastically still, the Trump administration has attempted to bar people from seeking asylum in the United States if their route brought them through other countries in which they did not apply for asylum first. This rule applies to almost all asylum-seekers who travel through Mexico to reach America’s southern border. While currently subject to judicial scrutiny, the policy would construct a kind of cordon sanitaire on the U.S.-Mexico border against virtually all refugees. With such brazen attempts to curtail asylum-seekers, whether in Australia, the United States or Southern Europe, it is hard to imagine that things could get much worse. Yet they have. In early March, Turkey, which has been hosting thousands of Syrian refugees as part of a deal with the EU, started to allow refugees to cross the Aegean Sea once again, amid an escalation in fighting in Syria and demands from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for NATO’s support for Turkish forces there. Greek border guards reportedly shot directly at refugees trying to leave Turkey, killing at least one. The New York Times then reported that the Greek government was “detaining migrants incommunicado at a secret extrajudicial location before expelling them to Turkey without due process,” in violation of international law. Five years on from the events of 2015, the norms that hold together international refugee protection are in a perilous state. Wealthy countries are refusing to open their borders to more than a handful of refugees through resettlement schemes. Many Western governments have shown signs that they are willing to repel refugees even at the price of basic norms of decency and the minimal requirements of international law. For all the hopes of the Compact, and the encouraging signs of empathy that emerged in countries like Germany in 2015, little has so far changed in the treatment of refugees around the world. The major shift underway embraced by the international community—keeping refugees in the Global South by improving conditions there—is a complicated, expensive and difficult one that may take years to implement fully. And it still aims to keep most refugees away from places like Europe. The current coronavirus pandemic will make the situation even worse, especially as COVID-19 spreads in countries of the Global South that host so many already vulnerable refugees. Yet when it comes to the future of protecting refugees, it is the virus of political hostility to foreigners across the Global North that will remain most consequential. Matthew J. Gibney is professor of politics and forced migration at the University of Oxford; official fellow of Linacre College, Oxford; and director of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre.

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.