E.g., 12/07/2023
E.g., 12/07/2023
For Every Step Forward on Refugee Protection, Two Steps Back amid Record Displacement

For Every Step Forward on Refugee Protection, Two Steps Back amid Record Displacement

BurundianWoman FedericoScoppa UNHCR

A Burundian refugee cradles her child in a transit center in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Photo: Federico Scoppa/UNHCR)

Refugees faced inhospitable climates in 2016, with hot wars at home and cool receptions abroad. New conflicts broke out and old ones worsened in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, driving hundreds of thousands from their homes. As the numbers of displaced people surpassed the post-World War II record that was reached in 2015, when 65.3 million displaced persons were recorded, barriers to their movement went up or were strengthened on land and at sea. In the Mediterranean, attempts to crack down on smuggling led to ever-more dangerous journeys as smugglers packed more people into less-seaworthy boats, trying to maximize profits. (For more on new strategies and paths used by smugglers and migrants, see Issue #7: Migrants and Smugglers Get Creative to Circumvent Immigration Enforcement).

It seemed that there were two steps back for every step forward on refugee protection in 2016. Even as the number of people crossing the Mediterranean in 2016 declined to less than half what it had been the previous year (354,804 by December 13, compared to 883,393 over the same period in 2015), the number of documented deaths increased to 4,742 by the middle of December—up by nearly one-third over 2015. Authorities across Europe erected border fences and imposed immigration controls to stop refugees from traveling onward from Greece, and the vision of a borderless European Union seemed to crumble as Member States failed to find a cooperative approach to handle the flows (to read about how other regions are advancing on mobility while Europe falters, see Issue #10: While Mobility Comes under Assault in Europe, Other Regions Forge Ahead).

As usual, countries neighboring conflict areas continued to bear the brunt of refugee movements. Poor and middle-income countries such as Ethiopia, Iran, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Turkey hosted nearly 90 percent of the world’s displaced people.

Two Steps Back

Issue No. 4 of Top Ten of 2016

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The situation facing displaced populations worsened in many parts of the world in 2016, and few refugees were able to go home voluntarily. Moreover, in many places where they had received shelter, refugees found their welcome wearing thin. Iran and Pakistan, long among the top refugee-hosting countries in the world, started pushing Afghans back to Afghanistan, where fighting still takes place in many districts. In April, Kenya again announced plans to close the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab, which hosts nearly 300,000 Somali refugees, raising concerns about violation of the UN Refugee Convention’s prohibition against forcible return of refugees to a place where their lives or freedom would be endangered. Even traditionally generous Sweden ended its offer of permanent settlement to refugees who make it through its asylum system, granting instead a three-year temporary right to remain.

Many wealthy countries tried to deter flows or deflect them elsewhere, often using their financial might to buy their way out of receiving and hosting refugees. In March 2016, the European Union signed an agreement with Turkey, promising it 3 billion euros, negotiations on visa-free travel, and a reopening of EU accession talks in exchange for stemming the flow of refugees crossing the Aegean. The flows have radically diminished, but fewer than 700,000 euros have been delivered, and negotiations on the other elements are at a standstill. In response to a nonbinding vote in the European Parliament urging an end to accession talks, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has threatened to back out of the deal.

German officials have visited Cairo to discuss trade concessions and additional money in return for Egypt accepting African refugees intercepted on their way to Italy and Greece. Negotiations with other transit countries such as Ethiopia and Sudan are ongoing.

Meanwhile, the number of unaccompanied children and family units heading to the United States from the Northern Triangle of Central America is again surging beyond peak 2014 levels. This uptick comes even after the United States allocated $750 million in development assistance to the Alliance for Prosperity to address the violence driving the exodus, showing little evidence that the program has helped stem the mixed migration flows.

At the same time, the election of Donald Trump as President cast a cloud over the future of refugee resettlement in the United States. Having promised strict immigration control and used incendiary rhetoric toward immigrants and refugees, he has vowed to end resettlement of Syrians and others from countries with ties to terrorism.  

One Step Forward

However, there were a few bright spots for displaced people in 2016. Colombia negotiated a deal with the leftist FARC guerrilla group to bring an end to a 52-year civil war that generated one of the largest internal displacement crises in the world. Canada welcomed 25,000 Syrian refugees beyond its normal resettlement intake, and Turkey took steps to integrate Syrian refugees into its labor market and school system—recognizing that they are unlikely to be able to go home soon. The United States increased its refugee resettlement target to 85,000, including 10,000 Syrian refugees, despite vocal opposition from the right. Papua New Guinea’s High Court ruled that the Australian processing center there must be closed and other solutions found for the people held there, and the United States agreed to accept for resettlement, on humanitarian grounds, most of the refugees held in Papua New Guinea and Australia’s other processing center, in Nauru. Through a series of high-level meetings throughout the year, states agreed to increase funding for humanitarian assistance, double the number of spots available for refugee resettlement, and find new ways to open pathways for legal movement by refugees and migrants.

Perhaps most encouraging, the United Nations convened a first-ever summit on migration and refugees—a recognition of the gravity of the problems and the importance of international cooperation to resolve them. While the summit produced little in the way of concrete commitments, the participating states agreed to negotiate a global compact on refugees, and one on international migration, by 2018. The next two years will test whether the international community has the will and the means to come up with new solutions to deal with a problem that affects almost all countries.


MPI Research


Anderson, Stephanie, Francis Keany, Eric Tlozek, and Mandie Sami. 2016. Malcolm Turnbull, Peter Dutton Announce Refugee Resettlement Deal with US. The Australian, November 13, 2016. Available online.

Baczynska, Gabriela and Sara Ledwith. 2016. How Europe Built Fences to Keep People Out. Reuters, April 4, 2016. Available online.

BBC News. 2016. U.S. to Take Australia Asylum Seekers on Nauru and Manus Island. BBC News, November 13, 2016. Available online.

Casey, Nicholas. 2016. Colombia’s Congress Approves Peace Accord with FARC. The New York Times, November 30, 2016. Available online.

Çorabatır, Metin. 2016. The Evolving Approach to Refugee Protection in Turkey: Assessing the Practical and Political Needs. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute. Available online.

Iesue, Laura. 2016. The Alliance for Prosperity Plan: A Failed Effort for Stemming Migration. Council on Hemispheric Affairs article, August 1, 2016. Available online.

International Organization for Migration (IOM). 2016. Mediterranean Migrant Arrivals Reach 354,804; Deaths at Sea: 4,742. News release, December 13, 2016. Available online.

---. 2016. Missing Migrants Project. Updated December 12, 2016. Available online.

Reuters. 2016. Germany Ministry Wants Migrants Returned to Africa: Report. Reuters, November 6, 2016. Available online.

---. 2016. Kenya Postpones Planned Closure of Dadaab Refugee Camp. Reuters, November 16, 2016. Available online.

United Nations. N.d. Summit for Refugees and Migrants - 19 September 2016. Accessed November 30, 2016. Available online.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 2016. Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2015. Geneva: UNHCR. Available online.

Wagner, Laura. 2016. The U.S. Accepts 10,000th Syrian Refugee This Year. The Atlantic, August 29, 2016. Available online.

Zimonjic, Peter. 2016. 25,000 Syrian Refugees Have Landed, Now for Phase 2, Says John McCallum. CBC News, February 29, 2016. Available online.

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