E.g., 06/18/2024
E.g., 06/18/2024
Is the Humanitarian Protection System Falling Apart or Quietly Evolving?

Is the Humanitarian Protection System Falling Apart or Quietly Evolving?

People in South Sudan fleeing conflict in Sudan.

People in South Sudan fleeing conflict in Sudan. (Photo: Jesuit Refugee Service)

For years, the international humanitarian protection system that emerged from the turbulence of World War II has seemed out of sync with growing demands. As the number of people forcibly displaced has reached record levels, a dwindling share is receiving permanent, durable protection. More people have been forced to flee, and many are moving longer distances in search of protection (in part due to the globalization of travel and greater availability of information). They are being pushed by more factors that overlap and intersect in complicated ways. And increasing numbers are being blocked from reaching their intended destinations, as some countries are externalizing their migration policies. While forced migration has increased, the systems for processing and receiving forced migrants have not.

But instead of the collapse of international protection, a series of workarounds and innovations has evolved to offer sanctuary by other forms. Often these protections are of shorter duration. Some have been implemented in response to fast-moving crises, such as the European Union’s quick triggering of the Temporary Protection Directive when millions of Ukrainians were displaced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Others have been long-in-the-works efforts to redirect refugees and asylum seekers into other legal pathways. The net effect has been a quiet evolution of international protection that is being shaped not via major treaties and international laws as was the case in the postwar era, but more subtly and in different directions, involving individual country policies and experiments that are not always in concert. This new and less immediately definable set of standards and protections may end up providing many people with the safety they need as the world edges closer to the centennial of the current protection architecture.

Importantly, most internationally displaced people live in the Global South, often in countries adjacent to migrants’ origins. The 11.3 million refugees in Iran, Turkey, Colombia, and Pakistan (the five largest refugee-hosting countries, with Germany) have placed significant strain on those countries. One reason for this situation is the barriers preventing displaced people from moving onward.

More than seven decades since its creation, the global protection system finds itself at a crossroads. This moment was long in the works but has been put into overdrive given displacement crises affecting millions of people over relatively short periods—Afghans, Ukrainians, Syrians, and Venezuelans among them. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted another shock, chilling movement of all types and slowing immigration processing systems, which made the rapid movement that followed upon reopening appear all the more acute. Meanwhile, sharply uneven economic recoveries from the pandemic exacerbated problems in some places, while high-income countries seemed more attractive than ever. This article provides an overview of the recent stresses on the international protection system and the ways in which countries are evolving their policies and programs to adapt.

More People Fleeing More Crises

Global displacement is the highest ever. There were 47.7 million refugees and asylum seekers as of mid-2023, accounting for about one of every 170 people globally (see Figure 1). Meanwhile, an additional 75.9 million people were displaced within their own countries in 2023, also a record. (These high numbers may also reflect organizations’ improved ability to count displaced people.)

Figure 1. Global Population of Internationally Displaced Migrants, 1951-2023*

* Data for 2023 are mid-year.
: Figure includes number of internationally displaced refugees, asylum seekers, and others of concern to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Source: UNHCR, “Refugee Data Finder,” updated October 23, 2023, available online.

New Crises, Bigger Than Ever

The reasons for the increase in displacement are multiple. Some crises are just simply bigger than before. The 7.7 million people who have left troubled Venezuela since 2015 are part of the largest displacement crisis in Latin America’s history. Approximately 6.5 million people have fled Syria’s civil war, which has now entered its 14th year. Russia’s war on Ukraine spurred Europe’s largest displacement crisis since World War II, forcing more than 6 million people to flee internationally within months of the 2022 invasion. Add ongoing and recent conflicts in Afghanistan, Sudan, Yemen, and elsewhere, and the size becomes staggering.

Protection has failed to keep up. Resettlement—one of three so-called durable solutions for refugees, alongside voluntary return to the origin country or integration into the community of first asylum—has been uneven over the last 20 years (see Figure 2). The pandemic paused government functions worldwide for a time, but even before that a similar number of refugees were resettled in 2019 as in 2008 (63,700 versus 65,900), while the internationally displaced global humanitarian population nearly tripled (from 11.5 million to 32 million).

Figure 2. Refugee Resettlements Globally, 2003-24*

* Data for 2024 run through April.
Note: Figure shows refugee departures for resettlement in a new country via the UNHCR resettlement process and may not include resettlement outside that system.  
Source: UNHCR, “Resettlement Data Finder,” accessed May 2, 2024, available online

Complex Motivations Meet Rigid Definitions

It is nearly impossible to identify precisely why people move, and yet the international protection system is based on doing just that. The landmark 1951 Refugee Convention limits protection to people with a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” That definition does not include people displaced because they are at risk of starvation, they live in a war zone where bombs are falling haphazardly, or a variety of other reasons that make someplace unlivable. Also, people are facing newer push factors, most obviously climate change. People fleeing these sorts of situations often find they are not eligible for protection, as do those with mixed motivations that may include economic or family reunification imperatives alongside protection needs.

This mixed migration confounds classification. Central Americans fleeing gang violence, for instance, may also be looking to improve their livelihoods and seeking to reunite with relatives in the United States. Getting to the U.S. border is easier than ever, but once migrants get there, asylum may be the only legal way into the country given limited family reunification and employment pathways. The humanitarian protection system may not have been designed for individuals with such a range of motivations, but in a world of square pegs it may be the least-round hole.

Easier Travel and Communication

International travel is simply much easier now, meaning movement that might have at one point remained localized has a greater likelihood of becoming international. Increasing global connectivity has also made it easier for individuals to hopscotch from one country to another on their migration journey. Nicaragua, for instance, offers a visa-free landing pad for asylum seekers and other migrants from far-off regions to enter Central America and travel over land to the United States or Canada. Serbia previously served a similar role for Indians and others looking to enter the neighboring European Union, but under EU pressure Belgrade began requiring a visa last year.

Moreover, tech advances have demystified arduous journeys. Once, it took a complicated network of friends or family to traverse the planet; now, a smartphone and a social media account can make distant lands seem within reach. Need to find a smuggler? Unable to speak the local language? To borrow a phrase from an old iPhone ad, there is an app for that.

Barriers Rise Up

Yet many would-be asylum seekers and other forcibly displaced people face high hurdles accessing countries where they aim to seek protection. Amid rising public anxiety about spontaneous migration, politicians have pitched deterrents to asylum seeking, arguing many arrivals would not qualify for protection.

The clearest illustration of this strategy is Title 42, a U.S. public-health policy in place from 2020 to 2023 that expelled migrants irregularly crossing the U.S.-Mexico border nearly 3 million times without allowing them to request asylum. While nominally implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the expulsions policy was widely understood to have been imposed by the Trump administration to halt irregular migration. The Trump team has promised to reinstall the order if Donald Trump is re-elected in November.

In recent years, the European Union and individual Member States have signed deals with Libya, Turkey, and an increasing number of other countries to limit migration. Italy’s 2017 agreement with Libya forged a path in this regard, offering the Libyan Coast Guard tens of millions of euros to intercept and return asylum seekers and other migrants setting off across the Mediterranean, despite claims by a UN fact-finding mission that migrants’ brutal treatment by Libyan authorities and militias may constitute crimes against humanity.

Australia, which has served as a laboratory of sorts for offshoring policies, has intermittently since 2001 rerouted asylum seekers arriving by boat to grim offshore facilities on the tiny Pacific Island nation of Nauru or Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island (the Manus Island facility closed in 2017 after Papua New Guinea's Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional). Since 2013, Canberra has prevented people diverted to these islands from settling in Australia, even if their claims are approved. They are often sent to New Zealand or the United States; similar relocation efforts to places such as Cambodia and Malaysia were largely unsuccessfully.

A more extreme version is the United Kingdom’s plan to reroute boat arrivals to Rwanda, where they will be screened and, if eligible for protection, remain. A previous version of the proposal was shut down by the Supreme Court, which declared Rwanda unsafe for refugees. While Parliament in April approved legislation to enact the UK-Rwanda deal, Labour has pledged to scrap the plan if the party wins the July 4 election.

Chicken-and-Egg Dynamics

These two dynamics—more mixed migration being met by more barriers—are in some ways related and reinforce each other. Individual assessments to determine if each asylum seeker is eligible for protection and then screen them for security risks and other purposes is a slow process. Meaningful updates to national protection systems are even more glacial, with governments in the best of circumstances playing catch-up while fast-moving crises barrel on. At worst, policies remain decades out of touch.

The result is that governments are unable to efficiently process protection claims, which creates confusion and chaos, thereby reinforcing political instincts to shut everyone out. Scenes of asylum seekers crossing the Rio Grande or arriving in dinghies on Greece’s island beaches contribute to a crisis narrative, to which politicians often respond with restrictions that have been shown to be largely ineffective at managing migration but relatively successful in getting them elected.

Is the System Fraying or Stretching?

Faced with rising numbers, destination countries are building ever-higher walls. But some are also opening gateways between those walls and in other ways exploring how to stretch the current system to meet contemporary needs.

For instance, some countries have gone ahead and labeled people refugees, even if their situation might appear ambiguous. Uganda, for instance, skipped individualized screenings and offered refugee status on a prima facie basis to most of the more than 1.6 million migrants primarily fleeing conflict in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The move sidesteps logistical challenges and also fits with the more expansive refugee definition used by the Organization for African Unity (the predecessor to the African Union), which includes anyone fleeing “events seriously disturbing public order.” The researcher Alexander Betts has referred to this as “stretching” the refugee system in order to accommodate cases that might otherwise be seen as fringe.

Other governments run refugee sponsorship programs that give local individuals and organizations a greater say in precisely who comes and how they settle in—thereby minimizing possible backlash and allowing refugees to hit the ground running. The crux of the idea is that local citizens, religious institutions, nonprofits, or similar organizations become responsible for a refugee’s arrival and integration, including their initial housing and financial support (refugees must first pass government screenings and checks). The first such policy began in 1976 in Canada, and has been embraced by other countries.

Or how about offering refugees another kind of visa? So-called complementary pathways allow refugees in places of first asylum to enter another country as a student, worker, or other type of visa holder, bypassing the time-intensive refugee resettlement process and also allowing them some agency. The term complementary pathways can cover a wide array of programs, many of which are still nascent but increasingly popular. Some advocates worry, however, that these types of policies could become substitutes rather than additive to the formal resettlement system.

Temporary Protection

A less sweeping alternative is for governments to offer temporary legal statuses to people who have already arrived. These protections avoid the logistical difficulties of individualized screenings and may be less politically risky. They also tend to ensure—at least on paper—that beneficiaries can work legally and obtain health care, and that their children can attend school.

Millions of Venezuelans in Colombia, Peru, Chile, and elsewhere have benefited from milestone legalizations based on the calculus that lawful presence enhances integration, encourages self-sufficiency, and aids social cohesion. About 4.2 million Ukrainians in the European Union currently benefit from the Temporary Protection Directive, which gives them a temporary residence permit, permission to work, and access to health care and education. The United States has a handful of “twilight” statuses offering similar protections, and Democratic and Republican administrations alike have long turned to Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to provide relief from deportation and eligibility for work permits for people already present in the United States whose countries are facing significant turmoil.

For government leaders, temporary stay programs can be nimble and yet wide-reaching, conveying protections to large classes of people. But they may merely delay difficult questions and inhibit integration, with a sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of recipients who remain uncertain whether their status will be renewed or if a future government might revoke their protections.

Access from Afar

Many countries divert would-be asylum seekers elsewhere to deter them from arriving, but external processing can take many other forms, including being a benign detour for logistical purposes. This can be common when people are evacuated from conflict zones, for instance, such as when more than 120,000 people were airlifted from Afghanistan during the Taliban’s 2021 takeover; some were brought to “lily pads” for screening before they reached their final destination, often the United States.

Governments may also offer protection to people fleeing specific crises or wars. A pioneering U.S. humanitarian parole program for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans melds this effort with the private sponsorship model. The parole (for up to two years) is only available to migrants flying into the United States—which excludes those arriving at the U.S. land border—who have a U.S.-based supporter and pass background checks. Since the first phase began in October 2022, nearly 435,000 migrants have arrived in the United States through this program, making it one of the largest humanitarian admissions programs in modern U.S. history.

Safe Mobility Offices (SMOs), which were unveiled last year, further the idea of bringing processing closer to the migrant. Offices in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Guatemala allow people from South and Central America to apply for refugee resettlement or other visas to the United States and, in some cases, Canada and Spain (requirements differ by office). As of May, more than 21,000 people were approved to resettle in the United States via the SMOs, which are operated jointly by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

New Processing Methods

The processing of individual protection claims is also evolving. A silver lining of the pandemic’s shock to global mobility is that it forced many government agencies further into the digital world. Remote interviews, chatbots, and other digital tools have taken root in many immigration and asylum systems, helping speed up processing and communication.

At the U.S.-Mexico border now, an asylum seeker’s most important tool may be a smartphone to access the CBP One app and schedule an appointment at a port of entry. Multiple countries, including at least 15 EU Member States, have carried out interviews with asylum claimants remotely, through a virtual platform such as Zoom or Skype.

Border authorities have also embraced digital tools to prevent irregular migration, including of asylum seekers. But recent history is full of incidents in which supposedly neutral technologies further marginalize vulnerable people, such as by disadvantaging those with minimal technological experience or failing to acknowledge complex case nuances. Still, these efforts suggest that there are ways of improving the system from within.

Growing Pains

The bell is not going to be unrung. There is little reason to think that displacement will level off or decline, given increasingly complex crises globally and growing inequality. It seems likely that current displacement records will be eclipsed next year and the year after that.

The aged framework for international protection may be ailing, but it appears also to be pivoting. A new generation of policies is taking shape, potentially as flexible as the manifold crises to which they are responding. To be sure, the evolution is imperfect, and the risk is that many vulnerable people will be effectively shut out of international protection.

Still, it took decades for the world to coalesce around an initial set of post-war humanitarian protection standards, so it would be unreasonable to expect a Version 2.0 to develop overnight. Whether through new protections or more traditional ones by a different name, many of the major displacement crises of the day have been accompanied by a rush of novel ideas for protecting people in need.

The author thanks Emma Dorst and Susan Fratzke for their insights.


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