Deboleena Rakshit is a first-year International Development student at SAIS and an editor of SAIS Perspectives.

Andreas Kamm, who served as the Secretary General for the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) for over 19 years, was hosted by the Bologna Institute for Policy Research at SAIS Europe to speak about mixed migration flows and the global refugee crisis. What follows is a summation of his insights on the evolution of issues related to refugees over the past 20 years and the future challenges he foresees, with some added background research.

A Double-Faceted Problem:

Today, refugee policy is complicated by the fact that new conflicts are arising even as older ones continue. As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), António Guterres, noted in a speech at the Resilience Development Forum, the previous five years had seen new conflicts multiply four-fold while older struggles had yet to be resolved. This double-faceted problem, of new sources of violence combined with intractable older conflicts, is at the heart of the current refugee crisis. And it is a challenge that looks set to grow further.

Mixed Migration Flows:

Mixed migration flows - in which migrants and refugees journey together - are an increasingly common phenomenon. It is especially a concern in the Mediterranean basin, the Gulf of Aden, Central America and the Caribbean, South-east Asia and the Balkans. Though often used interchangeably, “migrants” and “refugees” are not technically synonyms. They are primarily distinguished on the basis of whether or not a person’s decision to change countries is made under coercion. Refugees are forced to flee their country in order to preserve life and liberty, while migrants may choose to leave for other reasons including family and economic opportunity. Yet, migrants and refugees are increasingly using the same routes and modes of transport to reach their destination overseas. Both frequently resort to human traffickers and smugglers to undertake their dangerous journeys.

An Evolving Approach to Refugee Issues:

Refugee policy has advanced over the last few decades. Initially, there was a strong focus on “real refugees”: those who flee to foreign countries, as opposed to those who remain and are now labeled internally displaced persons (IDPs). In 1975, the DRC was focused primarily on aiding “real refugees” and IDPs were considered a secondary concern to be addressed by the UNHCR or other NGOs. However, as of 2017, there were 38 million IDPs, making up more than half of the world’s 65.6 million forcibly displaced people. IDPs have thus become increasingly important.

However, in the experience of the DRC, assisting refugees in their own country is an extremely fraught exercise, with many non-democratic regimes objecting to any intervention by outside actors. Moreover, assisting IDPs requires more aid, not just humanitarian relief but also long-term development assistance. A report by Brookings found that IDPs are no longer located in easily identifiable “camps,” but are dispersed across a variety of rural urban settings, often living in shared accommodation, with host families, or in makeshift shelters. This means IDPs often remain under the radar of authorities and thus hard to help.  

Another evolving issue is the definition of migrants and refugees. Ascertaining whether someone is a migrant or refugee can be extremely difficult and it is almost entirely based on new arrivals responses. Yet the distinction is an important one. Refugees have special rights to protection and are protected under international law. The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol, and texts such as the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention, spell out the legal rights of refugees. These include protection from being forcibly returned to their country of origin safety, access to fair asylum procedures, and a guarantee of their basic human rights while they search for a longer-term solution to their situation. Migrants, meanwhile, do not enjoy these special rights, although the DRC is still concerned that their fundamental human rights are still respected.

The approach to refugees itself has also changed, with the DRC shifting from a needs-based approach to a more rights-based approach. Before 1997, development programming focused on identifying and delivering refugees’ basic needs. The rights-based approach, by contrast, centers on people’s human rights, which are violated when they go unfulfilled. The DRC thus sees its role as upholding refugees’ fundamental rights. The approach also views aid beneficiaries, not as passive recipients, but rather as key actors in their own development. The DRC recognizes the importance of building capacity in key stakeholders, strengthening structures and mechanisms for dialogue between right-holders and duty bearers, and greater vigilance against violations, in addition to service delivery.

Practical issues and concerns affecting practitioners in the field have also changed dramatically. In 1979, security concerns for those assisting refugees were not really a major focus for NGOs or UN organizations. The symbols of humanitarian agencies, usually placed on a flag or vehicle, were enough to ensure employee safety. Today that is no longer the case. Terrorist organizations now specifically target humanitarian agencies. Aid agencies have had to develop complex security systems, sometimes with experts from over 40 countries participating. This has been a novel experience for NGOs who previously had limited security concerns.

A Continued Displacement Paradigm:

The refugee crisis is likely to continue into the foreseeable future. The fundamental imbalance between the number of displaced persons and the resources available to assist them is profound. While there may be the will to help, the capacity of humanitarian agencies is extremely limited in part due to the increasing length and number of crises. Conflicts which typically lasted for seven to eight years, and now average between 17 and 18 years. We therefore may be moving towards a “continued displacement paradigm.”

Poverty can partly explain growing migration. Since 2000, the increasing fragility of previously economically stable countries like Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, and Nigeria have contributed to increased displacement within and from West Africa. With a youth bulge (66% of the population in the region is under 25) and the increasing pull of urbanized and Western lifestyles, more and more young West Africans see migration as the best, and sometimes only, option to secure their financial situation. And while most of this migration is limited to the West African region, citizens from countries such as Cape Verde, Senegal, Gambia, and Sierra Leone are increasingly looking for opportunity in Europe.

Governments themselves are doing less to discourage this exodus. Once migrants are established abroad their new incomes are frequently sent back as remittances and often make up a significant portion of their home country's national income. For example, in 2014, $26 billion was transferred as remittances to West Africa, accounting for 3.2% of the region’s GDP. They are thus considered a source of stability and a development resource by sub-Saharan and Maghreb states and consequently governments are less invested in stopping migrants, even though they often end up working informally and in insecure conditions.

Climate change is an emerging source of displacement. Organizations like IPCC believe the world is headed toward a “tipping point” in CO2 levels, beyond which climate change will be irreversible. Consequently, by 2050, it is expected that 250 million people will be driven to move by geographical changes due to global warming. This, coupled with the population growth in Africa (26 African countries are expected to double their current population by 2050), indicates that refugee numbers are set to expand.

A Way Forward:

Recognizing and protecting basic human rights and the international rule of law is an essential element in the current refugee crisis. The DRC believes that this is increasingly no longer the responsibility of politicians alone, but of society as a whole. A renewed focus on global burden sharing and support from all countries is therefore essential. An example of this is the Global Compact on Refugees, to be presented in late 2018. The Compact identifies collaboration and burden sharing between states as crucial to building host countries’ capacities and in helping refugees eventually return to their states with targeted, long-term assistance towards rebuilding their lives.

Civil society and NGOs are critical in galvanizing this international cooperation. NGOs are particularly important because they can act independently. Despite depending on donors and having deep ties with the UN and EU organizations, NGOs still retain the right to refuse funds if they come with constraints that run counter to their agendas. That said, NGOs must still continue to balance their operational and advocacy roles, sometimes building bridges between parties who cannot engage with one another independently. This might include not publicly criticizing an odious regime because the backlash may harm refugees.

The private sector also has a role to play. It has access to funds in a field that is desperately short of financial resources. The sector can also help NGOs grow more sustainably by helping NGOs build longer-term strategies and manage operations more effectively. Including the private sector can lead to unique, bottom-up solutions too - for instance, the DRC works with the companies through the Division for Emergency, Safety and Surge Capacity, to develop strategic programs and policy. For this reason, the USA and Canada have struggled less to integrate immigrants then European states, using government-centric approaches.

Understanding the nuanced evolution of mixed migration flows and the current refugee crisis are crucial. Deeper knowledge and greater awareness is necessary for players from the private, public, and nonprofit sectors to find effective ways of collaborating and mitigating future refugee challenges.

Photo Credit: "Mentao Refugee Camp in Burkina Faso" by Oxfam International, from Flickr Creative Commons licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.