An Issue Without Borders: Finding Solutions to the Refugee Crisis—Part 1

Adapted from an interview with Dr. Elizabeth Ferris (Georgetown, the Brookings Institution).  

(Watch the full panel discussion from the G20 Interfaith Forum in Riyadh, which offers more perspectives on this issue, above.)

In the context of the craziness we’re experiencing right now with COVID-19 and other global crises, I think it’s important to remember that refugee displacement has continued throughout the crisis. In fact, the numbers are growing. Last year witnessed the highest number of displaced people of all time—about 80 million people. That’s right up there with the chaos after World War II, when about 70 million people were displaced by the wars in Europe.

And it’s important to talk about why that number is so high. On the one hand, people are being newly displaced every year, every month, in every region of the world. Even though Colombia, for example, has a peace agreement that’s being implemented, hundreds of thousands of people are being displaced by the activities of armed groups. You see the same in Myanmar, in South Sudan, in Yemen, in Syria—so there’s always new displacement. But the fact is that the real reason the numbers are increasing is that there aren’t viable solutions for people. People who were displaced last year are still displaced this year. In fact, the average length of time someone spends displaced is between 15 and 25 years. We’re not finding solutions.

Why Solutions are Scarce

First of all, conflicts are dragging on so people can’t go back home. Life is still insecure in places like Syria and even Northern Iraq. Secondly, displaced people are not being allowed to settle into life where they currently are, even if that’s what they would like to do. Host countries, in particular, feel like they have more refugees than they can handle. They want them eventually to go home—and in places like Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, governments don’t see the refugees staying there permanently. And then the third solution—resettlement to third countries—has plummeted, largely as a result of U.S. government action, when President Trump slashed the number of refugees being resettled in the United States dramatically. Resettlement has never helped more than 1% of the world’s refugees, but today it’s less than half of 1%. And that has a knock-on effect, when a government such as Lebanon says, “You know, why should we continue to host 1.5 million Syrian refugees in a country with a population of 6 million when the United States with all of its wealth and resources says it can’t take anymore?” Resettlement has always been important—not just for the people it has helped, but as a signal of responsibility-sharing where other countries, distant countries, show they’re willing to step up and accept refugees into their communities.

Traditionally, the U.S. has been a strong leader for refugees worldwide. Our country was founded mainly by refugees. Everybody in the United States is either an indigenous person, a former slave, a former immigrant, or a former refugee. And our leadership role has encouraged governments in other parts of world to allow refugees to remain and to adopt an attitude that.  “Well, we have fewer resources, but if the U.S. is showing the way, we want to do our part and not see refugees as just a burden, but as a part of who we are—our identity.” I think we’re losing that—with dire consequences—in the United States and also globally, and the knock-on effects are really frightening.

Historically U.S. refugee policy has always been bipartisan. It’s been supported by Republicans, by Evangelical Christians, by people who share widely different political perspectives.  There’s been a widely-shared perception that “refugees are good for our country.” For example, the efforts in the Midwest of local churches to welcome refugees created some of the best experiences I’ve ever seen: A warm welcome, day-to-day work with English tutoring, getting kids to school, etc. And, you know, that kind of outpouring of support seems now to be far more politicized than it was in previous Republican or Democratic administrations.

A Plea to World Leaders

I If I could have world leaders understand one thing, it would be the need to find solutions to deal with this protracted displacement—to encourage countries to allow refugees to normalize their lives and to be willing to integrate them into society. At the same time, we need to do everything possible to prevent conflicts from starting in the first place and  to resolve conflicts so that people can return home. That’s what people want. People want to go home and to live in safety and security..

If I could add a second priority, I think that the whole issue of internally displaced people needs much more attention.  Out of 80 million people who are displaced, about 25 million are refugees, but over 40 million are displaced within the borders of their own countries. They’re often invisible. We hear a lot about the six million Syrian refugees, but not so much about the 8 million  internally displaced people who haven’t been able to cross the border. People who are displaced within the borders of their country are often even more vulnerable than refugees. They’re closer to the violence, international assistance is more difficult, and governments find it easy to ignore them.  We need to do more to ensure that IDPs are protected and assisted. We need to do more to support solutions for them.

The Complex Case of the Internally Displaced

In the case of internally displaced people, under international law it is the responsibility of those governments to care for the people inside their country who are displaced. It’s seen as an internal issue. However, there is also an understanding that it’s okay for governments with large numbers of IDPs to ask for international assistance. And that’s happened in many countries where the numbers have just been too big for a government to handle. In South Sudan right now, there are over 2 million internally displaced people, and the government doesn’t have the resources to cope with that.

While it’s the responsibility of governments to protect and assist those who are displaced within their borders, too many times it is the government that is causing the displacement. So in Myanmar, governmental policies are leading to the persecution and displacement of the Rohingya refugees and other ethnic minorities. And it’s the responsibility of that government to care for and assist them. So in Myanmar, they put people into internment camps. They move them into these virtual prisons. Under the principle of state sovereignty, governments are largely free to do what they please within the borders of their country. The Responsibility to Protect Doctrine, which was adopted in 2005 by the U.N., makes the case that when the abuses are so bad, the international community has an obligation to intervene. There was a lot of hope around that—that it might provide some support for internally displaced people. But then it was used in Libya to justify overthrowing Gaddafi. And now this whole notion of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ is tinged with, “Oh, it’s just a fig leaf for Western intervention.” So it’s been rejected by a lot of countries where it’s been most needed.

Click here to jump to Part 2.

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Dr. Elizabeth Ferris is an ISIM Research Professor at Georgetown and a non-resident senior fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution. Prior to joining Brookings in November 2006, Elizabeth spent 20 years working in the field of international humanitarian response, most recently in Geneva, Switzerland at the World Council of Churches. She has also served as Chair of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), as Research Director for the Life & Peace Institute in Uppsala, Sweden, and as Director of the Church World Service Immigration and Refugee Program in New York. She has been a professor at several U.S. universities and served as a Fulbright professor to the Universidad Autónoma de México in Mexico City. She has written or edited six books and many articles on humanitarian and human rights issues which have been published in both academic and policy journals. Her current research interests focus on the politics of humanitarian action and on the role of civil society in protecting displaced populations.