Refugee Protection Is Being Eroded

The pledges of USD 2.2 billion for refugees that were secured by Global Refugee Forum in December are a mere drop in the ocean.

It can seem that we have reduced refugees to pawns in a political game; a game in which they are unwelcome both in their neighbouring countries and also in Europe.

Children at Sendiyan Refugee Camp, Idlib, Syria on February 05, 2023. Photo: Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Conflict, poverty, persecution and human rights violations are causing ever more people to flee their home countries. The figure reached a record high in September 2023, with 114 million displaced people worldwide, of whom 36 million are registered as refugees, according to statistics released at the Global Refugee Forum, which concluded in December.

Some of these people seek refuge in Europe. Over a million refugees arrived in Europe in 2023, in addition to the people fleeing Ukraine, and the costs of supporting them are rising. But the majority of refugees do not travel as far as Europe. Most remain either in a country that borders their home country or end their journey before reaching Europe.

The increase in refugee numbers is leading to demands for stricter border controls, for the faster return of failed asylum seekers, for refugees to receive support in countries that border their own, and for processing centres to be established in those countries. Such demands pose new challenges for the safeguarding of refugees’ basic rights and may make permanent return to their home countries more difficult.

Most refugees flee to a neighbouring country

In 2022, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the majority of the world’s registered refugees came from three countries: Syria, Ukraine and Afghanistan. Most refugees arriving in Europe came from the same three countries, although Turks were the fifth largest group, with more likely to arrive in 2023.

The important point, however, is that the vast majority of refugees do not come to Europe or Norway. Seventy percent of refugees are in a country that shares a border with their home country, and 76 percent are in low- or middle-income countries.

And there are also many refugees who do not leave their home countries, with 71 million people reported to be internally displaced, such as the Palestinians trapped in Gaza. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, Syria has the largest number of internally displaced persons: 6.68 million people out of a total population of 21.3 million. Afghanistan is in sixth place with 4.4 million internally displaced persons.

According to the UNHCR, Turkey is host to the largest number of registered refugees, a total of 3.6 million, of whom the majority are from Syria. The country hosting the second largest number is Iran, with 3.4 million, of whom the majority are from Afghanistan. Next are Colombia, with 2.5 million; Germany, with 2.1 million; and Pakistan, with 1.7 million. In addition to these registered refugees, there are the many people who have either not applied for refugee status or are living in a country illegally.

Processing centres in third countries

Many refugees die on hazardous journeys along the continually changing refugee routes. These deaths have led not only to stricter border controls but also to proposals to send refugees to processing centres in third countries, where their asylum applications would be processed.

Recently, the UK Supreme Court rejected the UK government’s agreement with Rwanda to establish processing centres in that country. The court found that sending asylum seekers to Rwanda would be unlawful, because Rwanda is not a safe country for refugees. Despite this ruling, the British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, is pressing ahead with plans for deportations, and countries such as Denmark and some Norwegian political parties have expressed interest in establishing similar processing centres.

Legal and physical protections for refugees are important, but not all countries have signed up to the Refugee Convention and a number of other factors are also affecting refugee routes and the future of the world’s refugees.

In some countries, refugees’ rights to residency and assistance are contingent on international agreements and funding, while in others, refugees are dependent on the willingness and economic ability of the particular state to assist them. One often underrated factor is the conditions that refugees encounter in the country they have fled to, or to which they have been returned. Another is whether refugees can be protected from being used as pawns in larger political games and processes.

The central role of Turkey

Many refugees making for Europe end up in Turkey. Some arrive directly from Syria, others via Iran.

In March 2016, Turkey entered into an agreement with the European Council on preventing illegal immigration to Europe, and also on taking back failed asylum seekers from Greece. The European Council promised to pay EUR 6 billion (a sum that was later increased by a further EUR 3 billion) to fund support for refugees in Turkey. The agreement remains in force, despite various breaches, and the EU’s ambassador to Turkey recently signalled that the European Council wants to extend the agreement and funding arrangements.

This may not prove so simple. The Turkish economy is in a sharp decline. This economic decline has led to greater scepticism towards refugees among the Turkish population, and thus also among politicians. In Turkey’s presidential election campaign in spring 2023, candidates competed to pledge the harshest refugee policy. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu pledged to deport all refugees living in Turkey, while President Erdoğan, who emerged the winner, pledged to deport a million Syrians within a year.

Erdoğan’s plan is to send the refugees to an area in north-west Syria where Turkey has a military presence, but which is the scene of ongoing armed conflicts with Kurdish groups. Many Syrian refugees are resisting being returned to this area due to fears for their safety, the fact that they are not from this area, and concerns about what support they will get once they arrive there.

So far, it is unclear when, or even if, Erdoğan’s plan will be implemented. Observers believe that Erdoğan is biding his time: given attitudes to refugees in Turkey, should he boost his party, the AKP, in local elections in March 2024 by implementing his return policy, or should he adopt more balanced measures in order to secure continued EU support?

While the UK Supreme Court emphasized Rwanda’s weak human rights protections in its rejection of the proposed UK-Rwanda cooperation, neither the EU nor other European countries seem to have been as rigorous in assessing the situation in Turkey, where in comparison, there are three worrying factors.

Firstly, Turkey is not a full signatory of the UN Refugee Convention, which establishes refugees’ legal rights. Secondly, there are questions about the independence of the Turkish legal system following power-grabbing reforms implemented by President Erdoğan, and also about the effect of these reforms on legal protections for refugees. Thirdly, it is unclear who, if anyone, has jurisdiction or recognized governmental authority in the part of Syria to which Turkey is planning to return the Syrian refugees. There are also concerns that Turkey could exploit a targeted placement of refugees in order to annex the area.

While the future of the Syrian refugees is unclear, Turkey has already introduced far harsher policies towards Afghan refugees, as have Iran and Pakistan.

Afghan refugees

Afghans have been fleeing their home country ever since the Soviet invasion in 1979. At times, up to one-fifth of Afghanistan’s population have been living as refugees in Pakistan or Iran, and many others have lived as migrant workers both in those countries and in the Middle East. Each of the many power shifts in Kabul has led to a new round of voluntary and forced returns from neighbouring countries, as well as to further emigration. Many Afghans fled in autumn 2021, after the Taliban took over.

No countries have recognized the Taliban administration, and the international community has demanded a more inclusive government, changes to gender discrimination policies, and action to prevent terrorist groups from operating on Afghan soil. Sanctions imposed by the United States and the United Nations, along with cuts in aid, have caused widespread poverty. According to the United Nations, 29.2 million people (of a total population of 40 million) require humanitarian support to survive the winter. The situation did not prevent Afghanistan’s neighbours from returning over a million Afghan refugees in 2023, as we can see from the figures below.

Turkey has closed its border to new refugees and has flown the people turned away back to Kabul. By October 2023, Turkey had prevented 238,488 Afghans from entering the country, and 44,786 had been deported to Kabul in collaboration with the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM). The deportations continued for the remainder of the year, with men comprising the majority of those deported.

Like Turkey, Iran has imposed stricter border controls on Afghan refugees and migrants. It has also announced an end to the health and educational services that are currently provided to Afghans, who will be actively encouraged to return home. In addition, Iran will increase deportations of Afghans who lack residency permits. In the first half of 2023, 400,000 Afghans had returned voluntarily and 310,000 had been deported. Unlike Turkey, Iran is a full signatory of the UN Refugee Convention, although that has not affected its policy of forcible returns. One reason may be increased popular discontent about the presence of Afghan refugees, and thus support for a stricter return policy.

Pakistan went furthest by announcing the deportation of all foreigners without residency permits, including 1.7 million Afghans, unless they had left voluntarily by 1 November 2023. In early December, 450,000 had returned home, but it is unclear how many returned of their own volition and how many were deported.

Pakistan is also not a full signatory of the UN Refugee Convention, and straitened public finances and inflation are fuelling anti-refugee sentiment. But the arguments used by the Pakistani government and army to justify their return policy are different from those used by Turkey and Iran.

Their main argument is that refugees without residency permits can pose a security risk, given an increase in terror attacks in Pakistan in which the army alleges Afghan involvement. The goal of the returns is to exert pressure on the Taliban administration to take steps to prevent further attacks and to deport members of the Pakistani Taliban. So far, international calls to halt the deportations and calls for Pakistan’s Supreme Court  to intervene have all been unsuccessful. The only Afghans not being deported are those who have asylum applications currently being processed by other countries, such as the United States.

Although the different countries in the region use different arguments, for the Afghans who are returned, the result is the same. They end up in a country that is dependent on international humanitarian aid to assist the returnees through the winter and to enable their permanent return. Such large-scale returns are increasing levels of conflict throughout Afghanistan, where girls have to leave school after sixth grade, due to the Taliban’s restrictive policies. There are fears that lack of support may force returnees to embark on new hazardous journeys to leave the country. Men will be motivated by the need to support their families, while girls will be motivated by a desire for education.

An impossible challenge?

It is difficult to see any easy long-term solutions to the world’s refugee problem, especially when refugees are no longer welcome in neighbouring countries or when continuing conflicts and sanctions hamper the possibilities of safe and long-term returns. The pledges of USD 2.2 billion for refugees that were secured by Global Refugee Forum are a mere drop in the ocean.

At the same time, it is important to prevent regimes from exploiting vulnerable refugees as pawns in political games, or deprioritizing their safety, whether these actions are taken in pursuit of domestic- or foreign-policy gains.

The increase in refugee numbers in Europe has led to increased costs and has fuelled negative attitudes towards refugees in many host countries. In conjunction with an increasing opposition towards refugees, as well as reductions in aid to host countries and to countries to which refugees are returned, the challenges faced by refugees become almost insurmountable.

At this point it may be worth offering a realpolitik reminder: ending violent conflicts and preventing new ones will reduce people’s need to flee their home countries and facilitate more permanent returns. Our deeply fragmented world requires more diplomacy and solution-oriented thinking. Since both are in short supply, this can be an appropriate hope for 2024.

  • Arne Strand is a Senior Researcher at Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI)
  • This text was published in Norwegian by Panorama Nyheter 20 December 2023
  • Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext
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