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Overview of the Refugee Crisis (Part 1)

Who are "refugees"?

According to the United Nations’ 1951 Convention which would be explained in later sections, a refugee is 

  • unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin 

  • due to fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion

Where are they from?

2019 Rank of Major Source Countries of Refugees (Top 5)

  1. Syrian Arab Rep. - 6,616,983

  2. Afghanistan - 2,728,853

  3. South Sudan - 2,234,814

  4. Myanmar - 1,078,268

  5. Somalia - 905,109



1. Syria - Syrian Civil War (2011-)

  • Incumbent: President Bashar al-Assad, son of the former President Hafez al-Assad, and the Syrian Armed Forces (backed by Iran, Russia, Hezbollah)

  • Major insurgent: Syrian Democratic Forces (backed by the US-led coalition), Free Syrian Army (backed by Turkey), Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as ISIS)

  • Immediate Cause: Arab Spring and accumulated discontent towards the undemocratic regime encouraged a series of protests in Syria advocating for the removal of the President. After being violently suppressed, the protests escalated into an armed conflict. 

  • Major Peace initiatives: 2017 Geneva peace talks on Syria


2. Afghanistan - Afghanistan War (2001-2014)

  • Combating Parties: the Taliban (a military organization who controlled part of Afghanistan after the Afghan Civil War ended in 1996) VS the United States and Britain

  • Immediate Cause: 911 Attack (launched by al-Qaeda who sought sanctuary under the Talibans)

  • 2020 agreement for bringing peace between the Talibans and the US: the US and NATO agreed to withdraw all troops within 14 months if the Talibans uphold the deal (eg. forbidding extremist groups to operate in areas controlled by the Talibans)


3. South Sudan - South Sudanese Civil War (2013-2020)

  • Incumbent: Government led by President Salva Kiir

  • Major insurgent: Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In opposition (SPLM-IO)

  • Immediate Cause: President Kiir accused some government officials (including the then vice-president Riek Machar) of attempting a coup d’etat. Machar then led the SPLM-IO and combatted the government.

  • Status quo:  A unity government was formed with Machar regaining the post as the vice president. However, not all rebel groups accepted the peace deal and the new government.


 4. Myanmar - Rohingya crisis (2017-)

  • Myanmar’s army allegedly conducted genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minorities in the country after a Rohingya militant group (ARSA) launched deadly attacks on over 30 police posts. 

  • The Rohingya Muslims: numbered around 1 million in Myanmar in 2017, mostly lived in Rakhine state. They claim to be descendants of the Arab traders and have distinct cultures. 

  • Status quo:  Many of them fled to Bangladesh, but Bangladesh no longer accepts Rohingya from Myanmar since 2019.


5. Somalia - Somali Civil War (1991-)

  • Combatting parties: sects from the United Somali Congress who overthrew the former government

  • Immediate Cause: power vacuum after the success in overthrowing the military junta led by President Siad Barre  who held presidency from 1969 to 1991

  • Status quo:  a fragile government - The Federal Government of Somalia - was established in 2012

Where are they going?


2019 Rank of Countries Hosting the Most Refugees (in millions) (Top 10)

  1. Turkey - 3.6 (refugees); 0.3 (asylum-seekers)

  2. Colombia - 1.8 (Venezuelans displaced abroad)

  3. Germany - 1.1 (refugees); 0.3 (asylum-seekers)

  4. Pakistan - 1.4 (refugees)

  5. Uganda - 1.4 (refugees)

  6. United States - 0.3 (refugees); 0.8 (asylum-seekers)

  7. Sudan - 1.1 (refugees)

  8. Islamic Rep. of Iran - 1.0 (refugees)

  9. Lebanon - 0.9 (refugees)

  10. Peru - 0.5 (asylum-seekers); 0.4 (Venezuelans displaced abroad)


From the chart above, it is observed that refugees are mostly concentrated in developing countries, although some advanced countries have begun to absorb refugees in recent years. 


Major problems faced by refugees in host countries
  • Cultural clashes

  • Language barriers

  • Poverty: unemployment and underemployment

  • Discrimination from local residents in host countries

For example, in Turkey, far less than 2% of the 2.2 million Syrian refugees of working age are formally employed. This is partly due to the huge informal market in Turkey, but this datum also illustrates the fact that many refugees are unemployed or are not protected by formal labor contracts. Underemployment is also common due to language barriers and lack of credibility of refugees’ original diplomas in host countries.

  • Discrimination from local residents in host countries

  • Inaccessibility to merit goods, such as education and healthcare

  • Poor living standards in refugee camps

Due to the limited budget for construction of refugee camps and the huge number of refugees, the refugee camps are often of very poor quality. Overpopulation and deficiencies in basic supplies (eg. water and electricity) are common. Consequently, many refugee camps are unhygienic, leading to prevalence of infectious diseases and epidemics. However, a shortage of healthcare services provided by host countries to refugees is often observed.

  • Proliferation of crimes and low social security in refugee camps


International protection of refugees

Refugees are protected legally by International Refugee Law, International Human Rights Law (eg. the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948) and International Humanitarian Law. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is created to monitor the implementation of these laws pertaining to refugees’ rights. Some regional laws, such as the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights (1981), the European Convention on Human Rights (1950) and the American Convention on Human Rights (1969), as well as some regional bodies, such as The African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, have also been established to protect refugees regionally. (However, there are no equivalent international laws or bodies set up in Asia) Below is a brief introduction of MAJOR international Refugee Laws or policies offered to refugees.

1. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (passed in 1951)

Background: The Convention was introduced as a response to the European refugee crisis after the Second World War. It was amended in 1967, removing the geographic and temporal limits of the 1951 Convention. This 1967 Protocol was applicable to refugees all over the globe and was signed by over 140 countries. The Convention and its Protocol have become the reference and the basis of most international refugee laws.

Principles: non-discrimination (grants of entry should not be based upon gender, race, etc.), non-penalization (for illegal entry or stay), non-refoulement (refugees should not be forced to return to their country of origin against their will).

Notable clauses: 

  • Definition of ‘refugees’ has been provided (see the section above: "Who are Refugees")

  • ‘Persecution’ is later defined as any threat to life or freedom in the Handbook and Guidelines on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status published by the UNHCR in 1979

  • Refugees are entitled to some basic rights, including access to the courts, to primary education, to work, and the provision for documentation, including a refugee travel document in passport form

  • The convention is not applicable to criminals committing war crimes, crimes against humanity and serious non-political crimes

RemarksAs refugee law and the principle of nonrefoulement are customary in nature, it is highly likely that states can be punished for violating these obligations under the Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts (ARS) (2001). However, the ARS may be ineffective when a large number of states are potentially in breach of the refugee law.


  • Definition of persecution offered in the Handbook is very broad and the handbook itself is a non-legally binding document. Therefore, there is a wide leeway in the interpretation of ‘persecution’, allowing states to circumvent their obligations in taking in refugees as they can decide whether or not to grant an asylum seeker the title of ‘refugee’.

  • Categories for persecution (race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion) are limited in two perspectives. Firstly, it lacks attention to gender, potentially reducing protection of individuals who are persecuted because of their sexual identities (eg. women and LGBTQI). Secondly, these categories are limited to civil or political rights, thus the Convention and its Protocol fail to protect a rising number of ‘climate refugees’

  • A significant portion of refugees (eg. The Syrian refugees) are not facing a ‘fear of persecution’, but instead they attempt to flee from conflict. Therefore, states can legitimately refuse to offer protection to them by claiming that they are not refugees by definition

  • In a long term sense, one can lose his or her status as a refugee if the fear of persecution ceases to exist. They may be deprived of their protection that they are currently entitled to

  • Not all countries are contracting states of the Convention (eg. Indonesia and India)

  • individual refugees may not be able to petition to the treaty-monitoring body (eg. ICJ or UNHCR)


2. UNHCR policy on refugee protection and solutions in urban areas (passed in 2009)

Background: In 1997, the United Nations issued a policy statement aiming at responding to issues faced by urban refugees. Due to rapid urbanization and a consequently huge urban refugee population, the UNHCR decided to address the issues in a more comprehensive manner.


Nature: General guidance, instead of detailed operational guidelines, focusing on refugees in developing countries.

Notable measures: 

  • Providing reception facilities by the UNHCR to the refugees (eg. child-and-pregnant-women-friendly reception areas and waiting rooms)

  • Undertaking registration and data collection for the refugees to protect them against refoulement

  • Improving Refugee Status Determination system

  • Ensuring access to healthcare, education and other services


3. UNHCR Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness (passed in 1961)

Background: Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons was passed in 1954. Together with this 1961 convention, the two treaties form the foundation of the international legal framework to address statelessness.


Notable measures: 

  • Requiring states to grant citizenship to children born on their territory or born to their nationals abroad

  • Prohibiting the withdrawal of citizenship from States’ nationals

General Limitations

  1. These conventions or policies lack the idea of ‘shared responsibility’, meaning that non-neighboring countries are not required to take in refugees. Consequently, some countries who are regarded as vulnerable host the majority of refugees (eg. Turkey, Colombia, Pakistan).

  2. International bodies lack authority or direct power to resolve disputes on refugee issues. Disputes related to interpretation of the Convention must be brought before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), but these cases are extremely limited. The UNHCR, on the other hand, can only offer non-legally binding guidelines or advice which can be ignored by countries.

  3. These conventions or policies fail to bind states on enforcing them. Instead, it leaves states to rely on domestic or regional instruments to determine whether a person qualifies for refugee status and whether their rights will be protected.


Written by Brittany Wong

Edited by Chloe Yeung

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