Global Refugee Crisis and the Mass Migration ‘Revolving Door Pattern’: When Refugee Producing Countries Become Refugee Hosts

Publication Date: 
Monday, July 7, 2014

Commemorations for the 14th World Refugee Day[1] on 20 June drew to a close as the United Nations reported a sharp increase in the number of forcibly displaced persons worldwide,bringing new depth to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR)’s 2014 theme of “One family torn apart by war is too many.” An alarming 51 million people have thus far been involved in mass migration movements; 10.4 million of them now classify as ‘refugees of concern.’[2]

The causes of this dramatic surge need not be described at length; suffice it to say that internal and transnational conflicts are currently crippling countries from Africa’s Great Lakes region to the Near and Middle-East.  The protracted nature of several of those armed activities exacerbates an already acute crisis, one particular aspect of which warrants further analysis. In a twist I refer to as the ‘Revolving Door Pattern’, states that have previously been prime destinations for millions of refugees are now mass producing forcibly displaced persons, creating an intangible portal through which nationals flee while undeterred foreigners in worst affected countries continue to migrate.

A Continent in Turmoil: No End in Sight for the Great Lakes and North Africa Refugee Crisis

Recent events in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR) exacerbated an issue already prevalent before the last two countries prolonged the list of Great Lakes countries in the midst of a refugee crisis.  In an extraordinary reversal, formerly war-torn territories including Burundi and Rwanda are now admitting refugees from neighboring, former host states.  The DRC,  engulfed in an intractable war for most of the post-Mombutu years, itself lost many nationals to Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya to the East (Kivus region), all the while welcoming thousands of CAR nationals fleeing mass atrocities to the north-west. Further underlining the cyclical nature of refugee migration in the region, the UNHCR issued a report identifying asylum-seekers of various nationalities who were once hosted in the CAR capital city of Bangui: some from the DRC who escaped inter-armed groups confrontations, others from Sudan who fled violence in the Darfur region.  

Likewise, Ivory Coast and Libya, previously known as havens for refugees, became unsafe territories for both nationals and former asylum seekers. Over 200,000 Ivoirians fled political unrest a few years ago to neighboring countries, living precariously among the Liberian returnees they once hosted. A 2011 Médecins Sans Frontières report claimed that some 800,000 refugees left Libya for Egypt, Tunisia and Niger and this trend, three years later, is ongoing. Worse, a majority of the latter were non-Libyans, who themselves fled persecution in Uganda, Chad, or Sudan decades earlier.  Similarly, Egypt has long played host to forced migrants from Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea among many others, yet has seen a sudden outpouring of its citizens into Libya as a result of the Arab Spring then itself, hosted thousands of Libyan nationals once NATO bombings began in 2011. Many are reluctant to return.  As for Tunisia, where the influx of Libyan refugees has reached unmanageable proportions, throngs of Tunisian nationals have joined other Africans who set sail for the Italian coast, sparking an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in a country unable to bear the burden of accommodating all asylum seekers.

From Syria to Iraq: Multitude of New Revolving Doors in the Middle-East

Following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq experienced a massive upheaval of population fleeing U.S.-led combat operations.  The closest destinations of choice were Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, all hosts to large refugee populations, including Palestinians.  Syria, as we are all aware, later became the theater of a civil war that has triggered the worse humanitarian scenario seen in decades.  With the dead piling up in the thousands, a vast majority of survivors have been seeking protection in Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, where the upward trend is posing a serious threat to regional stability, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres warns.  The UNHCR’s revised 2014 Syria Regional Response Plan (RRP6) indeed estimates the number of Syrian registered refugees in Lebanon to 2.9 million, with an additional 100,000 more added each month. More continue to feed the outflow of asylum seekers fleeing into Iraq in spite of the recent escalation of Sunni-Shiite antagonism into a full-blown civil war. 

The resulting new wave of mass forced migration sets Syria and Iraq as the most dramatic recent examples of revolving doors. The current situation’s humanitarian implications range from donors’ inability to meet mounting food, health, education and protection needs of refugees, to the spread of contagious diseases and failure to adequately prepare for winter in the coming months.

Possible Legal Implication: Obsolescence of the Principle of Non-Refoulement?

The mass exodus toward safer, farther shores and host countries such as South Africa (the second largest host to refugees in the world after the United States), Australia, Canada, France and Italy’s responses to the crisis may lead to a slow erosion of refugees’ once sacrosanct protective status.  The protection against forcible return, or non-refoulement, as stated in Article 33(1) of the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (thereafter, the Refugee Convention), has been an intrinsic part of international law that both signatory and non-signatory states are required to respect.  However, growing anti-immigrant sentiment and the lasting effects of a crippling global economic downturn creates the potential for an already critical situation to intensify.  Overwhelmed host states are increasingly reacting in flagrant violation of the Refugee Convention, as indicated for instance, in an Amnesty International report claiming that Palestinian refugees in Syria were recently denied entry in Lebanon. Prioritizing domestic stability and protection of national security at the expenses of forcibly displaced populations appears as the best indicated action, even for signatory states with a strong history as ‘terres d’accueil’ (welcoming territories).

This migration pattern is indeed forcing the above countries and others to enact more stringent policies on refugee status determination and admission without fearing the consequences of Refugee Convention-related international legal proceedings.  Worse, it provides practical grounds to re-evaluate previously generous refugee protection regimes, and deny entry to thousands of asylum seekers fleeing persecution and war. As governments and humanitarian services providers are under strain, which threatens social cohesion, local and regional stability, a global refugee crisis threatens to hamper the chances of finding durable solutions at both international and regional levels. It would in spite of the assertion that “One family torn apart by war is too many.”


World Refugee Day, as proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly’s Resolution 55/76 on December 4, 2000.


Although the usual UNHCR-sanctioned term ‘persons of concern’ was designed to include asylum seekers, stateless persons, IDPs and returnees, recent and frequent references by the Refugee agency to ‘refugees of concern’ in official releases and documents lead to believe that this new concept is meant to identify the most and particularly vulnerable among registered refugees, i.e. women, children and the elderly.


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