Since the "European Refugee Crisis" of 2015-16, refugees have slipped down on the political agenda. COVID-19 has stifled refugee protests and taken the topic off the media schedule for the time being. On the other hand, the pandemic's effect is increasingly exacerbating the factors that cause mass displacement. It is eroding the ability of countries that host refugees in Africa and the Middle East. Although the designation of 2015-16 as a "crisis" has been disputed, there are reasons to assume that, without decisive intervention, countries within and outside refugee-hosting regions will once again face massive refugee flows.
Recession and displacement are what comes to mind when thinking about COVID-19.
While rich countries have concentrated mainly on the pandemic's health effects, the economic repercussions for the world's poorest countries may have the most significant impact. A century of development advances would be lost from Sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East. Furthermore, before COVID-19, the world was facing a year-on-year rise in refugee and migration levels, with climate change potentially displacing another 140 million people. Three explanatory factors now point to an impending global refugee crisis.
First, the global recession would exacerbate conflict, authoritarianism, and state fragility in countries of origin. The majority of displaced people are from chronically developing countries, such as Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Venezuela. We know that these are the countries that the recession will hit the hardest.
Existing data informs us of the effects of the recession on the underlying causes of displacement. Ted Miguel, for example, states that a 5% negative economic shock causes a 0.5% rise in the conflict in Africa in the literature on conflict economics. We know that lower GDP/capita is linked to less democratic politics and higher levels of corruption.
Second, the recession erodes low and middle-income countries' willingness and capacity to accept refugees. The presumption made by the wealthy nations is that migration would be confined to origin regions. Frontline countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Kenya, Uganda, and Bangladesh have long taken in refugees as part of the refugee scheme.
Amid COVID-19, we see states on the brink of collapse, such as Lebanon, which hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees within a population of fewer than 7 million people. COVID-19's economic consequences have pushed the country to the brink of instability, with the Prime Minister recently declaring the country to be in chaos. Kenya proclaimed on March 23 that it would close its two largest refugee camps, Dadaab and Kakuma, threatening to expel its nearly half-million refugees. It cited terrorism as the primary explanation, although several analysts suspected that the warning was also an attempt to elicit further foreign assistance when the economy was contracting.
The rest of the world relies on these frontline states to handle refugee flows, according to what we learned in 2015-16. People are forced to migrate onwards, often in large numbers, in the absence of economically and politically viable refuge states. Hundreds and thousands of Syrian refugees arrived in Europe in 2015-16, not only as a result of the Syrian conflict but also from Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Since 2011, millions of Syrians have been displaced in those countries. When those countries could no longer sufficiently protect and assist refugees, it became a turning point for onward migration. These movements astounded Europe, and the political fallout resulted in Brexit and populist nationalism across the continent.
Third, the pandemic jeopardises refugee survival plans in camps and cities across the world, undermining aid, remittances, and informal-sector employment. Bilateral donors have announced significant development and humanitarian assistance reductions, and multilateral organisations have reported considerable funding gaps. The World Bank demonstrates how remittances, which refugees depend on, have been affected.
Furthermore, the Center for Global Development has found that displaced people are disproportionately likely to function in the most economically vulnerable industries. Moreover, based on what we know about refugee onward migration decisions, socio-economic hardship could increase the likelihood of dangerous onward migration to Europe and elsewhere.
Need for International Co-operation
Rich countries are closing their doors at a time when their populations and needs are increasing. For example, in the United Kingdom, Home Secretary Priti Patel unveiled her New Plan for Immigration in March, proposing to restrict people's ability to come to the UK and claim asylum. The UK is far from alone in slashing refugees' Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) in low and middle-income countries.
However, if rich countries want to avoid another global refugee crisis, they must work together. Governments from Europe to North America must recognise the interdependence of their support for refugee-hosting countries like Kenya and Lebanon and the global refugee system's viability. Although the political urge to close borders and cut ODA during a recession is strong, this approach not only jeopardises people's access to fundamental rights but also fails to serve national interests because it endangers other refugee-hosting countries' willingness and ability.
International cooperation and development assistance that helps refugees and host communities in the world's major refugee-hosting countries are critical to preventing another refugee crisis. Aside from humanitarian aid, major refugee-hosting regions need investments in jobs, education, and government services.
However, such interventions must be supplemented by holding the door open to spontaneous arrival asylum and organised resettlement schemes. Otherwise, countries like Kenya and Lebanon would be justified in questioning why they should continue to host hundreds of thousands of refugees during a national crisis.