A world in refuge

Global displacement has reached an all time high in 2021. The world has never needed the UN Refugee Convention more than in its 70th anniversary year.

Migrants boarding a ship in the Mediterranean.

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There was a common conception that the global refugee crisis reached its peak when millions of Syrians fled war and persecution in 2015. But by 2021, more people than ever are forcibly displaced. Not just Syrians. Many are also fleeing the long-standing civil war in Afghanistan. Whereas across Africa, war and unrest in a number of countries have driven millions of people into exile.

Besides war and unrest, weak institutions, hunger, religious persecution, scramble for natural resources, and climate change are some of the factors forcing people to leave their homes in pursuit of a better life.

On top of this, the COVID-19 pandemic has created more global inequality and contributed to increased pressure on Europe’s borders. The lockdown has had severe consequences for refugees and asylum seekers, many have not received necessary emergency and legal aid due to lockdowns and closed borders. Numbers from UNHCR show that the pandemic has resulted in more poverty and unemployment among the most vulnerable refugees.

In conjunction with World Refugee Day on 20 June, we discussed the current refugee situation with researchers from the University of Bergen and the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI).

The pandemic has been disastrous for refugees

Head of the Pandemic Centre at the University of Bergen, Esperanza Diaz, has followed the development of the COVID-19 pandemic at close hand. According to her, the pandemic has been disastrous for refugees’ health.

Portrett av forsker Esperanza Diaz

“Broadly speaking, refugees are a group of relatively healthy people, even if up to a third can display symptoms of psychological stress during flight. But, after about a year in Norway their overall health improves,” says Professor Diaz, who has done research into the health of Syrian refugees in Norway.

Siri Helena Halvorsen

“In general, the pandemic has been a disaster for refugees. With borders closing, refugees have not been able to move to Norway or other countries and have been forced to remain in camps. In places such as Lesbos and the camps, people do not even have access to hand wash and you can forget about masks. Imagine a situation where you live in close quarters without proper sanitary facilities. How are you going to protect yourself against a virus,” says Diaz.

“The lucky few finally arriving in Norway were met by strict COVID-19 measures and closed public offices, giving them nowhere to turn for help. Those who had started Norwegian language courses lost the opportunity to practice their new language. Seeking help for health issues was also a struggle, not knowing who to approach. It’s a miracle that some of these groups have not suffered bigger outbreaks of COVID-19. Not that they have avoided COVID-19 as a result of following the rules, but rather that they have remained isolated since arriving in Norway.”

A crisis in East Africa creates new wave of refugees

Senior researcher Lovise Aalen at CMI specialises in social, economic and political relations on the Horn of Africa, with particular expertise on Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan.

Portrett av forsker Lovise Aalen

According to the CMI researcher, the atmosphere in Eastern Sudan is now desperate. “We now also see a big flow of refugees from Tigray fleeing across the border to Sudan. This puts a heavy burden on the local and national government in Sudan and comes in addition to existing refugee flows from both Ethiopia and Eritrea to Eastern Sudan,” Aalen says. This flow then becomes a wave seeing as refugees travel via Khartoum onwards to Libya before attempting the hazardous journey across the Mediterranean.

Christian Michelsens Institutt

“In 2021, the situation in all of these three countries is more vulnerable, to a large extent due to the war in Northern Ethiopia’s Tigray province, which started in November 2020. This has wide-reaching consequences for all three countries involved. Eritrea has long struggled with a high number of refugees, with many fleeing across the border to Northern Ethiopia to stay in refugee camps there or fleeing onwards to Sudan,” Aalen says.

The war has its background in a conflict between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which previously governed Ethiopia and now rules the Tigray province, and the federal government led by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Abiy Ahmed. This has led to a massive humanitarian crisis, loss of civilian lives, and food shortages.

The increased level of conflict not only impacts on the population of Tigray, but also on Eritrean refugees.

“Ethiopia’s federal government aligning with Eritrean armed forces to fight the TPLF has strongly impacted on the flow of refugees. Eritrean forces have used the conflict as a smokescreen to attack Eritrean refugees in Northern Ethiopia, with a number of Eritreans forced to return home and being subjected to punishment upon arrival,” explains Aalen.

The perilous journey to Europe

The refugees and migrants that arrive by boat to Europe’s borders come from both African countries and countries in the Middle East.

The journey is risky - and for many - lethal. 983 people drowned in the Mediterranean sea while migrating in 2020, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Between 2014-2018, 337 children died while migrating in Africa, 200 of them drowned in the Mediterranean sea.

However, these numbers do not reflect the grim reality: according to IOM, over 70 per cent of people whose deaths were reported in the Central Mediterranean between 2014 and 2018 were never found.

Strandet båt ved strand omgitt av redningsvester og migranters eiendeler

Many refugees and migrants cross the Mediterranean sea in small dinghies in search of a better life in Europe, but many do not survive the journey. Shipwrecks are no uncommon sight along the coast of border countries.


UiB researcher Synnøve Kristine Nepstad Bendixsen has conducted fieldwork along a different, but common migratory route: the Balkan route, which starts in Turkey and continues to Greece and North Macedonia, to Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The social anthropologist interviewed migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Algerie, and Morocco. Many had been on the road for months and even years. Their goal was to arrive safely to a Schengen country.

Sosialantropolog Synnøve Kristine Nepstad Bendixsen, portrettfoto.

UiB researcher Synnøve Bendixsen has conducted fieldwork along the Balkan route, a common migratory route into Europe. Bendixsen explains that migrating or fleeing is not experienced, and thus should not be explained, as a journey from A to B where you leave one place and arrive safely in another: the road to Europe is characterized by unexpected turns, pushbacks and protracted waiting.

Eivind Senneset for UiB

“Governments, the EU, and the media often display migrants’ and refugees’ migratory patterns by using maps with arrows meant to illustrate their movements. But these maps do not show the reality of migrants – namely that irregular migration is far from pursued as a straight line. The information that a straight, one-way arrow conveys, fails to show the challenges that accompany irregular migrants’ journeys,” says Bendixsen and continues.

“Straight lines do not bear witness of sleep deprivation in temporary tents and the many unknown cities and unplanned stops that may last months or years. They fail to convey the insecurity and fear of being found by the police, deported, or imprisoned; or the anxiety that dangerous journeys across deserts and seas invoke; or stays in crowded internment camps where rape, slavery and violence take place.”

Refugees suffer long-lasting health issues

As Bendixsen’s fieldwork shows, migration and refuge can lead to serious physical and psychological trauma. Arriving in a safe country does not put an end to such problems.

The study CHART, led by Professor Esperanza Diaz, has monitored the health conditions among Syrian refugees arriving in Norway via Lebanon. The study concludes this year and shows some interesting development in refugee health – both physical and psychological.

“Broadly speaking, refugees are a group of relatively healthy people, even if up to a third can display symptoms of psychological stress during flight. But, after about a year in Norway their overall health improves,” says Professor Diaz.

However, as refugees stay more than one year, a different tendency emerges.

“After more than a year, the situation deteriorates. This has to do with the situation they encounter in Norway: a struggle between integration and difficulties in gaining legal employment. The gender bias can also become a stressful factor as they struggle to balance the emancipated role for women in Norway with the more traditional family pattern they know from Syria. This is tricky on a number of levels.”

EU’s border regime keeps Europe safe from the ‘migrant’

In order to respond to – and slow down – the increased flow of refugees to Europe, the EU has put in place several economic and political arrangements with neighbouring countries that host a large number of refugees. The Lebanon and Jordan Compacts, and the EU-Turkey deal from 2016 are all examples of such third-country agreements and part of the EU's externalization policy.

UiB researcher Synnøve Bendixsen says that third-country agreements can be described as an attempt by the EU to expand its border control beyond the union’s actual physical borders by the means of politics, treaties, regulations, and economic aid to neighboring countries.

Migranter samler seg rundt et bål ved Tuzia busstasjon

Six people gather around the fire at the Tuzla bus station in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The photo is taken during fieldwork conducted by UiB researchers who interviewed migrants and refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Morocco, and Algeria.

Martin Kvernbekk

“In the Balkans, the EU is attempting to enforce border control through economic aid to Serbia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina and others - to strengthen their border management and Frontex operations in the area - to prevent migrants from coming too close to an EU country where they can launch an asylum application,” says Bendixsen.

“The externalization policy contributes to expanding the EU’s physical borders beyond the Schengen borders. One symptom of this strategy is the budget growth of Frontex, which has increased from €7.3 millions in 2005 to €137 millions in 2011, and €286 millions in 2016 to €538 millions in 2020,” says Bendixsen.

A migration policy shaped by a negative narrative

“The EU’s externalization policy contributes to creating a narrative where migration is dangerous, unwanted and something to be avoided. It also sends a signal to other countries that migration and migrants should be avoided. The narrative behind this policy and Frontex’ budget growth plays a part in framing migration as a threat; a security issue and a risk; it adds to the understanding that the EU is transferring this risk to a third-country that is in charge of preventing the risk – the migrant – from reaching Europe,” Bendixsen explains.

Denmark’s externalization policy has manifested itself in a decision to fund and build reception centres abroad that can host asylum seekers applying for permanent stay in the country. One of the countries Danish politicians have visited and considered for the purpose is Rwanda.

In a press release from UNHCR, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Gillian Triggs says that they are strongly against initiatives that forcibly transfer asylum seekers to other countries and that externalization only moves the responsibility from one location to another, and that this might go against international obligations.

“Practices like these undermine the rights of those seeking safety and protection, demonize them and punish them,” says Triggs in the press release, “they exploit the vulnerability of refugees and host countries already under pressure.”

Can non-binding agreements hold the necessary solutions?

2021 marks the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Convention. When it was implemented in 1951 its purpose was to protect refugees after World War II. Today it remains the most important legal document protecting refugees’ rights when and while they are applying for asylum.

In 2018, a number of countries signed the UN’s Refugee and Migration Compacts, two new agreements aiming at consolidating the objectives and obligations outlined by the Geneva convention.

The EU funded research project PROTECT studies the Compacts’ potential and how they impact global refugee protection and governance – and ultimately whether they have a positive impact on states’ ability and will to fulfil the objectives of the Refugee Convention.

One of the Compacts’ most important goals is securing a better and more fair distribution of the world’s refugees: over 60 per cent of all refugees are currently hosted by ten countries. Turkey alone hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees.

86 per cent of all refugees live in poor developing countries, which lack the necessary means to handle and support large refugee flows.

Portrett av forsker Hakan G. Sicakkan

The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees has called on the global community to come together and find better solutions for the world’s refugees. Encouraging support and global solidarity and action to include and support refugees, internally displaced people, stateless people, and the countries that host them. The PROTECT project, led by Hakan G. Sicakkan, looks at how the responsibility for refugees may be distributed more equally around the world.

Eivind Senneset

PROTECT’s project leader, Professor Hakan G. Sicakkan, explains why it is interesting to study the effect of the UN’s new initiatives.

“The Refugee Compact encourages more concerted actions to mobilize states to take on the responsibilities of the Convention and share the burden of the world’s refugees. PROTECT is looking at the consequences of these compacts on the right to international protection, on the refugee law and its international governance, and whether they might change the perception of refugees into legitimate citizens in our society,” said Sicakkan after the Compacts were launched in 2018, following two years of negotiations.

  • Also read: What now for the 1951 Refugee Convention?

The Refugee Compact has four specific objectives: easing pressures on host countries, enhancing refugee self-reliance, expanding access to third country solutions, and supporting conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity.

  • In this video, Sicakkan explains how PROTECT will study the impact of the two new Compacts.