Sociology Forced Migration
by
Greta A. Gilbertson, Mary G. Powers
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0181

Introduction

This entry reviews trends and changes in forced migration, specifically in the population defined by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as persons of concern, comprising refugees, some internally displaced persons, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and returnees. The UNHCR has an international mandate to provide assistance and protection to persons classified in any of these categories, and to determine whether relocation to a third country is necessary. Over sixty years ago the international community, through the United Nations, began articulating and adopting a number of conventions and agreements concerning the rights and protections of refugees and asylum seekers. These followed the global recognition of the fundamental right to move stated in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. That article states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state,” and “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” It should be noted, however, that no country is obligated to receive someone from another country. The 1951 United Nations Protocol Relating to Status of Refugees was developed in the aftermath of World War II in order to codify the obligations of states to protect the victims of persecution. As amended in 1967, a refugee is more broadly defined as a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” There has also been increasing concern with internally displaced persons in recent UNHCR reports, which are cited below. The UN protocols also provide for protection in the form of the principle of non-refoulement, whereby states agree not to expel or return a refugee to a territory where he or she has reason to fear persecution. This extends to persons who fall outside of the Convention definition of a refugee, namely those affected by armed conflict or other conditions, such as environmental catastrophes. The Convention and Protocol were ratified by 147 countries. Many argue that the UN Convention definition of a refugee needs to be revised in light of the increases in refugees who do not conform to the UN definition, including some of those fleeing generalized violence and natural disasters. Two regional charters on refugees—the Organization for African Unity’s 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees—have adopted a broader refugee definition than the 1951 Convention.

Recent Forced Migration

In 2014, 59.5 million persons were forcibly displaced as a result of wars, persecution, violence, or human rights violations. In the following years, millions of people were forced to leave their homes due to civil wars and conflict in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, as well as from the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of the 59.5 forcibly displaced persons in 2014, 19.5 million were refugees, 38.2 million were internally displaced persons, and 1.8 were asylum seekers. Of the refugees, 14.4 million were “of concern” under the UNHCR mandate and the rest were registered under the earlier Palestinian UNRWA mandate. All were in need of immediate aid and of assistance with making longer-term plans for repatriation or permanent settlement elsewhere. See United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 2015b for information on trends in forced displacement. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 2015a documents the number and trends in asylum claims. Asylum claims have increased rapidly since the 1980s. For example, in the 1980s there were 2.3 million worldwide applicants for asylum, compared to 2.6 million between 2010 and 2012 alone. An estimated 866,000 asylum claims were made in industrialized countries in 2014, which represents an increase of 45 percent from the prior year, close to the all-time high of almost 900,000 asylum applications recorded in 1992. The top five groups filing asylum claims were from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Serbia/Kosovo, and Eritrea. These increases occurred despite efforts by industrialized countries to discourage migrants from applying for asylum. See Keely and Russell 1994 for a discussion of developments in the earlier period. Kerwin 2011 provides an updated overview of the refugee and asylum system in the United States. Nearly every country participates in the refugee system, either as a country of origin of the displaced persons, a country of destination, or as a transit country. It is important to note, however, that many countries are reluctant to act positively and quickly, in part because the situation of forcibly displaced persons is viewed not only as a human rights issue, but also as a security issue and a political issue with major economic costs. All of this affects the timely processing of displaced persons through the existing system. Less research has been done on the costs of forced migration than on the costs and benefits of voluntary migration for host nations. Dadush and Niebuhr 2016 notes the high costs of forced migration, both globally and regionally. Regular or voluntary migration occurs slowly or continuously over long time periods. Forced or involuntary migrants often flee in large numbers and over a short time period to the nearest place to avoid danger. Both types of migration have demographic, economic, social, and political implications and consequences for the migrants and the receiving countries. The implications are quite different, as detailed in Dadush and Niebuhr 2016. For example, a large numbers of refugees can place a major burden on existing housing, schools, and other infrastructure.

International Responses

Because of (1) the increased numbers of forced migrations and refugees in recent years and (2) the existence of international agreements signed by most countries concerning the human rights of forcibly displaced persons, a clear international response is required at two levels. The first involves the development of international agreements on the appropriate actions to be undertaken and the legal and/or moral basis for undertaking such actions. This requires negotiation at the international level resulting in covenants, protocols and agreements that are adopted by individual nations. These frequently occur through the United Nations. Interpretations of such agreements vary among individual nations, however. The second involves the delivery of humanitarian assistance and requires the coordination of international, national, and private nonprofit assistance programs. There appears to be general agreement that the overall process requires mechanisms for the delivery of immediate emergency assistance, care and protection, repatriation when possible, and resettlement, either temporarily or permanently, when needed. See, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs 1998 (cited under Solutions) for a discussion of the five major types of assistance for refugees. Rogers and Copeland 2006 discusses the history and evolution of the international institutional framework, or what is called the “international refugee regime.” This includes many national and international organizations and agencies, private nonprofit groups, and charitable and religious groups involved in providing assistance to forced migrants. Also see Loescher 1994 for an overview of the dynamics of refugee regime change from the 1920s through the 1980s. The UNHCR has direct international responsibility for providing assistance to refugees and deciding whether resettlement to another country is necessary. UNHCR and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) are responsible for protecting the rights, safety, and health of refugees. After immediate aid is provided and decisions with respect to resettlement are made, the international system is dependent on individual nation-states to act responsibly and comply with the various conventions, treaties, and international laws they have approved. The implementation of such agreements varies widely at the national level, however. This is due, in part, to the fact that states have different laws and procedures for admitting refugees. The strict refugee standard in the UN protocols has resulted in nations developing “surrogate” or “complementary” forms of international human rights protection. These refer to many different state practices, including providing protection from deportation or offering temporary protection. Complementary protection usually comes with fewer rights and benefits compared with full refugee status. See Hamlin 2014 for an in-depth comparison of refugee regimes and complementary protection in the United States, Australia, and Canada. For a discussion of temporary protection and other complementary forms of protection in the United States, see Kerwin 2014. The processing of refugees is lengthy and complicated, involving many different government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In the United States, for example, every refugee approved for admission is sponsored by one of several agencies that participate in the Reception and Placement Program through a cooperative agreement with the Department of State. The sponsoring agencies include, among others, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Episcopal Migration Ministries, the International Rescue Committee, and the US Committee for Migrants and Refugees. All of this occurs after the refugee has been referred by UNHCR to the United States and granted access by the United States Refugee Admission Program. Bruno 2015 provides an overview of the process of refugee admissions and resettlement in the United States.

  • Bruno, Andorra. 2015. Refugee admissions and resettlement policy. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.

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    An overview of the US refugee admission policy and resettlement program. Discusses refugee ceilings and allocation and organizations involved in the overseas processing of immigrants.

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    • Hamlin, Rebecca. 2014. Let me be a refugee: Administrative justice and the politics of asylum in the United States, Canada, and Australia. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

      DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199373307.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      A comparison of asylum determination processes in the United States, Canada, and Australia. Despite the general trend in restrictive asylum policies, there are divergent refugee status determination outcomes by country. According to Hamlin, this is best explained by the degree of insulation and independence characterizing the administrative agencies making frontline refugee status determinations.

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      • Kerwin, Donald. 2014. Creating a more responsive and seamless refugee protection system: The scope, promise and limitations of US temporary protection programs. Journal of Migration and Human Security 21.1: 44–72.

        DOI: 10.14240/jmhs.v2i1.24Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        The focus here is on complementary protection programs, such as temporary protected status.

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        • Loescher, Gil. 1994. The international refugee regime: Stretched to the limit? Journal of International Affairs 47.2: 352–377.

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          Article examines five periods (interwar period, 1921–1943; early Cold War period, 1949–1951; late 1950s to 1970s; the 1980s; and the post-Cold War era) during which the international refugee regime confronted significant challenges to its authority. Discusses the characteristics of many of today’s displacements, the challenges they pose to the international refugee regime and the kinds of policy responses required.

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          • Rogers, Rosemary, and Emily Copeland. 2006. The evolution of the international refugee regime. In The migration reader: Exploring politics and policies. Edited by Anthony M. Messina and Gallya Lahav, 202–206. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

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            Discussion of the evolution of the international refugee regime since World War II with respect to the legal instruments that undergird it and the actors within the regime. Chapter deals primarily with international and nongovernmental institutions, including the UNHCR and other international organizations involved with refugees and internally displaced persons.

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            National and Regional Responses

            States have different laws and procedures for admitting refugees and adjudicating asylum cases. The case of the European Union is more complicated, as each nation has its own laws but is also part of a larger Common European Asylum System. Even though the EU member states have worked to establish this system, there is not complete agreement among individual members as to a definition of refugee or asylum seeker, a common process for screening, or agreement on the number of refugees each country should accept. See European Commission 2014 for an overview of EU policies. The responses of individual European countries and the European Union to the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have fled wars and disasters in the Middle East—especially Syrians beginning in 2014—illustrate the problems with the EU framework for dealing with refugees and asylum seekers. Most European countries have relatively open borders among member states. The European Union regulates migration largely through two agreements: (1) The Schengen Agreement, which provides for freedom of travel within the area, and (2) The Dublin Convention, which states that the country migrants first enter must screen them and decide whether they are refugees or asylum seekers. These agreements were designed to provide freedom of movement for citizens of member states and to provide some control over migration, but they were not designed to handle the massive forced migrations of recent years. In 2015, for example, more than a million migrants and refugees entered Germany. Although Germany initially had an “open door” policy (it later set a limit on the number of asylees it will resettle), many other EU countries have been reluctant to take in refugees. Moreover, many transit states do not have the capacity and/or willingness to comply with Dublin, resulting in a breakdown of the asylum system rules and exacerbating the burden on a few countries, such as Germany and Sweden. In addition, a plan to resettle 160,000 refugees throughout Europe was opposed by a number of eastern European countries. See Martin 2015 for a critique of the broad refugee policy adopted in August of 2015 by Angela Merkel in Germany. See Collett 2015 for a discussion of the EU response to the large inflows of refugees from Syria.

            Solutions

            The UNHCR has traditionally adopted three broad solutions in responding to the current situation: (1) repatriation to their home countries, (2) integration into the country they are in, or (3) settlement in a third country. See United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs 1998 for a more detailed discussion of assistance provided by the United Nations. These solutions are inadequate for the current population of refugees and asylum seekers. Repatriation is not possible while major conflicts are ongoing. Resettlement is difficult in countries of first arrival with large numbers of refugees in temporary facilities and few resources. Settlement in third countries, which limit the numbers they will accept, is unlikely to reduce the numbers in transitional situations by very much in the short run. New types of post-Cold War humanitarian crises have resulted in new ways of responding to refugees. See Schmeidl 2001 for an analysis of the changing causes of refugee migration, pre- and post-Cold War. See Weiss 2001 for a discussion of post-Cold War humanitarian crises, including the prevalence of civil wars, an overstretched UN, and subcontracting to regional and nongovernmental organizations. See Loescher 2001 for a discussion of how the UNHCR has expanded its mission and activities to include more nonrefugees and has become more oriented toward intervention as a means to reduce future refugee movements. Bissell and Natsios 2001 discusses development assistance and its relationship to forced migration. All such proposals are designed to reduce forced migration in the future. Most countries recognize that current conflicts will not end soon, and that there is little likelihood that refugees will all return home in the near future. Meanwhile, efforts to improve the management of the immediate humanitarian catastrophe are proceeding at a slow pace.

            • Bissell, Richard E., and Andrew S. Natsios. 2001. Development assistance and international migration. In Global migrants, global refugees: Problems and solutions. Edited by Aristede Zolberg and Peter M. Benda, 297–321. New York and Oxford: Berghahn.

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              Looks at the nature of and impact of development assistance in addressing refugee and forced migration.

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              • Loescher, Gil. 2001. Protection and humanitarian action in the post-Cold War era. In Global migrants, global refugees: Problems and solutions. Edited by Aristede Zolberg and Peter M. Benda, 171–205. New York and Oxford: Berghahn.

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                Argues that the UNHCR has expanded its mission and activities to include more nonrefugees and has become more oriented toward intervention as a means to contain refugee movements.

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                • Ostrand, Nicole. 2015. The Syrian refugee crisis: A comparison of responses by Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Journal of Migration and Human Security 3:255–279.

                  DOI: 10.14240/jmhs.v3i3.51Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                  Compares the responses and contributions of Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States to the Syrian refugee crisis. Argues that industrialized nations need to take a greater role in alleviating the burden on neighboring countries caused by the influx of Syrians in terms of financial assistance and refugee resettlement.

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                  • Schmeidl, Susanne. 2001. Conflict and forced migration: A quantitative review, 1964–1995. In Global migrants, global refugees: Problems and solutions. Edited by Aristede Zolberg and Peter M. Benda, 62–94. New York and Oxford: Berghahn.

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                    Quantitative analysis of the causes of worldwide refugee migration in recent decades. Points out that there is a debate among people looking at the “root causes” of refugee migration: “A key question is whether post-Cold War struggles are merely a version of “old” conflicts, modified in new international circumstances, or whether the end of the Cold War induced a shift in the pattern of refugee migrations, possibly reflecting the emergence of new types of conflict?” (p. 62). Finds that “we are seeing ‘new’ versions of old conflicts modified by contemporary international circumstances rather than the emergence of a completely new set of conflicts” (p. 84). The following factors are important: state implosions and the formation of new states, and the restructuring of existing states. The persistence of genocidal violence is consistently associated with refugee migration. In addition, there is a pattern of internal struggles over power sharing and resource distribution, particularly along ethnic lines. Finally, military intervention plays a major role in the formation of refugee migration: “Intrastate conflicts with foreign military intervention were the second strongest predictor of refugee migration and far more powerful than the conflicts themselves” (p. 85).

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                    • United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 1998. International migration policies. New York: United Nations.

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                      Chapter 6 provides an overview of policies related to refugees and asylees in both developing and developed countries.

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                      • Weiss, Thomas G. 2001. Reforming the international humanitarian delivery system for wars. In Global migrants, global refugees: Problems and solutions. Edited by Aristede Zolberg and Peter M. Benda, 206–242. New York and Oxford: Berghahn.

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                        Makes suggestions for reforming the humanitarian delivery system in light of the increase in civil wars.

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