Sep 12, 2019 - Politics & Policy

The world shuts its doors

A Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh. Photo: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images

The world hasn’t seen such staggering numbers of people fleeing violence, persecution and desperation since World War II — and countries that had offered safe harbor are beginning to turn them away.

Driving the news: The U.S. has declined to offer Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Bahamians in the wake of Hurricane Dorian, a particularly stark manifestation of the Trump administration’s efforts to close America’s borders to nearly all refugees and asylum-seekers.

  • At an Axios event this morning, acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services chief Ken Cuccinelli said he opposed offering TPS to any additional countries until courts allow Trump to end protections for other groups, like Salvadorans.
  • The administration is also expected to soon cut the number of refugees the U.S. accepts for the fourth time.

The big picture: The vast majority of displaced people flee not to wealthy Western countries, but to their neighbors. It’s there that efforts to curb protections are most acutely felt.

Data: UNHCR; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

Turkey hosts more refugees than any other country. As the Syrian civil war raged, the country took “extraordinary” steps to facilitate the arrival of more than 3 million Syrians, says Hardin Lang of Refugees International.

  • “Now, as the Turkish economy is beginning to do quite poorly, you see anti-Syrian sentiment on the rise, and you see [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan pivoting in that direction,” he says.
  • Some Syrians have already been sent back into an active war zone in Idlib, Lang says. Others are being forced to move out of cities like Istanbul and into rural areas. Some have been intimidated by officials or fined for working without permits.
  • Lebanon has also reportedly deported thousands of Syrian refugees, and resentment is growing in Jordan and Egypt as well.

Bangladesh was praised for taking in nearly 1 million Rohingya people who fled ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. Two years later, patience is growing thin.

  • “Limits on Internet and cellphone service imposed this month, along with curbs on aid agencies, offer some of the clearest signs that Bangladesh is growing tired of the camps in its impoverished southeast and is looking for ways to nudge the Rohingya back to Myanmar without resorting to force,” the Washington Post reports.
  • Efforts to get Rohingya refugees to return voluntarily have gone nowhere. The dangers at home won't abate soon.
  • Zoom out: That’s true of most of the prolonged crises driving the spike in global refugee numbers. Just 3% of displaced people returned home last year, according to the UN.

Colombia has taken in about 1.4 million Venezuelans fleeing a deepening political and economic crisis, a number that continues to grow. 

  • As other neighbors — Peru, Ecuador, Brazil — make it more difficult for Venezuelans to enter, the burden on Colombia will only increase, says Lang, who just returned from Bogotá.
  • “The real danger here is that Colombia gets to a tipping point at some point and decides to change their policy. And if they do that, the Venezuelans will have nowhere to go,” he says.

The international community should be supporting host countries like Colombia, argues Nazanin Ash of the International Rescue Committee.

  • "We should be saying, 'Thank you for providing refuge ... thank you for allowing them to access your education system, thank you for providing them opportunities to work and reducing their dependency on international aid.'"
  • Ash says wealthy countries should show solidarity, and provide financing to offset the costs to host countries of extending services to refugees.
  • “That’s not what’s happening," she continues. "Humanitarian financing is being cut, and even worse, countries that used to symbolize humanitarian leadership are now shutting their doors.”

What to watch: The crises driving the global spike in displacement show few signs of abating. And what Ash calls the "global retreat from humanitarian obligations" continues.

The bottom line: “Neighboring countries tend to bear the brunt of this,” says Lang, of Refugees International. “Convincing those countries — Jordan, Turkey, Uganda, Kenya, Colombia — to continue to carry that burden when we are in the process of closing asylum space inside the United States ... it removes all moral authority.”

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