Understanding the Refugee Crisis and Next Steps

The Western world is witnessing the largest migration of peoples since World War II.  The crisis is a result of many factors, an important one being a less active United States in world affairs and an increasing reluctance by the U.S. to uphold the global rules-based order set up after World War II. To deal with this crisis, it is necessary to identify the underlying security issues driving people from their homes and restore a regulated system to address the arriving migrants.  This backgrounder explores how the crisis came about and concludes with recommendations for policymakers. 


Where are the refugees coming from?

The current refugee crisis is global in scope, but the main point of destination for refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants is Europe.  In 2015, over 80% of people who arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean Sea came from just five countries—Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, and Nigeria.  Syria contributed to 52% of the total.  Each of these countries has active conflicts, making their fleeing citizens “refugees” under UN convention.  The Eritrean government, for example, is accused of crimes against humanity, having ruled under a state of emergency with forced conscription for 17 years.  (Others come from Gambia, Senegal, and Somalia, countries without active conflicts and therefore not considered refugees but migrants.)


What is causing the refugee crisis?

There are multiple causes behind the current refugee crisis.  The stasis enshrined in the Cold War period helped deter large-scale conflict.  In the decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new global structure emerged, predominately led by the United States, which also largely maintained global stability.  However, as this Pax Americana has receded under the Obama administration, none of the other world’s powers are willing or able to enforce peace, leaving a multipolar world to litigate disputes by hybrid force.  Syria is an example of this phenomenon: Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the United States are all players in this conflict, which has displaced half the country’s population.  Most importantly, the Assad regime, which systematically drops barrel bombs on people and public infrastructure, is responsible for the deaths of over 470,000 civilians.

In addition to growing multipolar conflicts, jihadist networks have proliferated in the region, creating destabilizing effects for fragile states.  These networks pose threats to not only the Middle East, but across the globe: Boko Haram in North Africa, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Al-Shabaab in Somalia. These movements seek to destabilize societies in Nigeria, Somalia, Chad, Mali, Niger, Kenya, among others, by working together with ISIS. While these networks have varying degrees of structure and coordination, all of them exploit weak governance and political breakdown in their origin countries to impose their own vision of social governance.  Jihadist groups are further able to solidify their hold on power by gaining access to aid that comes in from the U.S. and other foreign countries.

The disorder caused by jihadist networks in Afghanistan, northern Iraq, and Nigeria is now triggering major population movements, as citizens flee traditional homeland areas seeking secure, terrorist free zones.  The kidnapping, rape, and murder of Nigerian female students by Boko Haram, the increased insecurity throughout Afghanistan as a result of an ill-timed draw-down of U.S. and multinational troops by President Obama, and ISIS beheadings in Iraq and Syria are driving refugee flows toward safe, developed countries outside of their regions.

Another major refugee source is Eritrea but for wholly different reasons than global jihadist networks.  Fleeing an autocratic, repressive government and a mandatory conscription regime that was described by the UN to entail “arbitrary detention, torture, sexual torture, forced labor, and ludicrous pay,” Eritreans have arrived at Europe’s shores in recent years seeking asylum.  They make up a significant share of the migrants and refugees.  Many more Eritreans live in neighboring Ethiopia and Sudan, bringing their refugee population to about half a million, and making the country of six million people “one of the world’s fastest-emptying nations,” according to the Wall Street Journal.


Why can’t the crisis be contained?

Syria’s refugees are fleeing a conflict that has been active for years. Why are they moving to Europe now?

Beyond simply that the international community has failed to stop the Syrian conflict, the subsequent failure to provide adequate support for refugees sheltering in the Middle East has forced many to move to Europe.  The numbers are, in themselves, not overwhelming: the EU, with a population of 500m, received 1m illegal migrants last year, which is slightly fewer than the number of Syrian refugees accepted by Lebanon with a  population of 5m.  Syria’s neighbors have coped with refugees since the conflict started, but now the situation is significantly more desperate. 

Most of Syria’s refugees—some 4 million of them—live in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.  These countries are under great strain and have insufficient resources to properly care for the refugees in their midst.  Amnesty International states that the Gulf countries, including Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain, have offered zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees.  The UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait deny claims they are doing nothing, and insist they are lending support, both financial and in kind. But the problem lies not with the Gulf states’ generous financial support but rather with their lack of willingness to host fleeing Syrians as refugees, while expecting other countries to do so. 

Culturally, the Gulf states rarely grant citizenship to foreigners, even wealthy immigrants who work for years in senior positions.  These countries claim to protect their native populations, often small in number, and their right to benefits from valuable natural resources.

Critics argue that the Gulf states rely heavily on cheap labor provided by foreign migrants, many of whom work semi-legally in difficult conditions (hundreds die every year on construction sites), are paid little, and have few rights.  Extending these rights would upset an existing balance that is comfortable for the Gulf elites.  The recent downturn in oil prices has put pressure on their public budgets and has also made the Gulf states less willing to assist.

Refugees flee instead to Europe because Europe has the best laws for their protection and livelihoods.  None of the six GCC states has signed the UN convention on refugees which has governed international law on asylum since World War II.  In addition, the Gulf countries do not want to see an Iran-backed regime in Syria win the war, so the refugee crisis may be seen by the Gulf states as a way to put pressure on the Assad regime.

As a result, the burden on the EU’s periphery states is heavier than ever.  More than 130,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Greece in the first two months of this year—that is more than 2,000 per day.  Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia have all announced they’ll accept fewer than 600 refugees a day.  Austria will take only 80 asylum seekers daily.


U.S. leadership in the refugee crisis?

The United States continues to be the main destination of choice for the world’s migrants, as well as the country that receives more refugees than all other countries in the world combined.  Each year the president, in consultation with Congress, determines the numerical ceiling for refugee admissions.  For FY 2016, the proposed ceiling is 85,000.  On September 10, 2015, the White House announced that the United States would accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees over the following 12 months, on top of the 85,000 ceiling.  The new policy was greeted in Europe and the Middle East as a small but welcome step in addressing Europe’s refugee crisis.  The new policy has generated significant resistance within the United States, especially in the context of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Moreover, topics relevant to the migrant crisis have been a particular focus of the 2016 race.  Hillary Clinton has stated that she supports a no-fly zone for refugees in Syria.  She supports the United States taking more refugees, as well as pushing both European and Arab allies to take additional refugees.  Bernie Sanders supports the United States taking tens of thousands of Syrian refugees while arguing their displacement is a humanitarian crisis.  Senator Sanders opposes using no-fly zones as part of any effort.  Donald Trump has stated that he would prevent refugees from entering the United States and claims that until the U.S. immigration system improves its screening processes, he would ban all Muslims entering as well.  He supports the establishment of safe-zones over no-fly zones in Syria.


What are the multilaterals doing?

In 2014, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees designated 130,000 Syrians in need of resettlement by 2016.  The U.S. has historically resettled at least half of UNHCR-designated refugees.  Although the United States could send a message of solidarity to European states by fulfilling its traditional role and accepting an even larger number of Syrian refugees—such a move is very unlikely in the current political climate.   

The United States will participate in yet another multilateral event to discuss the refugee crisis.  The next such conference is the September Refugee Summit during the UN General Assembly in New York.  This is an opportunity for the U.S. to show leadership by setting an agenda to cope with the crisis in conjunction with European leaders.


  • Encourage other Arab countries to take more refugees.  Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and the UAE should accept Syrian refugees.  Relocating refugees into a similar environment of language, religion, and culture represents a more realistic and reasonable approach toward refugee assimilation.
  • Prevent the crisis from destabilizing other countries.  Neighboring countries such as Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon are bearing the heaviest load with a steadily growing influx of refugees, which is straining their social systems to the breaking point.  Humanitarian and economic support is critical to preventing further deterioration in these countries.
  • Control the wave of migrants and maintain some order. A priority for the EU must be to restore a sense of order to the migrant inflow.  By carefully distinguishing refugees from economic migrants, the EU could manage a more effective distribution of the burden among the EU states and other countries, while allowing governments to deal with the legal differences between the refugees and economic migrants.
  • Implement safe and no-fly zones in Syria and refugee camps in North Africa.  The U.S. has the resources to implement safe and no-fly zones over northern Syria, near the Turkish border, as places for refugees to remain while being protected from both IS and Assad’s regime.  The U.S. should also provide additional resources for provisional settlements and camps.  This would help countries that do not have the capacity to host such a high number of people.
  • U.S. could consider additional refugees. The U.S. has already committed to taking 10,000 more Syrian refugees in 2016.  However, if the U.S. wants to show support to its allies in Europe and the Middle East, the U.S. could consider taking more refugees, while maintaining the highest-level vetting process and open communication between assisting agencies.
  • The U.S. should work together with internationally recognized humanitarian organizations that are already engaged in this crisis.  Providing financial but also technical support is key for these organizations to do their job.
  • Engage the private sector on the refugee resettlement.  Already many countries, including Canada, have resettled Syrian refugees using funds raised partially or entirely from private individuals, church groups, and businesses.  Refugees are the most thoroughly vetted and screened group of immigrants, and any financial, logistical, or emotional support that can be provided by the private sector can significantly help with resettlement.