A Syrian Kurdish woman sits next to her tent in a UNHCR refugee camp Feb. 2 at Suruc, in Sanliurfa.  (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

June 20 marked yet another somber commemoration of World Refugee Day. The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) released its latest figures on global displacement, which placed the number of people forcibly uprooted by violence, armed conflict and persecution at 59.5 million — a 50 percent increase over the past decade and the highest recorded in the modern era. Global efforts to deal with these population movements continue to be centered on a 20th century model of displacement: one largely predicated on an image of people fleeing one-off conflicts to temporary camps outside their countries to await return or resettlement. This model appears increasingly out of line with the realities of displacement in the 21st century.

Developing countries now host a staggering 86 percent of the world’s refugees. Half of the globally displaced population is comprised of children under 18, sparking worries in several countries that a “lost generation,” deprived of educational and vocational opportunities, will become destitute and more susceptible to radicalization and militarization. In response to these concerns, observers have called, rightly, for wealthy nations to step up and bear a greater share of the displacement burden. Yet even if the European Union and the United States agree to accept more refugees, current trends in forced displacement — as revealed by UNHCR and a recent report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) — suggest that greater emphasis should be placed on expanding social and economic opportunities for the displaced to integrate into host communities.

One important trend is that a small handful of countries are responsible for a significant portion of the globally displaced population. In 2014, more than half of all refugees came from three countries (Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia) while 60 percent of newly uprooted internally displaced persons (IDPs) resided in five countries (Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria). Seven other countries claimed a total displaced population of 1 million or more.

A second (and related) trend is that displacement situations have become increasingly protracted. Estimates of the proportion of refugees who have been displaced for five years or longer range from 45 to 66 percent. IDMC reported that protracted internal displacement was a “key issue” in 53 of the 60 territories that it monitors. With no end in sight for wars in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Libya, Yemen or Ukraine, it is unlikely that these situations will be resolved anytime soon.

Thus the continuing surge in global displacement is not a consequence of the world being increasingly “at war.” In fact, the number of armed conflicts today is actually lower than in previous decades. A relatively small number of distinctively destructive wars appear to be uprooting more people, many of whom are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, radicalization and abuse, and for longer periods of time.


Data Sources: Compiled from UNHCR, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, and the Uppsala University/PRIO Armed Conflict Dataset (Adam G. Lichtenheld)

On the surface, it may seem that UNHCR and its partner organizations just need more money and resources to confront these crises. But the scale and dynamics of forced displacement today and the controversy over the inadequacies of the international response, particularly in Europe, should raise a more fundamental question: Has the existing paradigm for managing global displacement become obsolete?

The modern refugee regime, led by UNHCR and underpinned by the 1951 Refugee Convention, was established as an ad-hoc response to the massive number of civilians uprooted during World War II. The regime promotes and facilities three primary solutions to refugee situations: voluntary return or repatriation, resettlement to a third country or local integration into the host country. Historically, UNHCR was able to focus on repatriation and resettlement, since they largely operated after wars had ended and could incorporate refugee resettlement into early 20th century schemes for transferring or exchanging “surplus” populations, devised by Western leaders to preempt overpopulation and resource scarcity.

As the refugee regime became enmeshed in Cold War politics, resettlement proved politically palatable in part because it helped facilitate asylum requests for Soviet defectors. UNHCR experienced an impressive expansion of its mandate and operations throughout the 20th century and now provides protection and assistance to people in “refugee-like” situations, including stateless people and IDPs. Yet it continues to take a refugee-centric approach to forced displacement, operating primarily on behalf of those who have fled their countries due to a well-founded fear of persecution.

There are two problems with this approach. First, despite the expansion of UNHCR assistance to other involuntary migrants, the Refugee Convention does not cover IDPs, who now comprise two-thirds of the globally displaced population. Nor does it offer relief for those forced to flee their homes due to the effects of climate change, which is expected to accelerate in coming decades (the recently ratified Kampala Convention has sought to fill some of these protection gaps, but it remains confined to Africa).

Second, a series of factors have made resettlement and repatriation less viable solutions to displacement. The conflicts producing refugees and IDPs today are not one-off events but rather ongoing cycles of repeated violence and instability that make it more difficult for people to safely return home. These cycles of conflict often spawn recurrent displacements in which individuals are uprooted multiple times and across multiple frontiers. The complexity of these events — and the sheer scale and scope of displacement in places like Syria and Iraq — have overwhelmed the asylum process for UNHCR and partners. Displaced youths lose formative schooling years as they wait for their refugee status determinations and asylum claims to be processed. Meanwhile, concerns over international terrorism and illegal immigration have led many developed countries to tighten their borders and even externalize migration control to preempt refugee flows, sometimes blatantly violating their obligations under international law. As a result, return and resettlement are both on the decline: In 2013, only 1 percent of the global refugee population was resettled and only 3 percent voluntarily repatriated.

This leaves local integration as perhaps the more logistically and politically feasible option for addressing displacement. Despite obvious barriers, such as their being ineligible to work, many of the displaced are already attempting to integrate economically and socially. While traditionally displaced communities were kept apart from their hosts, today the majority of refugees and internally displaced do not live in organized camps. For example, 80 percent of Syrian refugees registered in Jordan and Turkey reside in non-camp settings, mostly in urban areas or rural border villages. Pre-existing personal and business ties may offer potential opportunities in neighboring countries or communities, where the displaced can be as much of a boon as a burden to local economies.

UNHCR, however, is poorly equipped to expand opportunities for local integration, a task that, according to a recent internal evaluation, remains “elusive” for the agency. This is not surprising. While integrating refugees and other displaced populations is fundamentally a development challenge, the refugee regime is driven by the expedient logic of humanitarianism. It was established to provide emergency response, address protection needs and deliver temporary services, tasks in which UNHCR and its partner agencies have often excelled. The norms, standards and operating procedures of these organizations — everything from their short-term funding cycles to the core competencies required of their staff — are intended to operate largely in the humanitarian space. But many displacement situations today are neither temporary nor purely humanitarian in nature. In some instances, attempting to push more people through an increasingly onerous and expensive resettlement process may mean extending displacement, sometimes for years.

That refugee relief should be more development-oriented is an old and oft-repeated refrain, used to the point that it may sound trite. UNHCR has taken steps to better coordinate with development donors, many of whom have placed a greater emphasis on incorporating displacement into local development programs, from urban planning to social service delivery. However, these donors operate largely apart from the refugee regime, rather than as a part of it. Thus, as the internal UNHCR evaluation makes clear, the agency still has “not fully engaged with development partners on solutions and transition programming.”

The need for more sound strategies for integrating displaced communities should push scholars to conduct further research on the dynamics of refugee and IDP integration and the micro-level processes that animate the interactions between displaced populations and hosts. Several studies claim that refugee flows often incite violence between refugees and hosts and can spread conflict within and across borders. However, we do not fully understand why influxes of involuntary migrants lead to conflict in some instances but not others. After all, it is perplexing that despite forecasts that the Syrian refugee crisis would destabilize the Middle East, countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey — each of which has absorbed more than one million refugees — have remained relatively stable (though certainly not conflict-free).

A key insight of research on violence committed by and against refugee populations is that the political context surrounding displacement and resettlement, rather than economic factors, such as competition over resources, helps explain the impact of sudden displacement on recipient communities. Existing research tends to focus on conflict and refugee militarization, often at the macro-level, even though a vast majority of the displaced do not engage in violence or succumb to radicalization. It is therefore essential to explore broader strategies of governance and trends in political mobilization among uprooted communities and how they are conditioned by the local environments in which they operate. Such research is not only important for enhancing our understanding of integration politics and processes. It can also discourage commentators from exaggerating the threat posed by displaced populations and dissuade policymakers from enacting restrictive migration policies that would force persecuted communities to remain within repressive states and exacerbate their marginalization (in this way, the “refugee warrior” can become a self-fulfilling prophecy).

In light of the current complexities of forced population movements and the growing barriers to return and resettlement, figuring out how to best integrate displaced people into local communities should be an international priority. But the existing system of refugee relief seems ill-suited to the task. Despite the best efforts of UNHCR and its partners to adapt to new realities, we must ask how relevant the mechanisms and norms underlying the existing refugee regime are for addressing forced displacement today.

Adam G. Lichtenheld is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Jennings Randolph Peace Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace.