× Dismiss

Never Miss an Update.

Refugees Deeply is designed to help you understand the complex web of geopolitical, human rights, environmental, legal and other factors combining to make the refugee issue one of the most challenging of our lifetimes. Our editors and expert contributors are working around the clock to bring you greater clarity and comprehensive coverage.

Sign up to our newsletter to receive our weekly updates, special reports, and featured insights as we widen the lens on this critical – and quintessentially human – issue.

Year in Review: The Refugee Crisis in 2016

This year saw more refugees displaced and more people dying at sea than ever before. We look back at the major milestones and significant policy shifts of 2016.

Written by Charlotte Alfred Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes
Libya europe migrants
A lifeboat carrying the bodies of 29 refugees and migrants, who died on a rubber boat north of Libya while crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The lifeboat is being towed by a sailing boat of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms on Oct. 5, 2016. AFP/ARIS MESSINIS

The number of refugees and migrants flowing into Europe declined sharply in 2016. Yet the world’s refugee crisis did not go away – it just shifted farther from European sight lines. The number of refugees dying at sea reached record levels, while the number of displaced people worldwide also hit a new record.

The scale of the current refugee crisis has made it clear that everyone from the U.N. down needs to rethink how to better protect and care for refugees. The aid community, the private sector and U.N. member states all held major summits this year to start talking about how to do so. Yet on the ground, countries enacted a familiar policy agenda: closed borders, migration deterrence and limited resettlement.

Here’s a look back at the most significant developments on refugees during 2016.

February

Canada Resettles 25,000 Syrians in Four Months

Canada reached its target of bringing 25,000 Syrian refugees into the country, following a pledge by newly elected prime minister Justin Trudeau in November 2015. Trudeau came to power promising a more welcoming approach to refugees, and originally pledged to bring in 25,000 refugees by the end of the year, before pushing the deadline back two months. By the end of 2016, nearly 39,000 Syrian refugees had arrived in Canada under Trudeau, around one-third of whom are supported under a Canadian program that allows private citizens to sponsor refugees. This is now being considered as a model for nations around the world, including the U.S. and U.K.

March

EU-Turkey Deal

An E.U. deal with Turkey to curb the number of refugees and migrants sailing to Greece came into effect. The deal envisaged a “one-in, one-out” system by which Syrians who reach Greece would be sent back to Turkey and, in exchange, E.U. nations would accept one Syrian refugee living in Turkey. In practice, this part of the deal was barely implemented, with just 1,187 migrants returned to Turkey as of early December, including 95 Syrians. However, the number of refugee boats arriving in Greece dropped steeply following the deal as Turkey stepped up coastal enforcement. In exchange, the E.U. pledged aid to refugees in Turkey and expedited visa-free travel and E.U. membership. The latter two pledges were put on hold following Turkey’s crackdown after an attempted coup in July, and Turkish leaders repeatedly threatened to revoke the deal as 2016 went on.

Balkan Route Closes

As the E.U.-Turkey deal was reached in Brussels, nations along the “Balkan route” traversed by tens of thousands of migrants a year earlier closed their borders, sealing the path to northern Europe. The border closures left nearly 60,000 migrants and refugees stuck in Greece. It also left migrants who continued to make the Balkan journey trapped in a cycle of deportations.

SERBIA-EU-MIGRANTS

April

Deadliest Mediterranean Shipwreck of the Year

Some 500 people died in 2016’s deadliest known shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea in 2016. Among them were an estimated 190 Somalis, 150 Ethiopians, 80 Egyptians and around 85 others. A Reuters and BBC investigation in December found that the boat capsized after smugglers forced passengers to transfer to a larger ship at sea and abandoned them as they drowned, but that no one has been held accountable for their deaths.

Papua New Guinea Orders Closure of Australian-Run Camp

Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) Supreme Court ordered Australia to stop detaining refugees and migrants on its territory after finding the Australian offshore camp on Manus Island violated human rights protections in the PNG constitution. Australia agreed to shut down the camp but refused to accept its 850 or so inhabitants into Australia. There was little sign of progress until November, when Australia announced a deal for the U.S. to take in some of the refugees held on Manus Island and Australia’s other offshore site, on Nauru Island. The specifics of the deal are not yet clear, nor is it certain whether it will be honored under Donald Trump’s presidency.

May

Kenya Announces Closure of World’s Largest Refugee Camp

The Kenyan government said it would close the Dadaab complex of refugee camps by November, home to nearly 300,000 mostly Somali refugees. It was not the first time Kenya had threatened to do so, but the coinciding move to disband Kenya’s Department of Refugee Affairs made this threat appear serious. Kenya later extended the deadline until June 2017, but the officials’ threats and harassment, coupled with food ration cuts, prompted thousands to leave Dadaab, only to face destitution and insecurity on return to Somalia.

Somali refugees walk along the perimeter of Dadaab, a complex of refugee camps in Kenya, 60 miles (100km) from the Somali border. (AP/Jerome Delay)

Somali refugees walk along the perimeter of Dadaab, a complex of refugee camps in Kenya, 60 miles (100km) from the Somali border. (AP/Jerome Delay)

World Humanitarian Summit

Hundreds of humanitarian officials, national leaders and civil society representatives convened in Istanbul for a major summit to discuss reforms to humanitarian aid. The summit led to a number of commitments to work more efficiently, collaboratively and innovatively in response to humanitarian crises. But the summit also had its critics, including Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), who pulled out of the gathering, warning it had become a “fig leaf of good intentions” by failing to address the real, acute challenges facing the humanitarian sector.

June

E.U. Rolls Out Aid-for-Migration Deals

The E.U. launched the Migration Partnership Framework, a blueprint for E.U. deals with African nations to reduce migration to Europe. The deals offer aid and technical assistance to countries in exchange for them curbing migration. The first deals were rolled out with Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali and Ethiopia. The policy has come under fire from economists, who argue that aid can drive, rather than reduce, migration levels, as well as from human rights activists concerned about the strengthening of border controls by repressive regimes.

More People Displaced Than Ever Before

The U.N. refugee agency’s Global Trends report put the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide at 65.3 million people, more than ever previously recorded. That number includes 21.3 million refugees and 40.8 million people displaced inside their own countries.

Afghan Exodus From Pakistan

Afghans who sought refuge in neighboring Pakistan over decades of conflict began returning home in record numbers. Pakistan, which has repeatedly set deadlines for Afghans to leave the country, tightened its border, while Afghans reported that police harassment had been stepped up. The same month, the U.N. refugee agency doubled its repatriation grant to returning Afghans. By December, more than 380,000 registered Afghan refugees and nearly 240,000 undocumented Afghans had returned from Pakistan.

A generation of Afghan refugees born in Pakistan now face returning to a home they have never known. (AP/Mohammad Sajjad)

A generation of Afghan refugees born in Pakistan now face returning to a home they have never known. (AP/Mohammad Sajjad)

September

New York Summits on Refugees

Countries that gathered in New York for the U.N. General Assembly met for the first-ever special U.N. summit on refugees and migrants. The 193 U.N. member states adopted the New York Declaration, pledging to protect displaced people and laying out a two-year timeline for two global compacts, on refugees and on migration. On the sidelines, U.S. president Barack Obama hosted a separate meeting, the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, to elicit voluntary pledges to give more aid and change policies to better protect refugees.

IOM Joins U.N.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) joined the United Nations at the General Assembly after voting to do so in June, formally becoming the U.N.’s migration agency. IOM chief William Swing said he hoped the move would give migrants a greater voice in global negotiations.

October

Calais ‘Jungle’ Camp Demolished

France evacuated and demolished an informal refugee settlement known as the “Jungle” in the port of Calais. It housed between 6,000 and 8,000 people hoping to reach Britain, including around 2,000 unaccompanied children. Most were relocated to reception centers around France, while some of the children were reunited with relatives in the U.K.

Members of a demolition crew tear down the Orthodox church inside the “Jungle” migrant camp in Calais, northern France, during a massive operation to clear the settlement, on Nov. 3, 2016. (AFP/PHILIPPE HUGUEN)

Members of a demolition crew tear down the Orthodox church inside the “Jungle” migrant camp in Calais, northern France, during a massive operation to clear the settlement, on Nov. 3, 2016. (AFP/PHILIPPE HUGUEN)

Hungary Referendum

Hungary voted to reject European Union quotas for resettling refugees in a referendum pushed by the country’s right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban. While the result was invalidated because the turnout was lower than 50 percent, Orban went ahead with plans to introduce a constitutional amendment to prohibit migrants from resettling in the country. The amendment was rejected by Hungarian lawmakers in November, but remained on the political agenda.

Deadliest Year in the Mediterranean

The death toll in the Mediterranean Sea surpassed a previous record high, with at least 3,800 people lost at sea by late October. By the end of 2016, at least 5,000 people had died in the Mediterranean Sea. Some 3,771 deaths were reported in 2015, the previous record. While the number of people crossing the Mediterranean to Greece dropped sharply in 2016, the number of refugees and migrants reaching Italy from North Africa went up from 153,000 in 2015 to 180,000 this year.

Become a Contributor.

Have a story idea? Interested in adding your voice to our growing community?

Learn more