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The Top Refugee Issues to Watch in 2018

We take a look at the major issues for refugees in the year ahead, while policy experts from around the globe explain what they’re watching out for in the next 12 months.

Written by Charlotte Alfred Published on Read time Approx. 9 minutes
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A young Rohingya girl takes a rest on top of her camp shelter on October 2, 2017, in Kutupalong, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

The year ahead will test the world’s appetite for solving some of the thorniest challenges of refugee and migration policy now the sense of immediate crisis in Europe has begun to recede.

The arrival of refugees in Europe in 2015 created a momentum behind global and local reform efforts and experiments, many of which face trials of political feasibility this year.

This will help determine whether migrants and refugees receive better protection and smarter support, or face more deadly journeys, closed borders and coercive returns.

We’ve compiled some major issues and milestones to look out for in 2018, and asked refugee and migration experts to weigh in on what they’re watching for this year.

Reform of Migration and Refugee Governance

The 193 member nations of the United Nations are working toward the conclusion of two global compacts at the U.N. General Assembly in September, two years after they were set in motion by the New York Declaration.

The Global Compact on Refugees aims to establish better sharing of the responsibility for refugees (as 84 percent of them live in the developing world) and more effective responses to refugee crises (as aid budgets struggle to keep pace with the growing numbers of displaced people).

The compact is being developed by the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) through a consultative process and the piloting of a new approach to refugee aid – the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) to be presented at the General Assembly.

The Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration aims to improve global cooperation over the issue and make moving safer for migrants. It will be negotiated by U.N. member states after co-facilitators Mexico and Switzerland present a first draft in January.

Both compacts will have to battle countervailing political winds. The U.S. withdrew from the Migration Compact in late 2017, citing sovereignty concerns. Getting countries to cooperate better over migration has always been politically sensitive, and the political scapegoating of migrants and refugees will likely continue shaping electoral politics in the U.S. and Europe this year. Meanwhile, the Refugee Compact faces a tough task in making the case for integrating refugees when smaller aid budgets and resettlement places are heaping even more responsibility for refugees on the global South.

The Experts’ View

Kathleen Newland, Migration Policy Institute

My biggest question about the Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration is whether it will manage to move beyond the fine-sounding pronouncements of the 2016 New York Declaration. The migration compact will be a disappointment if it does not include some concrete commitments to cooperative action on migration.

The most realistic way for the compact to move from abstract to concrete commitments would be through a process of building coalitions of interested parties, including not just governments but also international organizations, migrant organizations, the private sector and civil society, to take joint action on specific issues like creating new legal pathways for migrant workers, ensuring access to education for migrant students or achieving the long-standing goal of lowering remittance costs.

Regarding the Global Compact on Refugees, one big question is which of the compacts will include responsibility for migrants who are forced to leave their homes for reasons beyond their control but who do not qualify as refugees. Some think all forced migrants should be brought under the mandate of the UNHCR, but others think a new framework is needed for victims of criminal violence, extreme poverty, environmental degradation or natural disasters. The danger is that forcibly displaced people will fall between the cracks of the two compacts.

Jeff Crisp, Refugee Studies Centre

In 2018, I’ll be watching to see if the rhetoric around the Global Compact on Refugees can be transformed into actions that tangibly improve the protection, assistance and solutions available to refugees. While the compact seems certain to present a set of noble goals and to attract fulsome support from the international community, there is no guarantee that states will respect the principles on which it is based.

As we have seen in recent years, states are more than ready to prevent people from seeking asylum, to force refugees back to their countries of origin, to ignore the principle of responsibility-sharing and to deprive the humanitarian system of the funding that it needs. 2018 will demonstrate whether the process that has been in place for the formulation of the global compact can begin to reverse those trends.

At the same time, the year will test the international community’s willingness to address the plight of people who fall outside the refugee definition, especially internally displaced people, those uprooted by climate change and natural disasters, and migrants who are moving for primarily economic reasons but who become stranded or are subjected to abuse in the course of their journeys. Even if progress can be made in meeting the objectives of the Global Compact on Refugees during the next 12 months, that outcome will be of limited value if other people who are on the move are left unprotected.

How Migration Control Policies Fare

This year will test the lengths to which wealthy countries are willing to go to deter irregular migration – from Europe to Australia, Israel and the U.S.

Europe is seeking to shore up its efforts to reduce boats from Turkey and Libya using development aid, migrant repatriations and political pressure, while preventing new routes from emerging. The European Union remains deeply divided over refugees despite a June deadline to reform the bloc’s asylum policies. Meanwhile, Israel and Australia are seeking to empty their migrant detention centers by controversial means, while the U.S. pursues ever-tighter restrictions on all forms of immigration.

The Experts’ View

Giulia Lagana, Open Society European Policy Institute

Following elections in March, the new Italian government is unlikely to change its Libya policy. However, fragile deals with local powerbrokers along the coast may not hold as International Organization for Migration (IOM) repatriations fail to match the numbers still moving to the country or already trapped there. A risky new Italian military mission to jihadi-infested territory in Niger may simply make the Italians a target while smugglers continue to shift routes. Those formerly involved in the people-smuggling economy in and around Agadez in northern Niger may also lose patience with limited E.U. schemes to support so-called alternative livelihoods.

In Tunisia, an enduring lack of opportunities for local youth may lead to an upsurge in departures for Italy, even though the Italian government’s cooperation with the local government brought numbers down in late 2017. Egypt is also worth watching, as President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s security apparatus may not continue to guarantee limited Europe-bound migration, and the Lebanon-Cyprus route may gain traction amid increasingly virulent rhetoric against Syrian refugees on the part of Lebanese politicians.

Beyond arrivals to and returns from Europe, E.U. asylum reform will in all likelihood not take place due to opposing views between blocs of countries over asylum seeker distribution schemes.

Matt Herbert, Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime

In 2018, North Africa will be a region to watch, not just as a transit route for migrants, but as an origin point. Last year, the number of registered Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian and Libyan irregular migrants was double that seen in 2016. In the fall of 2017, Algeria and Tunisia saw significant migration spikes, which emerged with little forewarning.

While the migration spikes have abated, the conditions that drove them have not – and seem likely to worsen this year. North Africans face declining economic prospects and evince a deep anxiety about the future. The political status quo in the region is brittle. This is likely to be further exacerbated by economic trends, civil unrest in Tunisia – and to a lesser degree Morocco and Algeria – and, potentially, by leadership changes in Algeria. Such political fragility could well impact how vigorously Maghrebi states police the departure of irregular migrants from their shores.

Whether governments are able to address the economic and political challenges ahead could well determine if 2017 will be remembered as an outlier, or the beginning of a larger and more sustained trend of Maghrebi irregular migration to Europe.

Testing Alternative Approaches

The Syrian crisis and its impact on Europe provided political momentum for alternative models of refugee response, from harnessing new technologies to development economists working on ways to integrate refugees into job markets. There is also growing interest in alternatives to top-down government and U.N. refugee resettlement, including church-organized “humanitarian corridors” and private sponsorship of refugees. Their results, impact and broader applicability require close scrutiny in 2018.

The Experts’ View

Claire Higgins, Kaldor Center for International Refugee Law

Safe pathways for asylum seekers and refugees will be an area of interest in 2018. In the last 12 months, a report of the U.N. Secretary General’s Special Representative on Migration recommended that states expand humanitarian visa programs and establish in-country programs, while the humanitarian corridors that were originally established by the Italian church community in late 2015 were replicated on a smaller scale in France and Belgium. Recently, UNHCR has begun to facilitate the evacuation from Libya to Italy of people in need of protection. In Australia, where harsh policies of offshore detention and boat turnbacks remain in place, these international and European initiatives strengthen the recurring calls from civil society for the Australian government to expand safe pathways and to create protection-sensitive migration opportunities.

How Voluntary and Sustainable Are Growing Migrant Returns?

The number of refugees and migrants returning to their homes has been steadily climbing, whether through voluntary schemes, forced deportations or a range of situations in which lines between voluntary and forced are blurred, as refugees escape debt, scarcity of aid or police harassment, or are confronted with a choice between detention and repatriation.

It is unclear how “durable” such returns will be, as returnees contend with insecurity and economic instability in countries like Afghanistan and Somalia. Meanwhile Syrians, the world’s largest refugee population, are likely to face increasing pressure to return from Europe and the Middle East in 2018, as the international community increasingly turns its focus to reconstruction in Syria and Lebanon prepares for long-postponed elections in the spring.

The Experts’ View

Brad Blitz, Middlesex University, London

While the UNHCR has held out a few “durable solutions” [including resettlement and integration] what is becoming clearer every day is a general preference to return refugees. Some countries like Germany are developing elaborate plans to return refugees – including Afghans – and we can expect more governments will use development assistance to facilitate returns.

While Syria is currently unsuitable [for returns], in other countries where Western states and the UNHCR may have greater influence pressure is being applied to facilitate returns. This is most evident in East Africa. Most alarming is the suggestion that Rohingya may be repatriated to Myanmar before guarantees are in place, including the right to citizenship, and while the violence continues. We can expect that once the Syrian conflict cools down there will be great pressure to return refugees to Syria, especially from host states in the region. In this respect, key countries to watch are Lebanon and Jordan.

Nassim Majidi, Samuel Hall

What happens post-return must be followed closely in 2018 and beyond. The IOM’s Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) team made a bold move in 2017 by setting a new definition of sustainable reintegration and a more principled stance to reintegration. This move requires support. It will require that governments agree to fund this new approach, which borrows much from social work case management and applies it to humanitarian and development contexts. It will also require an in-depth reflection on the responsibilities of stakeholders to each returnee and his/her community, to create the ties that once broke. Finally, it will require that we share information that may change migrants’ minds to return.

I would like to see 2018 as the year in which skills mapping and a capabilities approach to migration to Europe will trump a dichotomy-prone view of “voluntary and involuntary” migration, of “push and pull factors” that assume a rational decision-making process behind migration. We should not be asking if a child is a migrant, a refugee or whether s/he has papers. We should recognize the rights of the child and ask instead his/her level of schooling, where his/her parents are, what skills they have and what they’re looking to contribute. In the same way that our thinking on poverty has evolved thanks to thinkers like Amartya Sen, migration should be understood in terms of inequality and human development. Let’s ensure every migrant is able to contribute to the best of his or her capacity; let’s plan and make local integration work in communities all over the world – not just in communities of origin.

The expert views have been edited for length and clarity.

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