2017 Year in Review - Refugee Crisis

By Anna Jarman

Picture: Globe License: Public Domain

Last year, the “refugee crisis” experienced a political reckoning, as governments around the world sought to tighten boarders and curtail refugee-friendly policies where they had previously existed.  At the same time, the number of displaced people continued to climb in 2017, after it reached its highest number ever at 65 million people at the end of 2016.  The below events chronicle 2017’s most significant developments in the refugee crisis and the policy responses to it.

Travel Ban – Shortly after taking office, President Trump signed an Executive Order titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” which greatly reduced the number of refugees the U.S. would admit -- including blocking admission of all Syrian refugees -- and suspended entry of nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days.  The order was met with immediate protests, international criticism, and legal challenges by those who saw the order as a “Muslim ban.”  A nationwide temporary restraining order was issued in the case Washington v. Trump, and upheld by the Ninth Circuit.  The first order was replaced by a second and then a third order which revised the original list of countries, clarified the effect on green-card holders, and made the 90-day ban permanent.  The Ninth Circuit upheld a lower court decision finding the order unlawful in Hawaii v. Trump; the Supreme Court granted cert in January, and allowed the administration to implement the travel ban while legal challenges were pending.

Refugees Cross U.S. Border into Canada – the number of asylum seekers illegally crossing from the U.S. into Canada spiked to more than 15,000 people last year.  The refugees, many of whom fear Trump’s immigration policies, were met by both opposition by anti-migrant groups and a supportive response by Canada, which granted asylum at increasing rates.

South Sudan Displacement from South Sudan’s war became the largest refugee crisis in Africa.  More than 2 million people had fled to neighboring countries by the end of the year, with another 2 million displaced inside the country.

Rohingya Refugee Crisis – After a group of militant Rohingya Muslims attacked police bases in northern Myanmar on August 25, the army responded with a brutal show of force, burning villages, killing civilians, and raping women.  Within weeks, over 420,000 Rohingya refugees had fled, leading to a mass exodus “unprecedented in terms of volume and speed,” according to the International Organization for Migration.  Over 700,000 Rohingya have now fled to squalid refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh.  The U.N.’s human rights commission described the retaliation as ethnic cleansing and possibly genocide.

German and Austrian Elections – Radical right-wing populist parties performed well in both the Austrian and German elections.  The newly elected Chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz, earned his reputation as foreign minister for tightening Austria’s borders during the refugee crisis, when Austria was taking in more asylum-seekers than any EU country except Sweden.  Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel has tightened her asylum policy under pressure from the far right and in response to backlash against her initial welcoming stance.  Germany resumed deporting Afghans whose asylum claims were rejected after stopping deportations in May when a bombing near the German embassy in Kabul killed around 150 people.

Manus Island Removal – Hundreds of asylum seekers held for years in an Australian-run detention center on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island were forcibly removed in November, three weeks after Australia officially closed the camp.  Afraid to leave the camp, the refugees had remained, despite Australia cutting off electricity, food, and water.  Security forces eventually stormed the camp destroying the refugees’ shelters and belongings. 

Climate Change Spurs Migration -- Research published last year suggests that changing weather is spurring people to seek asylum in Europe, and predicts that trend to continue as temperatures are projected to rise.  The research has sparked discussions on the appropriateness of the current definition of “refugee,” which includes people fleeing persecution but not those forced to leave by climate change.

East Congo Eleven Congolese refugees were killed by Rwandan police responding to a protest over reduced food rations in a Kiziba camp.  Over 17,000 Congolese refugees inhabit the Western Rwanda refugee camp.  Violence in Eastern Congo has worsened recently due to clashes between government soldiers, local militias, and foreign rebels.

Looking ahead, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments on the travel ban this year, and the new Austrian and German governments are likely to further articulate their more restrictive immigration policies.  At the same time, the international community will grapple with how to respond to the world’s ever-increasing number of displaced persons fleeing conflict, ethnic cleansing, and changing climate.