You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 19: Where Do Refugees Go?

Where Do Refugees Go?

Every minute in 2018, 25 people were forced to flee their homes. That's according to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, which also revealed in their 2018 annual report that there are currently more than 70.8 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, including 25.9 million refugees.

SIS professor Tazreena Sajjad joins Big World to discuss where refugees go. She reveals which countries are producing and taking in the most refugees (1:34) and explains why most of the world’s refugees are hosted by countries in the developing world (4:21). Professor Sajjad also discusses her research in Bangladesh, which opened their borders to more than 1.1 million Rohingya refugees (7:34), and the complexities that have emerged from the country’s decision to take in a large number of refugees (9:56).

Why are Western countries increasingly closing their borders to refugees (16:47), and what measures do these wealthier nations take to control and prevent migration (20:51)? Professor Sajjad answers these questions and notes the far-reaching implications of the current migration narrative in countries of the Global North (24:34).

During our “Take Five” segment, Professor Sajjad lists the five things she would do to reduce the number of forcibly displaced people around the world (13:33).

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that really matters.

0:15      KS: Every minute in 2018, 25 people were forced to flee their homes. That's according to the UN Refugee Agency, which also reports that the global population of forcibly displaced people increased by 2.3 million in 2018. Where do all these people go?

0:33      KS: Which countries provide shelter and which refuse? What factors go into a country's decision to take in those who have fled violence or natural disaster? Today we're talking about refugees.

0:45      KS: I'm Kay Summers and I'm joined by Tazreena Sajjad. Tazreena is a professor here at the School of International Service. Her areas of expertise include refugees and forced displacement. Her recent publications include "What’s in a name? ‘Refugees’, ‘migrants’ and the politics of labelling" in the journal of Race & Class. Tazreena, thanks for joining Big World.

1:07      Tazreena Sajjad: Thank you so much for having me.

1:09      KS: Tazreena, the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, another great acronym, releases an annual report. In 2018, this report revealed that there are currently more than 70.8 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, including 25.9 million refugees. Where are the most refugee flows from and which countries are taking in the most refugees?

1:34      TS: That's a great question to start us off. So as you mentioned, we have right now a situation where 70.8 million people are considered people of concern by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. This breaks down to 25.9 million refugees, and then a larger proportion, it is the internally displaced population, which is 41.3 million, and then asylum seekers, which are over 3.5 million. Then we also have a stateless population of about 10 million, and 5.5 million Palestinian refugees who are not part of the UNHCR's mandate.

2:08      TS: If you are only talking about the 25.9 million people who are considered as official refugees by UNHCR, then we have to consider the fact that only three countries in the world are actually producing 57 percent of that refugee population. So it is Syria, it's Afghanistan, and South Sudan.

2:27      TS: Now if you add two more countries to that list, which is Myanmar and Somalia, that is, we now have 67 percent of the world's refugee population coming out of the first five countries that I mentioned. Actually the top refugee host countries of the world are nowhere near Western shores. Even though we talk about it in terms of "Europe's migrant crisis," or "Europe's refugee crisis" or "US's, border crisis."

2:52      TS: So the top refugee host countries are actually Turkey with over 3.7 million refugees, largely from Syria who are registered, and there are still many more who are not. Pakistan with 1.4 million people, Uganda, South Sudan. The last in the list is actually Germany, which is a very recent introduction as a result of the events of 2015.

3:13      TS: Outside of that, refugee host countries largely come from what is known as the "Least Developed Countries" or the Global South. Now if you are to consider refugees per 1000 of population, the list changes slightly. But again, we don't see representation so much of the countries from the Global North.

3:29      TS: So here we have Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Chad, Uganda, Sudan, and then number seven is Sweden. But after that, again, we have South Sudan, Mali, and Djibouti. So again, we have most of the refugee flows entering into countries that are nowhere near Europe or Australia, or the United States. But it is a burden largely borne by countries considered to be countries of the Global South.

3:55      KS: So this is probably a surprise for our listeners and it might be the biggest surprise of the entire episode today, is that developing regions hosted 84 percent of the world's refugee population last year. This circumstance of most of the refugees in the world being hosted by countries in the developing world, is this a longstanding trend, or is this a relatively recent development? How long has this been the case?

4:21      TS: There has actually been a longstanding trend of most of the world's refugees arriving at the doorstep of neighboring countries. These have largely been countries in the Global South. The reality is only 16 percent of the world's refugee population is supported in the Global North. And that too is a pretty high number, and that's only because of recent trends, right? Which means 84 percent of the world's refugee population is nowhere close to what we would consider to be the Western countries.

4:50      TS: There's a lot of reasons for that. One of the things that I talk about in the context of my classes is that distance, when you're talking about the irregular movement of people, you're not talking about visas and passports. You're not talking about airports, you're not talking largely speaking with regards to just delays and having full control over where you want to go and how you want to go.

5:12      TS: So the distance becomes extremely important. And so, when you have conflict and you have the vast majority of conflicts or natural disasters, a lot of the times that have political ramifications as well in countries of the Global South, so you have distance that people normally have to travel has to be quite short, particularly when people are traveling by foot, different kinds of public transportation and sometimes very dangerous sort of routes. So again, most people will flow to countries where their home country shares a natural border with.

5:44      TS: The second is ease of travel. Again when we are talking about travel, we normally try and tend to think of ourselves in terms of how we travel. But most of this irregular travel is happening with people walking across deserts or taking multiple kinds of public transport arranged by human smugglers, or you have contexts where people have to flee in very questionable boats and ships. So under those circumstances, the ease of travel also means that again, Western shores is too far away for most people to travel to.

6:15      TS: There's also a question of social, historical, and cultural ties between neighboring countries and the countries from which people escape. So a lot of the times borders are obviously artificial institutions we have created, and so people have social connections that go back decades, if not hundreds of years, in terms of being able to have that kind of communication, language, religious, and cultural affinity.

6:41      TS: Another thing is that most countries in the Global South cannot invest in the high levels of restrictive practices that we see in countries of the Global North, and certainly some countries still do, I mean, border security and so on and so forth is a matter of concern for every nation state. But since they are not able to build extensive amount of network and surveillance and things of that sort, again, crossing borders, relatively speaking becomes easier for a displaced population.

7:09      KS: Right. Tazreena, you spent the summer of 2019 in Bangladesh studying why that country has strategically opened their borders to more than 1.1 million Rohingya refugees. So what did your research reveal about Bangladesh's current approach to accepting and sheltering refugees? And kind of in a larger sense, what does that tell us about refugees at this point in history?

7:34      TS: So the violence that erupted on August 25th, 2017 in the Rakhine state in Myanmar led to an exodus of the Rohingya refugees to arrive in Bangladesh. It was also called the fastest growing refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide. And so, by mid 2018 the total number of Rohingya in the Southern district of Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh numbered well over 900,000, and today actually even according to conservative estimates, we are talking about more than a million people.

8:02      TS: Now, this is not the first exodus of the Rohingya to Bangladesh. This has happened multiple times. The first time was in the 1970s when Bangladesh itself was just emerging as a new nation state. And then again in the 1990s there was a second wave, again about 250,000.

8:20      TS: Obviously, this wave that we saw in 2017 is the largest because as I mentioned, within a few months you have close to a million people who have arrived in Bangladesh. And so, the question with regard to Rohingya arrival in Bangladesh has to be understood within that historical context.

8:35      TS: Now, in the initial days of the most recent crisis, levels of support were quite staggering in terms of how people responded. At the forefront, and this is not actually unusual, you had a lot of local people who went forward to help to provide immediate food, shelter, water to the people in crisis, and sometimes opening their homes.

8:56      TS: Certainly even with regard to local civil society actors, local political actors and national political actors all emerged, right? To rush forward to provide immediate assistance, and from a lot of people I have spoken to, it was quite chaotic because almost everybody wanted to help.

9:14      TS: At the same time the political leadership was quite extraordinary if we consider it within this political geopolitical climate, which is the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina had openly delivered at least one or more statements saying that, "If we can feed 160 million people of our own people," and I'm paraphrasing here, "we are absolutely well poised to feed 700,000 who will come in."

9:36      TS: Then there were political leaders who talked about the historical nature of Bangladesh and the fact that Bangladeshis were also refugees at one point in time. So there was a moral imperative to respond. The fact that the Rohingyas were also being persecuted as Muslims was also a part of that cultural and sociocultural historical identity narrative that drove the humanitarian effort.

9:56      TS: Although all Rohingya are not Muslims, there are a few Hindus within that community, but Bangladesh has since found out that no good deed sort of goes unpunished. There are complexities that have emerged. The area where the Rohingya have arrived in, largely Teknaf and Ukhiya, these are two of the ... some of the poorest areas of the country. These are highly under-resourced. They have very poor infrastructure. There are questions with regard to economic under-investment, as well as lack of educational and health facilities, so on and so forth.

10:28      TS: The population is kind of overwhelmed by the large number of outsiders who have come in. And so, tensions have emerged within that context in terms of resource shortages, environmental crisis. When the first waves of Rohingya initially arrived, there was a demand for space. There was a demand for immediate shelter. And so, there was a hurried sort of effort to remove forests to create living spaces. That has led to a huge amount of environmental challenges in the country. And so, those are all challenges that Bangladesh is grappling with at this point.

11:01      KS: One thing that stands out to me, and I think I'm a pretty high information news consumer, is that this has received so much less coverage than Germany taking in a similar number of refugees. That was such a gigantic news story and all of the different aspects of it and the political ramifications for Angela Merkel, and what does this mean for Europe? Basically, how do we have an arrangement with Turkey where they don't make us deal with this anymore, right?

11:33      TS: Yeah.

11:33      KS: So the difference is just so striking in the approach, even with the challenges that have accompanied it in Bangladesh.

11:44      TS: It is interesting that it has been very Eurocentric in terms of our coverage of generosity and what it actually means that Germany suddenly stepped up to the plate, particularly with regard to Syrians, not necessarily with as many of the other asylum seekers, and certainly Sweden has also been in the news in terms of taking in large numbers of asylum seekers. As mentioned, both Germany make it to one of the top host countries at number five. Sweden is at number seven in terms of refugees per population, but countries like Uganda, countries like Djibouti, countries like Sudan, countries like Bangladesh don't get the same kind of attention.

12:16      TS: It is problematic because it's almost as if we have fundamentally assumed that those people out there, whoever those might be, are "Used to that kind of reality." Right? And so, it is only perfectly natural for those countries to deal with refugee situations, but our ways of life are different, and so our responses are different, but it also says something about the way that we think about thresholds.

12:41      TS: Our threshold of tolerance and acceptance is also perhaps quite different or low because the realities in Bangladesh is complicated. I mean, taking in the Rohingya refugees was a political decision, and it has certain kinds of pushback, and the prime minister faces that pushback in different ways, and certainly there are issues and challenges with regard to xenophobia. There are issues with regard to framing of the Rohingya question now as a security concern. We are far more focused of what the ramifications are in terms of politics, economics, so on and so forth much more when it comes to countries of the Global North.

13:20      KS: Tazreena, it's time to take five and this is when you, our guest, get to wave a wand and change the world. Specifically, what five things would you do to reduce the number of forcibly displaced people around the world?

13:33      TS: It's important to remember that these are connected rather than disparate sort of issues. So the first is of course end wars, not just the war in Syria, not just the war in South Sudan, but end wars generally speaking, and also protracted conflict.

13:49      TS: The second, I would talk about poverty. Now, a lot of the times, and certainly policymakers seem to think that if we reduce poverty, we would reduce migration. But statistics and some research is showing otherwise, that when people actually have more income, they actually have the ability to move more. So if people want to move as a result of economic choice to improve their standards of living, that would be one thing.

14:14      TS: But when people are driven to move because of things like drought or as a result of state manufactured famine, or as a result of extreme levels of unequal economic instability, then that is something that needs to be reduced.

14:31      TS: Third, I would talk about climate based displacement. Climate change is a crisis. It is an international crisis. It's a global crisis, and it is causing people to move not just because of soil erosion or deforestation, or high levels of water rising, but also sometimes because of the fact that growing times for crops is being reduced. There's so much heat that people are not able to actually remain and function within the context that they are living.

14:57      TS: Fourth, development based displacement. Infrastructural development carried out on a massive scale by several of the countries such as China, such as India, and other places, where the idea is greater amounts of infrastructure will bring about greater investment and development, and certainly there are donor agencies that support this kind of idea, also actually do produce large levels of displacement, and I think that is really important to sort of think through.

15:22      TS: Gender-based violence. In the refugee convention, gender-based violence is not recognized as one of the criteria as to why people have to move from one place to another. But sexual violence, domestic violence, certainly disproportionately target women and girls and that is one of the main reasons why we have large numbers of people fleeing El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala today.

15:45      TS: But also there is gender-based displacement that we don't think about with regard to men and boys, and certainly violence against the LGBTI community. And that also produces quite a number of asylum seekers from certain places. So until and unless we deal with at least these five issues, drivers of conflict, we will certainly not have a situation where we have lower numbers of people who are forced to flee.

16:09      KS: That is quite a list. Thank you so much.

16:14      KS: Pivoting slightly to some of those countries of the Global North, Western countries are adopting anti-refugee and anti-immigrant measures, and they often cite national security or social, political, and economic arguments as a justification for these policies.

16:29      KS: This is despite the examples that you gave of Germany and Sweden stepping up to some degree, whatever the articulated reasons may be, when these countries choose to enact these policies, whatever they're claiming is the reason, why do you believe wealthy or developed countries are increasingly closing their borders to refugees?

16:47      TS: That's a great question. I would say that the migration narrative that has emerged, particularly in the Global North but definitely has resonance in the countries of the Global South are around five, or at least around five themes. Largely speaking, we'll talk a lot about economy and how taking in large numbers of people would impact the economy negatively.

17:08      TS: Although, research from countries in the Global North show a much more complicated picture, and in many instances show that refugee acceptance, for instance, in the United States benefits the economy, so on and so forth.

17:19      TS: Second is the security imperative, and that has become the real monster of a conversation, right? That dominates every other conversation about refugees and asylum seekers is why do we accept them and they constitute a clear and present, not just a cultural, medical, or social threat, but also a national security threat?

17:38      TS: Then there are other things that we talk about as well in terms of demographics. Who are the people who are coming in? What do they look like in terms of their physical attributes, social attributes, so on so forth? Tied to that are larger questions of identity that either Islam and Muslims constitute a threat to the Western world, or in the United States there's also a conversation about communities from Latin American countries going to threaten a certain idea of the United States and identity of the United States.

18:07      TS: And humanitarianism, which is not something that we hear much of, but which was largely what the entire regime was built off of in terms of certain questions about what the international community, largely speaking owes forcibly displaced population.

18:24      TS: So if you think about the fact that these are the five themes around which the migration narrative sort of pivots around with greatest emphasis on security, we lose sight of the larger complexities in the international system today because we have quite a bit of anxiety about the global world order as it exists.

18:42      TS: We have huge anxieties with regard to the climate crisis, and even if people who don't acknowledge the climate crisis are actually dealing with the effects of it. We have questions with regard to the global political economy in terms of questions of disenfranchisement, sociopolitical, and economic inequity.

18:57      TS: So when political leadership and global leadership fails to respond effectively enough to these questions, or the fact that these questions are so complicated, you cannot just address them with one or two administrations. They all provide the perfect segue for particularly the right wing populist movements to sort of mobilize people's concerns and move towards this issue of the fact that it's because of those people that we have problems.

19:21      TS: But a lot of the times we don't also talk about the hyper politicization and the criminalization and securitization of immigrations that we see at play is not just because of the reasons I outlined, but also because of the fact that we don't acknowledge the historical legacies of institutionalized racism that has existed in many of these Western nations, right?

19:41      TS: But when we talk about any of the European countries, we have to sort of contend with the fact that there has been a long history of racism in Europe with regard to mobile populations. Whether you talk about antisemitism writ large, whether you talk about the movement of poor people, or you talk about the Roma and the Sinti.

19:58      TS: So all in all, there's a whole host of reasons as to why we are seeing the culmination of a lot of these issues. Now, together with the fact now we have social media, which is a threat amplifier, a source of disinformation. We have the fact that the world is much more connected than before. All of this sort of boiled up together to create the perfect storm within which anti-immigrant sentiments manifest itself in the Western nations.

20:25      KS: And of these five themes, it often feels that the security imperative is the umbrella that we use to whitewash concerns about demographics and identity.

20:36      TS: Yes, absolutely.

20:37      KS: And it's just the one that nations pull out, "There's a security threat. We have to protect our borders for this reason."

20:43      TS: Right.

20:44      KS: So what specific measures do these wealthier countries take to control and even prevent migration?

20:51      TS: There's actually quite an extensive collection of measures that countries have taken. This calls for a different conversation in and of itself, but I'll just go through a few. One is border fortification. Borders are natural, but they're also manmade. They're militarized and fortified over time. But the very specific kinds of fortifications I'm talking about are really about walls, fences and so on and so forth, which is very much part of our vocabulary today.

21:15      TS: Of the over 70 fortifications we have today since 1945, more than half have actually been constructed between 2000 and 2017, and Europe alone has in the last several years constructed over 800 miles of anti-immigrant fencing.

21:29      TS: So while walls can be built for different kinds of reasons, for political territory, for questions of more conventional understandings of threat and anonymity between nation states, but the nature of border fortifications have changed. And now what we are seeing more of is not just about the threat of the enemy state or the enemy soldier, but as the enemy other in the shape of the irregular migrant, who largely speaking is either coming from an economically disenfranchised country or is trying to seek refuge as a refugee or as an asylum seeker.

22:02      TS: So I mean together with that, of course the use of advanced technology and the use of drones and surveillance techniques. In the United States now there's quite conversation about smart walls, right?

22:11      KS: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

22:11      TS: And it is framed in terms of the fact that it will help us effectively deal with questions of drug trafficking and human smuggling. But we don't ask the questions of what are the human consequences of using technology to this level?

22:25      KS: I wish our politicians cared as much about human trafficking as they claim to whenever they start talking about drones that are going to supposedly help us reduce human trafficking, because I still feel like we're just trying to keep people out.

22:37      TS: Well yes, because I mean, human trafficking itself is a very extensive sort of field. Human trafficking doesn't actually involve the crossing of international borders. Human trafficking also happens within a country. So it's much more complicated than talking about the fact if we just build enough walls, we will keep out people from entering our territory. But there are other ways of talking about different kinds of ways countries in the Global North keep people out.

23:06      TS: Restrictive asylum practices. That means raising the bar. I mean, the bar for meeting the asylum standard is already extremely high and countries are stepping up to making it more and more difficult for individuals to seek a refugee status. We sometimes have the slowing down of asylum system and this is not just because of limited resources, but also intentional and deliberate.

23:27      TS: We have redefining of the family unit, which makes it more difficult for families to stay together when they seek asylum. We have the use of brutal force by police and state authority. So whether we talk about ICE and CBP in the United States, whether we talk about the French riot police in the context of Paris and other states.

23:43      TS: We have third country arrangements, who in certain cases, we are seeing this right now in the United States, Europe has mastered it, Australia has mastered it, where other countries, particularly in the Global South become those country's immigration gatekeepers. We have higher detention rates and deportation rates. We have bilateral and multilateral arrangements we make with nation states.

24:07      TS: So for instance, the EU-Afghanistan deal, which basically promises Afghanistan economic development assistance if they take back a certain number of Afghan asylum seekers. We have the outright refugee ban, we have seen as in the United States. We have less funding for asylum processes and refugee resettlement. We have offshore detention policies, and Australia is a mastermind in this, and now Europe is also developing it and there's perhaps conversation in the US to do so.

24:34      TS: And lastly, we have also seen the criminalization of solidarity networks that provide assistance, immediate assistance to refugees and asylum seekers. What is disturbing is, I mean countries learn from each other, and I always tell my students, "Countries learn bad lessons from each other much faster and much more eagerly than good lessons."

24:52      TS: And so, non-Western countries are actually paying attention. So if the Western world largely speaking wants to see themselves as norm developers and norm entrepreneurs, particularly of good practices, then obviously that's not the message that they're sending out to other countries.

25:08      TS: And so, if you look at the total number of migrants in the world, and what I mean by migrants, refugees, economic migrants, all of that, it's still a very small percentage of the world's global population. We lose sight of that, right? It's within about 3 percent, right? In terms of international migrants and the world's total population, that's well kind of within the margin of error, and yet we talk about these issues as if they're absolutely unmanageable. They're overwhelming.

25:36      TS: I think that when we get in that track of talking about these issues, we lose sight of where the real crisis lies, and the real crisis lies is in the crisis of solidarity and the crisis of recognizing who are the people we need to be most concerned about.

25:51      KS: I think that's the last word is that we need to remember that language of solidarity.

25:55      KS: Tazreena Sajjad, thank you for joining Big World. It's been wonderful to speak with you and I learned a lot.

26:00      TS: Thank you so much for having me again.

26:01      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or a review, it will be as great as an unexpected snow day with school canceled. Our theme music is, It Was Just Cold by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Tazreena Sajjad,
senior professorial lecturer, SIS

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