A few countries take responsibility for most of the worlds refugees

Migrants in Turkey walking towards the Greek border on 1 March 2020. Photo: Emre Tazegul/AP Photo/NTB Scanpix

Migrants in Turkey walking towards the Greek border on 1 March 2020. Photo: AP Photo/Emre Tazegul/NTB Scanpix

Over 20 million refugees have been granted protection in another country in the last ten years. A few countries are bearing almost all the responsibility, while most countries in the world have scarcely received any refugees at all.

The failing division of responsibilities means that some recipient countries, such as Lebanon, are suffering under a heavy burden. But most of all, it affects the refugees themselves.

In total, there are almost 80 million displaced people in the world today. Of these, 33.8 million are refugees who have fled to another country. Although this is a historically high figure and a staggeringly high number of people in need of protection, it is entirely possible to offer all displaced people a dignified life, if we only have the will to do so.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) works to support refugees and displaced people worldwide. Support our work today.

In Lebanon, one in four people is a refugee

Neji is a Syrian refugee living Beirut. He says he faces discrimination on a daily basis and hopes to one day relocate to a third country. Photo: Zaynab Mayladan/NRC

Neji is a Syrian refugee living Beirut. He says he faces discrimination on a daily basis and hopes to one day relocate to a third country. Photo: Zaynab Mayladan/NRC

Lebanon, with a population of 6 million, is currently hosting an estimated 1.5 million refugees from Syria. The real number is probably even higher because the national authorities demanded that the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) stop the registration of new refugees in 2015. In addition, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees live in the country.

Lebanon itself has been ravaged by a civil war that lasted from 1975 until 1990. It is a densely populated country with a fragile political balance between different ethnic and religious groups.

Even before the large influx of refugees from Syria, the country was in a precarious economic situation. Lebanon is dependent on importing most of what it needs and has long kept its economy going through foreign loans and financial transfers from Lebanese nationals abroad.

In 2019 and 2020, the situation has gone from bad to worse, with large-scale popular protests eventually leading to the Prime Minister’s resignation. Unemployment is sky-high and the country’s currency has dropped in value by 85 per cent, meaning much of the population is no longer able to afford the necessities of survival.

Recent surveys put more than 50 per cent of the population below the poverty line. For Syrian refugees, the figure is even higher, with 83 per cent living below the extreme poverty line. On top of all this, we now have the Covid-19 pandemic.

Just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, Beirut was shaken by a huge explosion, which killed more than 200 people, wounded more than 6,000 and displaced around 300,000. Perhaps never before has a country that receives refugees had a greater need for the rest of the world to step up and help.

Here, you can see which countries have received the most refugees in the last ten years.

These siblings fled from Syria three years ago. They now live in Beirut, Lebanon. Photo: Zaynab Mayladan/NRC

These siblings fled from Syria three years ago. They now live in Beirut, Lebanon. Photo: Zaynab Mayladan/NRC

The explosion in Beirut on 4 August 2020 caused extensive damage to Lebanon’s capital. Photo: Aly Mouslmani/NRC

The explosion in Beirut on 4 August 2020 caused extensive damage to Lebanon’s capital. Photo: Aly Mouslmani/NRC

More countries must take responsibility

A community meeting with Congolese refugees in Kyangwali settlement, Uganda. Photo: India Dwyer/NRC

A community meeting with Congolese refugees in Kyangwali settlement, Uganda. Photo: India Dwyer/NRC

Top five refugee-receiving countries: Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Liberia, Nauru

While countries such as Lebanon, Uganda and Sweden have received large numbers of refugees year after year, many countries have received almost none and are doing everything they can to prevent refugees from coming to their country.

Several of these are rich and populous countries that are much more able to help than many of the countries taking the greatest responsibility today.

Some of the richest countries in the world do almost nothing. Japan has the world’s third largest economy and a population of 127 million. Nevertheless, it has received just 1,732 refugees in the last ten years – 0.001 per cent of the country’s population. South Korea is at a similarly low level.

The oil-rich Gulf countries are another example. Saudi Arabia is at a similar level to Japan and the other Gulf countries are not much better. For most of the last decade there has been a brutal civil war in Syria, where several of these countries have been indirectly involved. It is therefore particularly inexcusable that they have not given proper protection to more of the victims of the war and taken some of the burden from neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

The Gulf countries have admittedly received a large number of Syrians as labour immigrants, but these have not been granted refugee status.

Photo: Frank Augstein/AP Photo/NTB Scanpix

Photo: Frank Augstein/AP Photo/NTB Scanpix

The EU is struggling to convince member countries to contribute

Many European countries don’t have much to be proud of either. In total, EU and EEA countries (including Switzerland) have provided protection to three million refugees over the last ten years, which corresponds to 0.57 per cent of the population.

Compared to other developed countries, this is more than twice as much as the United States (0.25 percent) and New Zealand (0.19 percent), but significantly lower than Canada and Australia (0.91 and 0.76 percent, respectively).

Although the EU as a whole has received a large number of refugees in the last ten years, this is because a few countries, such as Germany and Sweden, have taken responsibility.

By contrast, Poland has only received the equivalent of 0.01 per cent of its population. With the exception of Bulgaria, all the other Eastern European EU countries have received less than 0.04 per cent. In Western Europe, it is Portugal that has received the fewest refugees, at 0.03 per cent.

The Dublin Regulation has a major shortcoming

The Dublin Regulation is an agreement between European countries that determines who is responsible for processing asylum applications. In essence, it states that the first European country where refugees arrive must process their asylum applications and provide protection to those who are entitled to it.

For a long time, this was not complied with in practice, and most of those who arrived in Greece, Italy and Spain would travel on to countries further north in Europe to seek asylum. The refugees themselves often wanted to seek asylum further north, and the Mediterranean countries were happy to avoid the responsibility.

In recent years, this has changed. The large influx of refugees to Europe in 2015 led the EU to demand that the Dublin Regulation be practised consistently. This made it clear that the Dublin Regulation has a major shortcoming. It does not contain a distribution mechanism that obliges other EU countries to relieve those countries that take responsibility on behalf of the rest of the EU.

Selected European countries 2010 - 2019.

In 2015, the EU adopted a temporary relocation scheme that required other EU countries to receive asylum seekers from Italy and Greece for a period of two years. The decision was met with great opposition, especially in countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, which refused to accept the number imposed on them.

The strong opposition meant that there was no permanent arrangement for the division of responsibilities when the temporary agreement expired in 2017.

Graph showing the percentage of refugees received in each European country 2010 - 2019, excluding countries with a population under five million.

Selected European countries 2010 - 2019.

Disclaiming responsibility

Syrian refugees try to hold onto an overcrowded dinghy after arriving on the Greek island of Lesvos. Photo: Yannis Behrakis TPX/REUTERS/NTB Scanpix

Syrian refugees try to hold onto an overcrowded dinghy after arriving on the Greek island of Lesvos. Photo: Yannis Behrakis TPX/REUTERS/NTB Scanpix

In recent years, therefore, Italy and Greece have largely been left to themselves. They have received financial support from the EU to strengthen their asylum systems, but while some EU countries have voluntarily chosen to accept some refugees, most have refused to do so.

In Italy, this has led to the authorities increasingly refusing to allow boats with asylum seekers to dock in their ports. In 2016, 181,000 refugees and migrants came to Italy by sea, but that number dropped to 14,000 in 2019.

In Greece, the 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey led to a sharp drop in arrival figures, because Turkey began to prevent boats from leaving shore, and those who managed to enter Greece risked being sent back to Turkey. But as the agreement has made it difficult for Greece to return asylum seekers, arrival numbers have started to rise again. In 2019, 60,000 asylum seekers came to Greece by sea and another 15,000 came across the border between Greece and Turkey.

Greece’s capacity to process the large number of asylum applications has been inadequate, which has led to longer processing times. A large number of asylum seekers have been denied permission to leave the Greek islands where they are living in overcrowded camps under appalling humanitarian conditions.

Islands in the Mediterranean have been overwhelmed by those who have crossed the sea, desperately seeking refuge. Image captured in 2015. Photo: NORCAP

Islands in the Mediterranean have been overwhelmed by those who have crossed the sea, desperately seeking refuge. Image captured in 2015. Photo: NORCAP

Migrants stand at the closed border between Turkey and Greece on 1 March 2020. Photo: Ahmed Deeb/dpa/NTB Scanpix

Migrants stand at the closed border between Turkey and Greece on 1 March 2020. Photo: Ahmed Deeb/dpa/NTB Scanpix

The fire in the Moria camp could lead to new EU policy

A woman and her children flee flames in the Moria migrant camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. Photo: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/NTB Scanpix

A woman and her children flee flames in the Moria migrant camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. Photo: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/NTB Scanpix

Children walk over a bridge in Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos on 5 March, 2020. Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/NTB Scanpix

Children walk over a bridge in Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos on 5 March, 2020. Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/NTB Scanpix

Aerial shot of Moria camp captured in December 2018. Photo: Jørn Casper Øwre/NORCAP

Aerial shot of Moria camp captured in December 2018. Photo: Jørn Casper Øwre/NORCAP

The worst conditions were found in the Moria camp on Lesvos. The camp had a capacity of 3,000, but housed more than 18,000 refugees and migrants at times. When the camp burnt down in early September 2020, 12,000 people were living there.

The fire has led the EU to speed up the launch of a proposal for a new agreement to replace the Dublin Regulation. Many had hoped that this agreement would contain a binding division of responsibilities, but they were disappointed.

The agreement stipulates that individual countries can contribute in different ways. Countries that don’t want to receive asylum seekers can instead contribute financially by providing support to those that do and undertaking to return asylum seekers who have been rejected.

The draft agreement will be considered in the EU in the coming months, and it is still unclear what the final version will look like. There is also great tension surrounding the number of countries that could refuse to accept asylum seekers. It is absolutely crucial for the cooperation that the majority are willing to step up and take responsibility.

It seems likely that the countries in southern Europe will continue to bear the greatest responsibility for the refugees and migrants who come across the Mediterranean.

Nevertheless, a large proportion of asylum seekers to European countries come via other routes, and Germany is still the largest recipient of asylum applications in Europe, even though it is not at the EU’s outer border.

Everyone should contribute according to their ability

At just two years old, Dua'a was forced to flee due to the conflict in Iraq. Photo: Alan Ayoubi/NRC

At just two years old, Dua'a was forced to flee due to the conflict in Iraq. Photo: Alan Ayoubi/NRC

As we have seen, poorer countries have often taken the greatest responsibility, while some rich countries have also made significant contributions. As a group, middle-income countries come out worst, even though countries such as Lebanon and Turkey are lifting the average sharply.

The most populous countries in the world, such as China, India, Indonesia and Brazil are in this group. If more of these countries contributed to a better division of responsibilities, it would make a big difference. Several have experienced strong economic growth in recent decades and can no longer claim that they can’t afford to help displaced people. A country that can afford to host the Summer Olympics can also afford to receive a few thousand refugees each year.

The United States previously received almost 100,000 resettlement refugees each year and was the largest recipient of resettlement refugees in the world. Under Donald Trump’s leadership, this has been greatly reduced, and in 2019, the United States received just 27,500 resettlement refugees. In addition, it has become much harder for refugees to seek asylum on the United States border with Mexico and many are being sent back to countries such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Over the last ten years, however, the United States has received more refugees relative to its population than many European countries, and is on a par with the United Kingdom.

100 Chinese Renminbi banknotes. Photo: Maksym Kapliuk/NTB Scanpix

100 Chinese Renminbi banknotes. Photo: Maksym Kapliuk/NTB Scanpix

Asylum seekers in Tijuana, Mexico, listen to names being called from a waiting list so that they can cross the border into San Diego. Photo: Elliot Spagat/AP Photo/NTB Scanpix

Asylum seekers in Tijuana, Mexico, listen to names being called from a waiting list so that they can cross the border into San Diego. Photo: Elliot Spagat/AP Photo/NTB Scanpix

Resettlement refugees

Refugees who had been living in Moria camp in Greece walk towards a plane taking them to Germany. They were part of a small group of 101 refugees who were relocated to Germany following the fire in Moria in September. Photo: Yannis Kolesidis/EPA/NTB Scanpix

Refugees who had been living in Moria camp in Greece walk towards a plane taking them to Germany. They were part of a small group of 101 refugees who were relocated to Germany following the fire in Moria in September. Photo: Yannis Kolesidis/EPA/NTB Scanpix

Although it is possible to provide good protection to most refugees in neighbouring countries if aid is stepped up, there are still some who must be moved to other countries as so-called “resettlement refugees”. These are typically refugees who do not receive adequate protection in the country to which they have fled. This may apply to religious minorities or LGBTQ people, for example.

In some instances, such as in Lebanon, recipient countries need relief following the arrival of large numbers of refugees. In cases where there is no prospect of the refugees being able to return to their homes within a few years, some must be given the opportunity to obtain permanent residency in a new country.

Only a small proportion of refugees are given the opportunity to become resettlement refugees. In 2019, there were just 108,000 resettlement refugees, while the UN refugee agency estimates that just over 1.4 million people need to move to a country other than where they first fled.

If more countries were willing to accept resettlement refugees, it would be possible to find new homes for them within a few years, reducing the burden for individual countries. Today, more than 30 countries have said they are willing to accept resettlement refugees, but only ten of them receive more than 1,000 refugees a year.

In recent years, Norway and Sweden have been the countries that have received the most resettlement refugees in relation to their populations, with 2,800 and 5,200 in 2019, respectively. Denmark, on the other hand, announced in 2016 that it would stop accepting resettlement refugees – indefinitely.

Syrian refugee Majda Ibrahim, 38, now lives in Skogas, Sweden. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/NTB Scanpix

Syrian refugee Majda Ibrahim, 38, now lives in Skogas, Sweden. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/NTB Scanpix

The spiral towards the bottom

Demonstrations in Frankfurt took place on 20 September 2020 against German and European migration policies. Photo: Andreas Arnold/DPA/NTB Scanpix

Demonstrations in Frankfurt took place on 20 September 2020 against German and European migration policies. Photo: Andreas Arnold/DPA/NTB Scanpix

Denmark is one of the countries that has led the way in what has been called the “spiral towards the bottom”. This means that, as country after country tightens their refugee policies, displaced people choose to travel to another country instead.

When one country tightens its policies, other countries follow suit and introduce even stricter measures. And so the spiral continues – downwards. There are many examples of creative measures to deter refugees.

Denmark introduced the so-called “jewellery law”, which requires refugees to sell valuable assets before they are entitled to public support. Financial support for refugees has been cut sharply. Refugees are also informed that they are expected to return to their home country as soon as possible, even if they have been in Denmark for many years. Denmark was the first country in the world to decide that even resettlement refugees must return to their home countries.

Norway was the first EU/EEA country to decide that refugees could be returned to a country outside the Schengen Area, even when it is not certain that their asylum applications will be processed there. The Norwegian government has also instructed the immigration authorities to actively review previous cases for refugees who have been granted refugee status in order to be able to revoke their status if conditions in their home country have improved. This applies to everyone who has not yet been granted permanent residency in Norway.

Hungary kept asylum seekers locked up in detention camps until The European Court of Justice ruled that this was illegal. In response, Hungary has made it impossible for people to seek asylum at the border. Like Bulgaria and Greece, Hungary has received criticism from the Council of Europe for pushing refugees back across the border when they try to seek asylum.

Since 2013, it has been impossible for boat refugees to receive asylum in Australia. Most boats with refugees are stopped by military ships and ordered to return to their point of departure.

Those who have managed to get to Australia have been sent to the island of Manus in Papua New Guinea and to Nauru, which have agreed to process asylum applications – for a fee. For a long time, the refugees were kept locked up in reception centres under inhumane conditions, but after strong international pressure, these centres were closed.

Some of the refugees have been allowed to travel to the United States as resettlement refugees, but there are still several hundred on Manus and Nauru. Some have also been transferred to detention centres in Australia. Australia’s policy has led to very few refugees now daring to seek asylum in the country without a visa, which for most is impossible to obtain.

Despite the great humanitarian suffering that this policy has inflicted on refugees and migrants, several European countries have called for the EU to follow Australia’s example.

Photo: Trygve Finkelsen/NTB Scanpix

Photo: Trygve Finkelsen/NTB Scanpix

Photo: Stefan Ember/NTB Scanpix

Photo: Stefan Ember/NTB Scanpix

Photo: Todor Dinchev/NTB Scanpix

Photo: Todor Dinchev/NTB Scanpix

Photo: Greg Balfour Evans/NTB Scanpix

Photo: Greg Balfour Evans/NTB Scanpix

This protest took place outside a hotel in Brisbane, Australia, on 15 August 2020 after media reports claimed asylum seekers were being detained there. Photo: Darren England/NTB Scanpix

This protest took place outside a hotel in Brisbane, Australia, on 15 August 2020 after media reports claimed asylum seekers were being detained there. Photo: Darren England/NTB Scanpix

When the pressure becomes too great

A mother holding her daughter at a reception centre on the Iraq/Syria border. Photo: Alan Ayoubi/NRC

A mother holding her daughter at a reception centre on the Iraq/Syria border. Photo: Alan Ayoubi/NRC

Even the countries that have long been most generous in accepting refugees have had to change their policies because so few other countries have been willing to share the responsibility. In Sweden, it took only a few months from when Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said: “My Europe does not build walls” to him announcing that Sweden had had to temporarily tighten its asylum policy to curb the influx of refugees.

One of the consequences was that Sweden began denying refugees the right to family reunification, even though they had already received subsidiary protection. This concerns people who have not been individually persecuted but have fled due to war and violence.

Until 2016, this had had little practical significance, since both groups were largely given the same rights. But the change in the law meant that almost none of the Syrian refugees who had fled the civil war were given the opportunity to bring their families to Sweden. In 2019, this group was again given the right to family reunification, but the rest of the restrictions were extended to 2021. This means, among other things, that it is difficult for war refugees to obtain permanent residency.

Germany is another country that radically changed its refugee policy after more than one million people sought asylum in the country. Syrian refugees have been told that they must return to Syria when the war is over. Like Sweden, Germany also eliminated the possibility of family reunification for most Syrian refugees. Later, they introduced a monthly cap of 1,000 people who can receive visas for family reunification.

Poorer countries are the hardest hit

A displaced woman carries a mattress in the muddy alleys of Hamam al Halil camp, Iraq. Photo: Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC

A displaced woman carries a mattress in the muddy alleys of Hamam al Halil camp, Iraq. Photo: Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC

The poor neighbouring countries that have received millions of refugees are experiencing even greater pressure than countries such as Sweden and Germany.

Many of the countries receiving the largest number of refugees have not signed the Refugee Convention, meaning the refugees there have less protection. This applies to countries such as Bangladesh, Lebanon and Jordan, while Turkey made an exception when they ratified the convention so that it only applies to refugees from Europe.

Mhammad is a Syrian refugee living in Bekaa, Lebanon. In January 2019 he was forced to sleep in a school after his tent flooded. Photo: Nadine Malli/NRC

Mhammad is a Syrian refugee living in Bekaa, Lebanon. In January 2019 he was forced to sleep in a school after his tent flooded. Photo: Nadine Malli/NRC

For Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, the large number of Syrian refugees has led to internal tensions. The refugees in these countries have little access to the regular labour market and often have to make do with underpaid jobs and informal employment. This means that wages are pushed down, and fewer jobs are available to the country’s own population.

This affects the refugees most of all. They must live on a subsistence level, while also experiencing hostile attitudes.

Not an impossible task

A crowd of women wait for the distribution of hygiene kits in Ngala camp, Nigeria. Photo: Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC

A crowd of women wait for the distribution of hygiene kits in Ngala camp, Nigeria. Photo: Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC

Most people flee to a neighbouring country, and with sufficient financial support from rich countries in the rest of the world, it is in many cases possible to safeguard their protection. Unfortunately, there is a lack of willingness to increase aid in step with the increasing number of people who need help.

Compared to other expenses afforded by rich countries, only a pittance is needed to ensure that displaced people receive the help they need. This has been clearly illustrated in connection with the Covid-19 pandemic.

For every dollar that wealthy countries have spent supporting their own economies during Covid-19, they have given less than ½ a cent in emergency aid to the 250 million people who need it most.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) works to support refugees and displaced people worldwide. Support our work today.