Global forced migration: the political crisis of our time

President Trump walks along the completed 200th mile of new border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border on 23 June 2020 President Trump walks along the completed 200th mile of new border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border on 23 June 2020 © Shealah Craighead

This article is a brief presentation of a report by the Democratic staff of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on global forced migration

Published just two days before World Refugee Day on 20 June, a new report by the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) Democratic staff illustrates the magnitude and complexity of today’s forced migration phenomenon, through the detailed analysis of key documents and dozens of interviews of migration and humanitarian experts carried out during research trips to Columbia, Tunisia, Egypt, Bangladesh, Mexico and Ethiopia. The study strongly encourages a review of the humanitarian sector’s existing practices and shines a spotlight on the United States’ regressive leadership on the international stage.

The key trends affecting warfare and forced migration have changed dramatically in recent decades, resulting in more displaced people today than ever before. Due to the rise of proxy warfare and internationalised civil conflict, conflicts today tend to last longer, are more likely to be within states rather than between them, and often involve non-state actors such as ethnic and religious groups, terrorist organisations and organised crime. These parties increasingly target civilian populations. The urbanisation of conflict and the surge in military tactics deliberately targeting civilians, as witnessed in Yemen between 2015-2018 and in Syria over the course of a decade, has further increased the lethality of warfare. Conflicts in densely populated urban areas are characterized by a higher likelihood of civilian casualties and damage to large-scale infrastructure, such as electricity, water and health care, causing millions to flee.

Within this context, international diplomatic efforts have failed to enforce mechanisms for the effective sanctioning of violations of the laws of armed conflict, and to serve the needs of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in their territories. The United Nations (UN) Security Council, the primary international body responsible for maintaining peace and security, has seen the intensifying of rivalries between its members, crippling its effectiveness in pursuing its mandate for maintaining world peace. Humanitarian financing is dwindling, as major donors such as the US, the UK and Germany drastically reduce their funding. As a consequence of inconsistent levels of commitment to refugee protections due a lack of enforcement of the principles set out in the 1951 Convention, and ongoing debate over the applicability of the 1951 Convention’s refugee definition, the rights of many forcibly displaced persons migrating alongside refugees, including victims of generalised violence, severe climate-related events and internal displacement, remain unprotected. 

Prior to the Trump administration, the US was the global leader in refugee resettlement. Their refugee ceiling, which was 111,000 in 2017, days before President Trump took office, was revised to just 18,000 in 2020 the lowest in US history at a time when 70 million people are forcibly displaced, the highest on record. In keeping with its political agenda, the Trump administration subsequently adopted further regressive migration policies, altering security screenings and criteria to make resettlement in the US more difficult for certain refugee profiles, particularly targeting countries with predominately Muslim populations through policies such as the “Muslim Ban”, a travel ban issued by President Trump days after taking office suspending the entry of Syrian refugees indefinitely, and of individuals from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen for 90 days – a list that was further expanded to include Nigeria, Myanmar, Eritrea and Kyrgyzstan in January 2020. 

Cutting ties with international organisations and taking actions to deliberately paralyse the US refugee program, such as issuing travel bans, altering resettlement criteria and ending temporary protected status designations for asylum seekers, has resulted in a drastic cut in refugee resettlement slots. The cumulative effect of a rise in populist governments, which intensified the negative rhetoric surrounding refugees and migrants as seen in Europe in recent years, a weakened UN Security Council, and the absence of a single superpower to hold world leaders accountable for violating international and human rights law – a role previously filled by the United States – has aggravated an already delicate global issue. These factors combined have led to widespread failures in how countries have been responding to the so-called migrant ‘crisis’, with many governments stigmatising migrants and proliferating hate-filled rhetoric to pass hostile legislations that violate human rights law and hinder international cooperation.

Against this politically charged backdrop, conflict is responsible for 80 percent of humanitarian needs today. Forced migration trends have shifted as a result of more frequent and more prolonged outbreaks of conflict, and the existing international response instruments are no longer effective. International bodies, like the UN Security Council, must find more appropriate ways to resolve and prevent conflicts, and adopt suitable legal conventions to hold states accountable for perpetrating international humanitarian and human rights law. The recommendations made in this report address shortfalls in the current international diplomatic response and call international bodies and world governments, including the Trump administration, to do more to serve these individuals’ fundamental right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution over their own political objectives.


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Author: Giulia Ferrara

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