The New Normal of Refugee Crises

Updated: Jan 21, 2019

by Elana Wong

Pictured: Aida Refugee Camp, an urban refugee settlement in Bethlehem, The West Bank. Image Credit: Elana Wong

A protracted refugee crisis or situation (PRS) is defined as ‘one in which 25,000 or more refugees of the same nationality have been in exile for 5 years or longer in any given asylum country’ (UNHCR 2004: 12). This was set up to be an exceptional circumstance. However, most refugee crises today are protracted. In 1990, the average length of a refugee situation was 9 years. As of 2014, it was 20 years. Today, it is expected to be longer.

PRSs differ from ‘normal’ refugee situations in two ways. Firstly, it goes beyond the ‘emergency phase’ that defines responses to ‘normal’ expected refugee crises and, secondly, the assumption in international response- that return is the main and natural option- becomes increasingly less likely. For example, arguably the most famous protracted cases are refugees from Palestine, Afghanistan, and Syria.

PRSs are often caused by a number of reasons:

  • ‘Governance Crisis’: such as a fragile or failed state, or an authoritarian one which causes people to flee

  • States who are willing to welcome returnees but cannot (e.g. for economic or violent reasons)

  • States who are unwilling to welcome returnees

  • The failed integration of returnees

  • ‘Residual caseloads’: people who do not want to return due to any number of reasons

  • Political ‘hostages’: refugees who are used as political pawns

Often, life as a protracted refugee or internally displaced person is grim. People are usually ‘warehoused’, which is the practice of keeping their lives ‘on indefinite hold’- severely restricting their mobility, enforcing idleness through banning work and productive activity, and keeping them dependent on local, state, and international aid or NGOs. When they are not warehoused, they are trapped in a state of limbo, with limited political rights and rights to work. Unsurprisingly, many studies have shown that this causes several mental health and social issues, for example: a deep sense of loss conflicting with a hope to return, struggles with changing social structures and a lack of belongings, social tension, violence, and a ‘crisis of masculinity’ in not being able to provide for their families.

While this sounds inhumane, it is also not an easy problem to solve. Both the UNHCR, and refugee-response systems as a whole, are largely built around the idea that refugee crises are ‘emergencies’, and therefore temporary. By this logic, fuller rights and services won’t be needed. Even when scholars, workers and advocates push for refugee self-reliance and more rights, there are often big push-backs and resistance from states who are unwilling to view refugees as longer-term residents.

In addition to this, the three ‘classic’ solutions usually proposed by states and international bodies (such as the UN): return or repatriation, local integration, or resettlement, are often seen to be unworkable, either viewed as impossible or undesirable.

As a result, solutions such as providing refugees with more freedom of movement (i.e. allowing them to travel or relocate), more rights (such as being able to work), or legal opportunities are extremely unpopular. With the onset of donor fatigue*, and diminishing international pressure to solve the political situations in home countries, it is clear that something needs to be done.

* donor fatigue: a general weariness and diminished public response to requests for aid to needy people or donations for charitable causes. Also known as ‘compassion fatigue’. (


James Milner (2014). ‘Protracted Refugee Situations’ in The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies’

Merrill Smith. ‘Warehousing Refugees: A Denial of Rights, A Waste of Humanity’

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