2019: The year refugees were urged to return

Al Jazeera asked experts what this year meant for refugees and asylum seekers around the world, and what to expect next.

LOS EBANOS, TEXAS - JULY 02: Immigrants wait to be searched and then bussed to U.S. Border Patrol facility in McAllen after crossing the border from Mexico on July 02, 2019 in Los Ebanos, Texas. Hundr
Asylum seekers wait to be searched and then bussed to a US Border Patrol facility in McAllen after crossing the border from Mexico on July 02, 2019 in Los Ebanos, Texas [John Moore/Getty Images/AFP]

In 2019, calls emanating from the corridors of power for refugees and migrants to “return home” grew louder, from Syrians in Turkey and Rohingya in Bangladesh, to Afghans in Pakistan and newly arrived and settled communities in Europe.

But experts have warned that little has changed in their countries of origin, that violence and persecution continue to pose a serious threat.

This year, Turkey, which hosts the world’s largest refugee population with 3.7 million Syrians, repeatedly said it wants people to leave and “return” to a safe zone in Syria’s northeast. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned of further refugee waves if the violence in Syria – where deadly bombings persist to this day – do not cease.

In July, Myanmar officials visited Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh – the world’s largest refugee settlement – to persuade the Rohingya to return to Rakhine state, where attacks continue.

In South Asia, Pakistan is still looking for ways to push Afghan migrants out – it hosts 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees, many of whom want to remain in their adoptive country having built lives there.

2019 REFUGEE YEAR IN REVIEW - Libya/Mediterranean
Bags containing the bodies of refugees and migrants who died after their wooden boat capsized off the coast of Komas, are seen in a hangar belonging to an anti-illegal migration department east of the capital Tripoli, Libya July 27, 2019 [Ayman al-Sahili/Reuters]

Afghan refugees are also struggling to stay in Europe, as they try to prove to authorities that returning to Afghanistan could prove deadly. In the first nine months of 2019, the UN Assistance Mission in the country counted more than 8,200 civilian casualties – 2,563 killed and 5,676 injured, with record levels in the third quarter of 2019.

In Libya, meanwhile, conditions for asylum seekers in government-run detention centres are worsening, with allegations of torture, rape, murder, starvation and the refusal of relocation. Those who do manage to escape face being returned by the Libyan coastguard, which is supported by the European Union as the bloc attempts to limit undocumented migration to Italy.

In 2019, at least 1,246 migrants and refugees died while attempting the perilous journey across the Mediterranean – the fifth straight year of at least 1,000 deaths on the Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which said the journey from Libya in particular “remains the world’s deadliest sea crossing”.


The threat of forced deportation is also rising in northern Europe. Earlier this month, Denmark’s Refugee Appeals Board denied three Syrian women asylum, saying they did not face individual dangers in their home city of Damascus.

Human rights lawyer Mai el-Sadany said the development set a “dangerous precedent” as Emma Beals, editor at Syria Context, said Denmark became the first place to deny a Syrian asylum “on the basis that Syria is safe now and no personal protection issues exist. This is not true. Nobody can be said to be ‘safe’ to return.”

While refugee deaths on the Mediterranean were lower, year-on-year, “the number of migrant fatalities in the Western Hemisphere is up,” the IOM noted. “Hundreds have died fleeing Venezuela, including in shipwrecks in the Caribbean. Through mid-December, at least 659 men, women and children have died crossing the Americas, which compares with 583 during the same period last year.”

2019 REFUGEE YEAR IN REVIEW - Syrian refugees
A Syrian refugee hugs his son outside their tent at a makeshift camp for refugees and migrants next to the Moria camp following rainfall, on the island of Lesbos, Greece, November 22, 2019 [Elias Marcou/Reuters]

In the United States, border patrol agents have apprehended undocumented migrants and asylum seekers in record numbers.

Seeking asylum is lawful under the US and international law.

But the administration of US President Donald Trump this year stepped up its efforts to curb undocumented migration with plans of forced DNA collection and by sending asylum seekers back to Mexico to wait for their court hearings. The administration is now also sending Honduran and Salvadoran asylum seekers to Guatemala to process claims there, instead.

These developments added to a list that has concerned rights groups – further immigrant deaths in US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centres, deportations, and armed militias “detaining” migrants at the border. 

Al Jazeera asked refugees and experts what the year 2019 meant for refugees and asylum seekers around the world and what to expect from 2020.

 2019 REFUGEE YEAR IN REVIEW - Libya/Mediterranean
The central Mediterranean route from Libya ‘remains the world’s deadliest sea crossing’, according to the IOM [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

‘Refugees all over the world were pressured to go back home’

Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch

This was the year when refugees all over the world were pressured to go back home. The indelible refugee image for me was of Syrian refugees last summer in the Arsal region of Lebanon taking pickaxes to their own shelters under orders from the Lebanese army to make them more temporary.

Winter has now arrived, and these shivering refugees are living in great misery, but still resisting mounting pressures to go back to a country controlled by an abusive government that is still bombing, imprisoning and torturing civilians. Meanwhile, in Turkey, scores of Syrians are being unlawfully deported home as the international community watches silently.

Most Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar’s military campaign of murder and destruction have just passed their second year in the overcrowded camps in Bangladesh, yet their host government also insists their stay will be short-lived. Although there is no sign that Myanmar will soon let them return safely, Bangladesh is forcing the Rohingya to live in flimsy bamboo and tarp shelters that provide minimum shelter from the region’s monsoon winds and rain. And their children are being denied an education.

Every so often, their families are pressured to “choose” to return to Myanmar, from which they were brutally expelled and which still denies Rohingya access to citizenship rights. Or there is talk of relocating them to a remote, uninhabited, flood-prone silt island.

Likewise, Burundians in Tanzania, Afghans in Pakistan, and Somalis in Kenya are all under pressure to go back to home countries where their lives and freedom are at serious risk.

Shrinking asylum space in countries at the front lines of crisis cannot be separated from eroding support from donor and resettlement countries and the example those countries set by their efforts to block asylum seekers from their own shores. The US government’s attempts to foist asylum seekers onto Mexico and Central American countries, like the EU’s migration deal with Turkey and Italy’s cooperation with Libyan coastguard forces, greenlight further pushbacks by countries of transit and first arrival. The about-face from one-time champions of refugee rights has left refugees in the lurch in 2019, and the system of international responsibility-sharing that has sustained millions of refugees is now at its lowest ebb since the end of the second world war.

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A refugee is pictured next to placards at Vucjak camp near Bihac, Bosnia and Herzegovina, December 6,2019 [Antonio Bronic/Reuters]

‘Europe failed the men, women, children seeking a better life’

Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF)

In 2019, we have been horrified to see the continued implementation of cruel policies designed to deter vulnerable people from seeking safety.  

European governments have propped up a chaotic cycle of suffering in the Mediterranean and Libya. They have criminalised search and rescue operations while supporting the Libyan coastguard to return men, women and children to a country at war, where they are at immediate risk of violence, human trafficking and detention.

In April, people trapped in Qasr bin Gashir detention centre in Libya’s capital were shot at and injured. July saw 53 people killed in a murderous air strike on the Tajoura detention centre. 

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, thousands are currently living in informal settlements at freezing temperatures, without adequate access to basic services.  

Meanwhile, thousands more are trapped on Greek islands, in miserable camps operating at five-times capacity. Squeezed into tents and waiting years for asylum claims to be processed, their health is at risk. Our teams have been treating children who are self-harming, withdrawing from daily life and even considering suicide.  

The suffering and loss of lives at Europe’s borders are shameful, mirroring a global trend towards pushbacks, containment, arbitrary detention, discrimination and abuse. 

In 2019, like the years before it, Europe has failed the men, women and children seeking a better life. There is no political justification for measures that consciously inflict harm. In 2020, leaders must change course.

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Afghan refugees who fled their homeland due to war and famine collect clean water in the slums of Lahore, Pakistan, Wednesday, June 19, 2019 [K.M. Chaudary/The Associated Press]

‘We have been here for 18 years but still need visas every six months’

Naveed Habibi, an Afghan refugee in Pakistan

I was born in a small village to the north of Kabul, but we had to leave because of the war.

My family and I have been here for 18 years but we still we have to get visas every six months to live here. The main problem for us living in Pakistan is their strict visa policy. Some Afghans have to cross the border and re-enter Pakistan every month, this is a big problem for all of us.

Because of this, many Afghan refugees decided to leave Pakistan this year even though they didn’t really want to go back to Afghanistan.

Going to the Torkham border crossing every month with entire families was a big problem. We all hope that Pakistan eases their visas or allows us to travel freely.

Naveed Habibi says some Afghans are leaving Pakistan voluntarily because strict visa laws make their daily lives challenging  [Courtesy of Naveed Habibi]

‘Xenophobic rhetoric against refugees has remained high’

Dana Hughes, UNHCR spokeswoman for East, Horn and Great Lakes

The year 2019 saw the continuation of many troubling trends in the global refugee crises. The number of displaced continued to grow, doubling in about a decade to be more than 70 million people with over 25 million refugees. At the same time, we continue to see a shrinking of asylum space across the world and xenophobic rhetoric against refugees has remained high.

Yet, the vast majority of refugees, some 85 percent are living in poor to middle-income countries. These communities which are already struggling economically, have continued to welcome and host refugees, sharing what little resources they have and carrying more than their fair share of the responsibility. This is the bad news. But the year also saw further progress on the more promising trend of turning last year’s Global Compact on Refugees into a reality to make the lives better for millions of refugees and the communities hosting them.

In December, the first Global Refugee Forum was held, a world gathering in Geneva bringing together leaders in governments, the humanitarian and development field, private sector, civil society, along with refugees themselves to share ideas and experiences and chart a better way forward to take global action on the refugee crisis.

The forum focused on economic opportunities, education, environment, protection, solving refugee situations, and how countries can better cooperate for solutions regionally and globally, with the idea that everyone counts, and everyone has a role to play.

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US President Donald Trump visits the US-Mexico Border in Otay Mesa, California, September 18, 2019 [Tom Brenner.Reuters]

‘With criminalisation of asylum seekers, the business of border security is booming’

Melissa del Bosque, an investigative reporter who has written about the US-Mexico border since 1998

Since the attacks of 9/11, I have watched the border security industrial complex grow exponentially in the US. We have built walls, detention facilities, and installed soldiers and armed agents at the border, and blanketed border communities with sensors, surveillance towers and drones.

With the criminalisation of asylum seekers, the business of border security is booming. The US already incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. Private prison companies and security contractors are making millions off the desperation of migrants. We are now seeing the expansion of a second incarceration complex to hold asylum seekers and immigrants – some for months, even years.

With the Trump administration’s further dismantling of immigration courts and the asylum process, asylum seekers and immigrants will now spend many more months incarcerated than in previous years.

In 2020, it will be more important than ever to identify the companies who profit from the misery, and to be aware of the laws or policy changes being proposed that will benefit private corporations, and politicians incarcerating asylum seekers and immigrants. The incarceration economy has a powerful lobby in the US, and they will no doubt be pushing for the expansion of their industry in the coming year.

2019 REFUGEE YEAR IN REVIEW - US border/asylum seekers
An undocumented migrant sits with his children as they wait to hear if their number is called to apply for asylum in the United States, at the border Friday, January 25, 2019, in Tijuana, Mexico [Gregory Bull/The Associated Press]

‘Trump betrayed voters’ trust through immoral treatment of families, children at the border’

Reece Jones, author of Violent Borders – Refugees and the Right to Move

The biggest question for 2020 in the US is whether Democrats will finally learn how to properly frame the issue of immigration in the presidential election.

Anti-immigration positions have become a stand-in for a series of grievances about race, cultural change and respect for the status of the traditional family. While politicians on the left have focused their campaigns on their popular economic proposals to expand healthcare and increase wages, politicians on the right use the immigration issue as a symbol of how they would preserve traditional values and protect the self-worth of white voters. Values often trump policies in elections.

The key for the Democrats in 2020 will be to reframe immigration as a statement of positive values, of right and wrong. This means talking about an individual’s moral and religious duty to care for the less fortunate and the traditional American values of compassion, inclusion and hospitality.

It also means adopting the rhetorical tactic of repeating the same phrase ad nauseam: Donald Trump has betrayed voters’ trust and values through the immoral treatment of families and children at the border. This framing will weaken Trump’s grip on the immigration issue while inspiring voters to support the candidate that validates their values.

2019 REFUGEE YEAR IN REVIEW - Syrian refugees
Syrian refugee seasonal workers cut tomatoes to dry them in the sun in Izmir, Turkey, August 1, 2019 [Erdem Sahin/EPA-EFE]
Source: Al Jazeera