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The Year in Review

International Legal Developments Year in Review: 2022

International Refugee Law - International Legal Developments Year in Review: 2022

Olagbegi-Oloba Victoria Banke, Linda Strite Murnane, and Mustafa Aijazuddin


  • Refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and in fact, all persons on the move are fully entitled to human rights.
  • The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights1 came into effect in 1948 and seeks to protect every human being regardless of their race, color, gender, language, or religion.
  • Also, the 1951 Refugee Convention2 and its 1967 Protocol seek to protect the rights of refugees by clearly specifying their rights and spelling out the duties of States to uphold and protect these well-defined rights. About 149 States are parties to either or both conventions mentioned above.
International Refugee Law  - International Legal Developments Year in Review: 2022
Jadwiga Figula via Getty Images

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I. 2022 Crises Migration: Global Refugee and Asylum Developments

A. Introduction

Refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and in fact, all persons on the move are fully entitled to human rights. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights came into effect in 1948 and seeks to protect every human being regardless of their race, color, gender, language, or religion. Also, the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol seek to protect the rights of refugees by clearly specifying their rights and spelling out the duties of States to uphold and protect these well-defined rights. About 149 States are parties to either or both conventions mentioned above. But despite the existence of the Convention and Protocol and the public commitment to the principles in these documents, the global challenge of displacement continues to soar both because of the actions or inactions of these same States as well as actions or inactions of States which are not parties to these instruments.

As there have been so many significant developments in Refugee Law and asylum seekers, this article will selectively highlight some of the most significant issues in 2022.

In 2022, seventy-one years after the 1951 Refugee Convention came into effect of the and seventy-four years after the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights came into effect of, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that about 103 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide. Out of the 103 million people, about 32.5 million people are refugees as at mid-2022; 53.2 million were IDPs as of 2021; about 4.9 million are asylum seekers as of mid-2022; and the remaining are people in need of other forms of international protection as of mid-2022. The UNHCR reports that seventy-two percent of these migrants originate from just five countries; 36 percent are hosted in five countries; seventy-four percent are hosted by low- or middle-income countries. Sadly, the number keeps increasing daily, monthly and yearly. Each year persons on the move die while trying to seek better homes and way of life while a substantial number of those who are alive are subjected to torture, discrimination, and all forms of inhumane treatments.

II. Fleeing Conflict

Daily news continues to document millions of persons displaced through global conflicts. But it is an incomplete picture of the considerable refugee crisis that the world faces and the impact that this crisis has on the nearly 103 million forcibly displaced people. Little progress has been made in 2022 to address the issues that have led millions of people to leave their lives behind. By mid-2022, the number of displaced people surpassed 2021 numbers. Not enough progress has been made to address the increasing number of crises or the people affected by them. Also, there is notable apathy towards aiding refugees fleeing armed conflicts and violence. The global response to the refugee crisis lacks sufficient progress in the following areas: (1) refugees are being admitted inconsistently with a growing emphasis given to their ethno-religious background; and (2) there are increasingly restrictive asylum policy measures being imposed by governments.

A. Armed Conflict

Armed conflict “arises whenever there is fighting between States or protracted armed violence between government authorities and organized armed groups.” In 2022, most refugees fleeing armed conflict originated from the Syrian Arab Republic, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and South Sudan.

The Syrian civil war has entered its twelfth year and has created approximately 6.8 million refugees and 6.7 million IDPs. The fighting continues and may intensify if the war endures. According to Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, chair of the U.N.’s Syria commission, “Syrians face increasing and intolerable hardships, living among the ruins of this lengthy conflict. Millions are suffering and dying in displacement camps, while resources are becoming scarcer, and donor fatigue is rising.” This forewarns of a larger and more protracted crisis which will compound the struggles faced by refugees.

Similarly, the Russo-Ukrainian conflict intensified in 2022 with Russia invading Eastern Ukraine, resulting in one of the worst refugee crises today. The UNHCR reports that by July of 2022 more than 5.4 million people had become refugees from this conflict alone. Another 6.7 million persons are internally displaced. This conflict led to nearly one-third of Ukrainians fleeing their homes.

Meanwhile, more than six million people remain in refugee status following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. When the U.S. withdrew, the Taliban swiftly moved in to fill the power gap and drove Afghans fearing retribution to flee the country en-masse.

In 2022, the global community’s reluctance to aid Syrians fleeing the civil war and Afghans fleeing the return of the Taliban have been its most impactful failure. Rather, States condition aid and admittance on ethno-religious lines. Most notably, European nations have created conditions to prevent refugees from entering their countries. The worst conditions are occurring at the borders between Poland and Belarus, Hungary and its neighbors, Greece and Turkey, and Italy and the Mediterranean. These countries are violently forcing refugees back across borders, beating them, and stranding them in inhospitable areas. These nations are in conflict over who will accept refugees and fail to consider the consequences faced by refugees. States justify their actions and ignore their obligations under EU and international law, and put migrants at risk of harm, including death. Refugees, who are being pushed back from borders, are denied the opportunity to seek asylum status, or have the validity of their claims investigated. Refugees are confronted by this treatment, often after enduring harsh conditions on the road to safety, such as crossing countries on foot or crossing the Mediterranean on unsafe vessels. These roadblocks are violations of refugee rights and contrary to established international laws.

Also, Syrian and Afghan refugees face a “two-tier refugee response” largely based on their ethno-religious background. When given sanctuary, reports indicate that Syrian and Afghan refugees are forcibly relocated to make room for Ukrainian refugees. Another hierarchy exists between Syrians and Afghans because of the protracted Afghan refugee crisis; Afghans are often pushed to the end of asylum queues and their level of need is deemed less immediate. Furthermore, the Syrian refugee crisis is compounded by calls for repatriation to Syria based on the rational that it is safe to return due to de-escalation while, in fact, the civil war continues to rage. Claims for repatriation are rooted in anti-refugee sentiments and will fail with long term effects on refugees. Repatriated refugees face torture, sexual violence, enforced disappearance, and arbitrary detention upon returning home.

The above crises stand in stark contrast to the treatment and acceptance of Ukrainian refugees. Europe and the U.S.’s treatment of Ukrainian refugees is an exception rather than the rule. Ukrainians are warmly welcomed by the armed military on the Polish border, given warm food to eat, and generally treated as people worthy of aid. The “white-European, Christian” status of Ukrainians refugees affords them fast-tracked access to safety in the EU – including healthcare, jobs, education, and accommodations. Even the U.S. has committed to a “streamlined process to provide Ukrainian citizens . . . opportunities to come to the United States.” The positive treatment of Ukrainian refugees demonstrates a prevailing issue: refugees are being admitted inconsistently, and States are considering ethno-religious background as grounds for aid and admittance.

Furthermore, restrictive asylum policies continue to undermine efforts to assist refugees fleeing conflict. Many countries, including Poland, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Denmark, and Sweden have anti-refugee/migrant laws to prevent refugees from entering these States. Such laws send a clear message to refugees that people who arrive through irregular means are not welcome. This restrictive view on refugees leads States to “only accept those who really need protection—those who cross borders illegally will be sent back.” Nations often rationalize overly restrictive policies as legitimate concerns over illegal immigration; but policies which restrict or combat illegal immigration often violate individual rights to international protection – especially considering the crucial difference between illegal immigration for better economic conditions and immigration to escape armed conflict. Sometimes illegal means are the only options left to refugees. Ultimately, restrictive measures by governments to deter or discourage refugees are contrary to international law and the rights of refugees.

Afghan refugees face a unique policy issue, particularly in the U.S., in the form of bureaucratic delays. Many refugees, including people who aided the U.S. army, who apply for special immigration visas (SIV) or humanitarian parole for the U.S. face backlogs that extend for years. These refugees’ lives are constantly at risk, yet the U.S. government fails to fast-track their visas or parole. While the U.S. provides fast-track aid to Ukrainian refugees under its Uniting for Ukraine Parole Program (UUPP), Afghan refugees who have waited for years are ineligible for fast-tracked visas or parole options. According to U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s statements on Ukrainians admitted, the U.S. has admitted 9,000 as immigrants with permanent residency; 20,000 as temporary visa holders; 20,000 as parolees; and an additional 9,000 under the UUPP. This bureaucratic maneuvering demonstrates that refugees are being admitted inconsistently.

While more change is necessary for consistency, the U.S. refugee policy is getting a much-needed update. First, the 2023 admission caps are less restrictive and transferrable, and the SIV application process has been streamlined. New SIV applications will only require a single application to the U.S. State Department.

Furthermore, Germany started a new admissions program for Afghan refugees. The program aids vulnerable Afghans – those active in women’s rights, human rights, justice, politics, the media, education, culture, sports, academia, and Afghans who have or are experiencing violence or persecution based on their gender, sexual orientation, or religion. Germany also agreed to work with civil society organizations to support this program.

B. Violence Based Conflict

The limited focus on high-profile matters above overlooks the millions who remain in refugee status from lower-level conflicts including those who are escaping other forms of violence such as gang violence, domestic violence, and drug cartels. This level of conflict occurs when there are “internal disturbances and tensions involving violent demonstrations and riots” to name a few, in a country. Violence-based displacement occurs when lower-level conflicts force people to be internally displaced or to flee their home country. These refugees often come from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala and seek asylum in the U.S. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reports more than 2.76 million migrant encounters from Central and South America with twenty percent from the Northern Triangle, six point nine percent Venezuelan, and five point nine six percent Nicaraguan during the 2022 fiscal year. All 2.76 million refugees, at the Southern U.S. border, made the arduous journey by foot to flee violence unrelated to recognized conflicts.

Globally, there are nearly 7.1 million Venezuelan refugees. These refugees have fled Venezuela because of the “rampant violence, inflation, gang-warfare, soaring crime rates as well as shortages of food, medicine and essential services.” Those leaving Venezuela are vulnerable, with few resources, and face poverty. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this situation by forcing Venezuelans deeper into poverty. Similarly, in 2022, roughly 230,000 Nicaraguans were seeking asylum because of the rise of an authoritarian dictator who is systematically eradicating democratic safeguards in Nicaragua. According to the UNHCR Global Appeal for 2022 the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) experiences widespread violence including: attacks on women and the LGBTQIA+ community; widespread gang recruitment; gang violence; fragile institutions; the impacts of climate change; and deep-rooted inequalities; compounded by the pandemic-related socioeconomic downturn; which contributes to refugees leaving,. There are approximately 636,283 refugees and asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle worldwide.

Inconsistencies in refugee admissions also impact Central and South American refugees, especially under Title 42. Under 42 U.S.C. § 265, the U.S. government can “prohibit . . . the introduction of persons and property from such countries or places as [the Surgeon General] shall designate in order to avert [the spread of COVID-19].” It asserts such a “suspension of the right to introduce such persons and property is required in the interest of the public health.” Under this policy, refugees are denied entry into the U.S. In 2022, the Biden Administration expanded Title 42 to target Venezuelans and discourage them from making the journey to the U.S. This new expansion, along with the Administration increasing the Venezuelan lawful entry cap to 24,000, limits the number of refugees admitted. Refugees exceeding the cap are being expelled from the U.S. and Mexico. Title 42 is meant to deter and discourage refugees from seeking safety in the U.S, without examining their asylum claim; as applied, it violates international law, rights of refugees, and endangers vulnerable people.

But progress in addressing refugees fleeing violence has been made: The Biden Administration explicitly categorizes people escaping violence in the Northern Triangle as refugees for the purpose of admission into the U.S. But the regional refugee admission cap still limits Latin America and the Caribbean to 15,000. On November 15, 2022, the D.C. district court found Title 42’s “policy [is an] arbitrary and [a] capricious . . . violation.” It further enjoined DHS from applying Title 42 to refugees.

III. Economically Forced Migration

Recently, economic driven migration has been a major reason why persons have been on the move in search of better life. Economic driven migration has been described as the movement of people from one place to another in order to find work or improve their standard of living. It has also been defined as a choice to move to improve the standard of living by gaining a better paid job. Economic migration occurs as a result of poverty in a migrant’s homeland, lack of employment/job opportunities, hunger, corruption and poor governance, lack of clean water, and poor health services among other things.

Economic migrants often face difficulty in being employed in their host countries and sometimes face discrimination and exploitation in their host countries. Economic migrants are often viewed as a threat to local employment seekers and face harsh treatment as “foreigners.” Meanwhile, economic migration keeps increasing globally and rose between 2020 and 2022 in particular, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In many countries, there were signs of increased skills shortages and demand for foreign workers while in some other countries, the pandemic dealt massive blow on their economies. Consequently, people moved (especially skilled workers) from some Asian and African countries to Europe, Canada, America, and some Gulf Cooperating Council countries.

Instances of economic driven migration manifested in the movement of people from the economically depressed country of Venezuela to neighboring Colombia in search of work during the 2020 economic crash. Conversely, a 2021 report issued by Africa Center for Strategic Studies shows that about twenty-one million Africans have migrated to other African countries for better opportunities, while about eleven million migrated to Europe; almost five million migrated to the Middle East and about three million migrated to North America.

Global depression of wages, income gaps and the pursuit of better opportunities as major factors that drive people to risk their lives in the bid to migrate. Migrants fleeing economic hardships have historically been at risk of loss of life. In one particularly disturbing case from 2013, it was reported that a boat conveying migrants from Libya to Italy sank off the Italian Island of Lampedusa. A number of migrants on the boat (reportedly originating from Misrata) reportedly originated from Eritrea, Somalia, and Ghana. Reports indicate that about 155 survivors were rescued while more than 300 people died.

Between 2013 and 2022, reports indicate that more migrants have died in the same sea while more are still attempting to cross the sea to Europe. The UNHCR, in one of its 2022 reports, lamented the loss of more than 50,000 migrants (worldwide) in 2014 while searching for greater economic stability. But little or nothing is being done by governments globally to curb or mitigate the root causes of economic driven migration. Despite the high risk and historically high loss of life resulting from migration tied to economic hardship, the number of persons seeking a better circumstance for them and for their families continues to drive migration for economic hardship at high numbers.

IV. Conclusion

Actions taken by States in 2022 demonstrate a significant and pervasive issue in addressing fundamental rights of refugees in times of crises and that the global community must address the rights and safety of refugees. Most actions by States fail to account for the abrupt circumstances under which people are forced to flee their homes and their lives. Barriers and discouragements to prevent refugees from entering a country or taking the perilous track to safety are contrary to the spirit and purpose of the Refugee Convention and violate international human rights law. This is, therefore, a reminder and call to action for all. Notwithstanding the reasons that generally compel or drive people to move, no one deserves to die or suffer in search of a better life.