The proliferation and duration of conflicts and political crises throughout the world is giving rise to ever increasing flows of people who are victims of forced displacement (65.5 million in 2016). The strict separation between economic poverty and political poverty, which come under different legal rights, no longer functions in a world of generalized communication and growing inequality where these two forms of violence sustain and reinforce one another.

The Russian Revolution, the First World War, and the break-up of empires produced a flow of 5 million refugees towards Europe, for which the Society of Nations created the lnternational Nansen Office. With the Second World War, their number exploded (40 million) and in 1950 the United Nations set up a new organization, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which was intended to be only temporary. While economic migration is governed by common law in each state, refugees come under the Geneva Convention (1951) which, together with additional protocols and regional conventions, defines their rights as well as the obligations of the signatory states (asylum, non-refoulement, and assistance for voluntary repatriation). Designed for short-term situations, then adapted to more complex and permanent circumstances, and extended to internal displaced persons, the multilateral system which helped more than 50 million people nevertheless remains imperfect and insufficiently binding upon states.

Refugees and asylum-seekers, situation as of late 2016 

Sources: UNHCR (United Nations High Commis sioner for Refugees); UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East).

Comment: The map was produced from UN High Commissioner for Refugees data. The arrows do not represent the flows of refugees over the course of 2016 but are rather a photograph of stocks according to country of origin and arrival until 2016. The geography of these displacements shows the close link to conflicts, as well as to economic, social, and environmental crises. The most massive displacements stem from the Middle East (mainly Syria), sub-Saharan Africa (mainly the Great Lakes region) and Afghanistan.

First it was Europeans, uprooted by World War II, then individuals fleeing communism or victims of a localized political crisis (India/Pakistan/Bangladesh partition). Today’s refugees, however, are from all social classes and from very diverse regions of the world. The increase and duration of conflicts and political crises across the world are leading to ever greater movements of people, with a historical record in 2016 of 65.5 million persons who were victims of forced displacement because of conflict, persecution, and violation of their rights (compared to 33.9 million in 1997). Of these, 22.5 million were refugees (50% of them minors under age 18), half of them coming from Syria, Afghanistan, and South Sudan. Contrary to common belief, a majority (56%) found refuge in Africa and the Middle East.

Refugees and asylum-seekers, 1960-2016

Source: UNHCR,

Comment: Produced from data given by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, this set of curves showing the origin of refugees and asylum seekers for countries that have received the most over the past 50 years, reveal substantial variations in magnitude and pace. Conflicts which continue over several generations contribute to significant and constant numbers of departures (Afghanistan), while the most recent conflicts (Rwanda, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, South Sudan) are characterized by massive but more spasmodic movements.

The extent, the violence and the suddenness of these movements require emergency interventions in which local, regional, and international situations and dynamics are difficult to tie together, as are the motivations and actions of very different types of actors, whether international organizations (mainly the High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration), NGOs, states, political entrepreneurs, civil societies and criminal organizations.


During the various stages of their journeys which are long, dangerous, and often fatal, migrants and asylum seekers use the same routes and means of transport.

Migrants dead and disappeared, January 2014-March 2018

Source: International Organization for Migration (IOM), Missing Migrants Project,

Comment: The project Missing Migrants, developed since October 2013 by the International Organization for Migration, counts deaths and disappearances on external state borders and along the world’s migrant routes (accidents, shipwrecks, attacks, medical problems, etc.), whatever the person’s legal status. This international organization gathers, compares and checks information emanating from a variety of sources: states (coastguards, lawyers), NGOs, the Red Cross and Red Crescent, the United Nations Agency for Refugees (HCR) or the media.

The Mediterranean is a very ancient space of circulation and trade. Today it is the focus of a dramatic confluence of social, economic, and political crises which affect North Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East. According to the International Organization for Migration, during the course of 2016, 345,831 migrants arrived in Europe by sea and 4,757 were registered drowned; in 2017 there were 164,779 arrivals and over 3,000 dead. Since the closure of the Balkan route in 2016, Italian ports have become the principal point of entry (more than 70% of arrivals in 2017). Confronted with the humanitarian emergency, reported with different slants by the media, NG and civil societies have been galvanized into action. Meanwhile, the European Union attempts to reinforce its migration policy, which is rather ineffectual, badly coordinated, and focused on control of its external borders, putting the responsibility for triage on the countries of departure.

“Refugee crisis”

The hermetic legal separation between economic deprivation and political deprivation, clung to by anxious states as much for reasons of sovereignty as of domestic politics, is no longer functional in a world of generalized exchange, growing inequality and state institutions in crisis.

Migrants dead and disappeared by region, January 2014-March 2018

Source: IOM, Missing Migrants Project,

Comment: The International Organization for Migration Missing Migrants database counts deaths and disappearances on external state borders and along the world’s migrant routes (accidents, shipwrecks, attacks, medical problems, and so on). This set of diagrams by region shows the particular role of the Mediterranean, which has 60% of the global total listed, with over 3,000 deaths per year during the period and a record of over 5,000 in 2016. Africa comes next and then the border between Mexico and the United States.

These two forms of violence are part of the same story, mutually maintaining and reinforcing one another. Triage and abandonment of individuals to the criminal economy, exploitation, theft, and rape, walls and repressive policies are all part of a short-sighted social violence that will generate further violence, both in the societies they are leaving and those where they arrive. The common expressions of “refugee crisis” and “migration crisis” mask a humanitarian crisis that is without precedent. It is also a moral crisis for democracies and a conceptual and political crisis for the international community. States and their different inter-state structures can no longer escape the urgent task of collectively constructing a governance framework for mobility. advocate seeing migration as a benefit, both for migrants themselves and for their host countries, rather than a scourge or a threat. They are presently contributing to consultations due to end in December 2018 with the signing of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.

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