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What is the 'refugee crisis'?

Updated: Jun 3, 2021

What constitutes a ‘crisis’?

The phrase ‘refugee crisis’ has come to represent the idea that there are simply too many refugees in Europe. Overcrowded refugee camps affirm this notion through imagery – thousands of people forced to live in tents, with up to 10 people in a single shipping container.

And yet these dangerously congested camps, which are so incredibly traumatic for those forced to live there, are neither a consequence of the so called ‘refugee crisis', or indeed the crisis itself.

Rather, the overcrowded camps and degrading conditions are a symptom of the myth that has come embody the phrase the ‘refugee crisis’. The crisis in Europe is not, as the myth goes, that ‘too many’ people are seeking refuge in European countries. The crisis is the creation and normalisation of a cycle of repeated human rights violations. The crisis is the profound mismanagement of, and hostility towards, those seeking refuge, who are placed by successive governments in unsanitary and overcrowded camps and are consistently denied their rights. The crisis is that asylum seekers and refugees are not provided legal aid through which to access their rights, and many asylum seekers never get the chance to access protection under international law, resulting in unjust deportations and illegal ‘pushbacks’ at the borders.


The myth that the ‘refugee crisis’ is inherently and uniquely a European crisis dates back to the origin of the term ‘refugee’. The word refugee came directly from the French word réfugié and referred to Protestants who fled persecution in France following the revocation in 1685 of the Edict of Nantes, which removed their right to religious freedom. Within a decade, the term refugee was being used more generally in English, to refer to anyone forced to flee a place of safety, often because of danger or persecution because of religious or political beliefs.

Fast forward almost 260 years to the aftermath of the Second World War – the displacement of over 50 million people – and the establishment of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, and the term ‘refugee’ finds its contemporary meaning in a human rights discourse. While 1951 marked the first time the term ‘refugee’ would be used in legal terms, its fundamental purpose would remain close to its roots: to ensure that those forced to flee their homes, would be able to seek refuge in a place of safety.

The 1951 Convention marked a turning point in several ways. The first was that it affirmed and legalised a person’s unassailable and human right to seek asylum. It also introduced the role of state responsibility with regards to refugee rights and thus placed an obligation on states who signed the convention to provide refuge to those seeking asylum, and grant refugee status to those who are ‘unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion’.


145 countries signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, promising to ensure that the rights of refugees are respected and protected. Since 2015, however, the language of the 1951 convention, and the image of global leaders sitting around a table, working to ensure the protection of refugees’ rights, has at times, felt remote and detached from the contemporary political moment.

In 2015 over one million asylum seekers arrived on European shores, most of whom were feeling war and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite it being their human right to claim asylum, asylum seekers must embark on treacherous journeys to cross international borders and reach a safe destination. According to the IOM, approximately 21,547 people have died crossing the Mediterranean since 2014.

While some might say the first figure – the 1 million who arrived in Europe in a single year – constitutes a crisis, it is the second figure – the 21,547, and probably more, people who have died trying to reach safety – that begins to shed light on the true danger behind what we’ve come to know as the ‘refugee crisis’. The word crisis implies an unprecedented, unwanted, and often disastrous situation. There are very real crises taking place across the globe; civil war, political instability, and life-threatening persecution based on religion, gender, sexuality and/or ethnicity. All these crises cause people to be forced to flee their homes, livelihoods and communities. Yet, the phrase the ‘refugee crisis’ has been removed from these contexts and instead focuses on the unsurmountable number of people arriving on European shores. This in turn, has shifted attention away from the foundational notion that the circumstances refugees are fleeing are unprecedented, unwanted and disastrous, choosing instead to focus on the chaos, fear and ‘crisis’ that the migration of large numbers of people can cause.

The fact that those forced to make deadly journeys in order to seek asylum are subsequently forced to live in the dangerous, overcrowded refugee camps across Europe, is not only horrifying, but tragically preventable.

Those in power, and the mainstream media, frequently rally people around a ‘crisis’ that makes it all about Europe, and about not having the capacity, space or indeed the will to support those seeking safety. The situation is undoubtedly a disaster, but the real crisis is that, as an international community, we’re not doing anything about it.


At SolidariTee, we want to shed light on the realities of the injustices so needlessly perpetuated against refugees, asylum seekers, and other vulnerable migrants, but also to seek out and support sustainable solutions to uphold dignity and human rights. We will be using this blog as a vehicle through which to understand forcible displacement contexts across the globe, through pieces written by our student volunteers who have themselves researched or experienced these issues. We’re entirely student led, and as such are constantly learning with and from each other, as well as from those with lived experience and expertise. We recognise that no one person can be an expert on everything and we believe in showing up imperfectly and self-reflectively rather than not at all. There is no one right way to be an activist, but we believe that by tackling harmful myths and misconceptions and uniting the international community in support of refugee rights, we can and will make meaningful change.

Written by Sarah Davidson, a History graduate from the University of Cambridge, and the 2020-21 Director of Communications for SolidariTee. Sarah enjoys chaos as the norm, a strongly brewed cup of tea, and most of all any form of unpaid work.


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