Protecting “Crisis Migrants”

Written by August 18, 2014 UNHCR 0 Comments

How can the international community ensure more adequate and effective assistance, protection and solutions?

This post is co-authored by Susan Martin, Sanjula Weerasinghe, and Abbie Taylor.

Tens of thousands of unaccompanied and separated minors from Mexico and Central America have fled their homes in the face of growing violence and undertaken treacherous journeys to other countries in the Americas since the end of 2011.[1] A groundbreaking report published by UNHCR in March 2014, based on in-depth interviews with 404 children who had recently arrived at the US border from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico found the majority (58%) had suffered or faced harms that indicated a need for international protection. While the reasons for flight were complex and interrelated, two main factors could be discerned: fear of violence by organized criminal armed groups and/or fear of violence in the home. In terms of immediate responses, a key finding is that unaccompanied and separated minors from these four countries must be screened individually for international protection needs. To obtain asylum, however, they need to demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of specific characteristics (race, nationality, religion, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion) if returned home. A well-founded fear of generalized violence will not necessarily qualify them for international protection even though they may well face life threatening conditions if required to return to their countries of origin.

More broadly, the situation in the Americas is indicative of the extent to which the world is witnessing unprecedented humanitarian need and challenges pertaining to mobility that do not fit within existing legal protection frameworks. According to UNHCR’s most recent Global Trends report, by the end of 2013, 51.2 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or human rights violations. As the High Commissioner noted during his opening address at UNHCR’s June 2014 Consultations with NGOs, the scale and intensity of humanitarian need isn’t due solely to new conflicts, or old ones that never die, but is a product of a complex multiplicity of factors including mega trends, disasters, climate change, and other stressors that make life unsustainable in certain parts of the world.


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Just in recent memory, the ongoing conflict in Syria has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions both within the country and across borders, while others remain trapped inside dwellings without access to basic assistance. In 2013 and 2014, in the Sahel, the intersection of drought and conflict has displaced millions and left others food insecure, with a growing risk of famine in South Sudan. In 2012, in villages in northern India and Nepal, seasonal rains prompted floods and landslides, overwhelming communities, killing thousands, and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee. In Japan, the earthquake and tsunami led to a nuclear disaster in 2011, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people. As highlighted above, the ongoing intense violence in Mexico and Central America has killed tens of thousands and forced hundreds of thousands to flee within and across borders to escape an ‘omnipresent’ war, often undertaking perilous journeys in their bid to reach safety. And in the Arctic and South Pacific, rising temperatures are threatening the habitats and livelihoods of coastal communities, forcing them to seek out permanent relocation.


The Crisis Migration project, launched by Georgetown University in late 2011, sought to identify commonalities across movements and protection needs triggered by diverse humanitarian crises, as a first step towards enhancing protection and assistance. Among the preliminary findings are the following:

  • The project posits three principal ways in which movement occurs in the context of crises: displacement as a direct result of a crisis, anticipatory movement in the context of impending crises, and planned relocation, particularly for those who might be otherwise trapped in life-threatening situations. The ways in which people move may expose them to harm, such as those who put their lives in the hands of smugglers, boarding unsafe vessels to cross dangerous seas.
  • Underlying reasons for movement are multiple, interconnected and complex, making it difficult to determine the underlying “cause” of movement in many situations and bringing into question the merits of articulating responses based solely on this basis.
  • People experience different levels of vulnerability throughout the lifecycle of a humanitarian crisis and during and following movement, based on demographic, socio-economic, and other factors such as legal status. Coping capacities also erode or evolve according to the lifecycle of a crisis and the stage at which people move.
  • Beyond traditional categories of vulnerable populations, specific and targeted responses may be needed to address certain groups such as non-citizens, those who travel by sea, those who are trapped in place and require assistance to move out of harm’s way, and those who move to urban areas.
  • Protection and assistance needs exist at all phases of a crisis and during all phases of movement and a continuum of responses are needed that address preparedness, resilience and mitigation, assistance and protection during a crisis and during movement, and sustainable solutions.
  • Existing legal and institutional frameworks, including the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, as they are currently interpreted and operationalized cannot accommodate all those with protection and assistance needs. Even where frameworks exist, in practice, there are often considerable gaps in implementation. So, while efforts should be undertaken to ensure that existing frameworks are duly used to accommodate so-called ‘new phenomena’, new responses are also needed that pay less attention to the reasons why people move but rather, examine the willingness and ability of the country experiencing a humanitarian crisis to assist, protect, and find solutions. This underlying philosophy is in line with the rationale of the 1951 Refugee Convention, to provide surrogate protection where an individual is unable or unwilling to benefit from the protection of his or her country of origin or habitual residence.

To learn more about the Crisis Migration project and its products and activities, click here.

[1] In the United States, the number of border apprehensions of these minors has increased exponentially, from 4,059 in FY 2011, 10,443 in FY 2012, 21,537 in FY13, and an estimated 60,000 by the end of FY 2014. This does not include numbers of adults, or adults and children from Mexico, of which numbers have also been rising. Meanwhile, between 2008 and 2013, UNHCR recorded a 712 percent increase in the number of children and adults from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras claiming asylum in Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize. For more information, visit UNHCR Washington: