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Trapped in Limbo: Why Refugees Are Remaining Displaced for Longer

Sharif A Wahab, a Bangladeshi scholar who researches refugees’ everyday lives, finds that refugees are living longer in exile than ever before - with complex regional and multi-generational impacts.

This article was orginally published on The Conversation on 14/06/2023.

The number of people forced from their homes, primarily because of conflict or climate change, is on the rise, topping 100 million people in 2022 – more than double the number of displaced people in 2012.

About a third of those 100 million people are refugees. Refugees live in a legal limbo that can increasingly stretch for decades. And the number of people remaining refugees for five years or longer more than doubled over the past decade, topping 16 million in 2022. These are people who do not have a clear path to residency in any country but are unable to return to their homes because they are unsafe.

Typically, the countries hosting refugees do not want to offer them permanent residency because of domestic political pressure and other issues.

I have spent years interviewing Rohingya people – members of an ethnic minority who have lived in Myanmar for centuries but without actual citizenship – in refugee camps in Bangladesh. These talks show the real-life effects of people remaining refugees for years.

“We escaped our home and belonging to save our lives from bullets. Now, we are hanging in uncertainties – no right to attain higher education, no permission to work, no claim over property. Yet no path to return,” Jafar, a 27-year-old Rohingya refugee, told me during my fieldwork in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh in July 2022.

I am a Bangladeshi scholar who researches refugees’ everyday lives. I have closely followed the trajectory of Kutupalong, which grew to become the largest refugee camp in the world in 2017.

My research shows that host countries’ interests in protecting the rights and services of their own citizens keeps refugees from being fully integrated into society or obtaining citizenship. In the absence of legal protection outside their home countries, refugees’ livelihoods and well-being often remain in jeopardy, an effect that can span generations.

Why people are remaining refugees for longer

People can get refugee status when a government or international organization such as the U.N. finds that they have a legitimate fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group in their home country.

Refugees are legally protected under international law from deportation but often do not have safe places to live or the opportunity to legally work in their host countries. Most refugees live outside of formal camps, in informal settlements in cities.

Only 204,500 of the world’s 32 million refugees were able to return home or get resettled permanently in 2022. Generally, people are remaining refugees for longer periods for three reasons:

First, conflicts in places ranging from Ethiopia to Syria are lasting longer than conflicts have historically, dragging on for more than a decade in some cases.

Second, there generally aren’t cohesive international, regional or national strategies to handle large numbers of refugees. Low- or middle-income countries like Turkey that do not guarantee a path to citizenship host more than two-thirds of the world’s refugees.

And third, some wealthier countries are developing restrictive policies that make it harder for refugees to cross their borders. They are also taking actions that make it harder for refugees to ever cross their borders – including building more border walls, detaining refugees in offshore islands and intercepting refugee boats.

One general exception to this trend is the protection granted by European Union countries to 4 million Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war, including giving them the legal right to work, for several years.

Increasing years in exile

The Rohingya situation demonstrates the civic and physical dangers of long-term legal refugee limbo. In 2017, Mynamar’s military launched widespread violent attacks against the Rohingya people that the United Nations considers genocide.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people fled across the border to Bangladesh. Now, about 930,292 Rohingya refugees live in a sprawling refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar in the southern part of Bangladesh.

Negotiations over repatriating Rohingya people to Myanmar stalled in 2021 following a military coup in Myanmar. But the Rohingya situation in Bangladesh is not unique.

Syrian refugees in Turkey, Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India, Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Somali refugees in Kenya are among the large groups of refugees who fled conflict and have lived for decades in another place without the protections of citizenship.

When refugees are stuck

During my fieldwork in Cox’s Bazar in August 2022, I met with a 65-year-old refugee named Kolim who lost both his legs in a shooting by the Myanmar army. He said that the local nonprofit organization that had supported him with a disability allowance for five years just ended its project, because the organization could not secure funding for the next year.

This follows an overall trend of major international humanitarian organizations and smaller nonprofits alike tending to give the most money following an emergency response or crisis.

Similarly, international funding for long-term conflicts and continuing humanitarian crises that last years tend to see drops in funding and help over time. Meanwhile, only about half of refugee children are in school.

Refugees – who are typically unable to legally work in their host countries – also tend to undertake informal kinds of employment, working as day laborers in construction, for example, or as street vendors.

Refugees in dire situations also often engage in work without permission and risk being arrested by the police. Some of my research shows that competition to find work also generates tension between the host and the refugee communities.

Initiatives that help

There have been some recent efforts at the international level to address the challenges facing refugees and host countries alike. In 2018, countries in the U.N. agreed to an informal plan to jointly share the responsibility to host refugees and migrants.

Science in Exile

This programme, conducted jointly with the World Academy of Sciences and the InterAcademy Partnership, brings together refugee, displaced and at-risk scientists and existing organizations that provide assistance to affected scientists.

These countries committed to a framework for shared responsibilities in their response to refugee crises. But nonprofit groups that work with refugees have said it is unclear whether the plan has resulted in any change, noting that few countries have implemented the strategy into their domestic planning.

Without any systematic solutions to deal with migration and refugees, refugees continue to forge ahead without a clear direction.


The information, opinions and recommendations presented by our guests are those of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the values and beliefs of the International Science Council.

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