The Refugee Journey (Chapter 1)

Welcome to the blog for The Mess We’re In – Managing the Refugee Crisis which each week provides a section from the book. One Chapter a week. This week is from Chapter 1 which outlines the common steps that a refugee goes through from initial disruption through to eventual permanent protection. I hope you find it of interest.


The Refugee Journey
The Refugee Journey


The Refugee Journey is a framework that outlines the unenviable journey a person who becomes a refugee takes from forcible displacement through to a permanent, durable solution. The Mess We’re In – Managing the Refugee Crisis reviews information relevant to each step to ensure a complete coverage of aspects to consider with regard to the refugee situation. In Part 3 the Refugee Journey is also used in the assessment of various Holistic Approach Options for best managing the global crisis.




The Refugee Journey explained

The Refugee Journey is depicted across three steps. Each step contains an ‘event’ and a ‘status’. The event is an occurrence that moves a person out of one status and into a new status. The status reflects the type of protection (or lack of protection) a person is receiving from a state or non-government agency like the UNHCR. The journey is thought to be an extremely long one. Although precise calculations are difficult, the current average time to move through these three stages is estimated to be eighteen years and growing. In 1993 the average was nine years1.


Step 1: Not Protected


Step 1 Event: Disruptive Cause

A Disruptive Cause is an event that results in an individual becoming displaced and, initially at least, unprotected by a state or agency. There are multiple types of Disruptive Causes including: persecution of an individual or group by a government (or another group the government fails to keep in check); war or conflict that places a threat to an individual’s life; and natural disasters such as earthquakes or environmental changes such as rising sea levels.


Step 1 Status: Not Protected (through country nor Refugee Convention)

Individuals who are displaced due to a Disruptive Cause do not perceive themselves to be protected by their home country nor are they protected under the Refugee Convention by an agency such as the UNHCR or another state. It is difficult to get a true measure of the number of people in this status as they do not always identify themselves, often for their own safety. Examples of people in this status include:

  • 2 million IDPs at the end of 2014 as estimated by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre2. This includes people in emergency camps due to conflict or a natural disaster within their home country.
  • People who are in their home country but are persecuted due to their race.
  • People who have left their country due to religious persecution and are travelling (e.g. on foot or on a boat).
  • People who have left their country and now reside in another country illegally without having registered as an asylum seeker.


Step 2: Temporary Protection


Step 2 Event: Provision of Temporary Protection

The provision of temporary protection occurs when an individual moves under the protection of a new country or an organisation such as the UNHCR. An example of this event is when a Syrian asylum seeker arrives at an UNHCR camp in Jordan. Another example is an Afghani arriving in Australia on a boat and requesting asylum.


Step 2 Status: Temporarily Protected

Individuals are protected (as asylum seekers and then as refugees) by a government or agency while a durable solution is sought. Currently the temporary protection across countries varies. Different countries provide variations in the quality of life for the refugees they harbour as well as disparate probabilities and time-lines for a durable solution if the refugees are seeking resettlement into a developed nation.


There were 21.3 million people temporarily protected in 2014 across three categories.

  • 8 million asylum seekers awaiting their status as a refugee to be confirmed or not.
  • 4 million people who have been confirmed as refugees awaiting a durable solution.
  • 1 million Palestinians registered by UNRWA.


Step 3: Permanent Protection


Step 3 Event: Provision of a Durable Solution

The provision of a Durable Solution occurs when an individual moves back home through voluntary repatriation or is provided with permanent protection from a new country. This new country could either be the country of asylum that has provided the temporary protection to the refugee or a country of resettlement not yet inhabited by the refugee. As an example, the 12,000 Syrian refugees Australia volunteered to resettle in 2015 are being provided with durable solutions.


Step 3 Status: Permanently Protected

Individuals enjoy the protection of their state. Their state may be their Country of Origin (which has protected them continuously or since their repatriation following a period in asylum), or it may be a new state they have either migrated to (through regular migration channels) or have been resettled to (through an asylum seeking and resettlement process).


A detailed insight into the plight of refugees is beyond the scope of this book. This does not mean forcibly displaced people do not suffer greatly. Nor does it mean this suffering should not be taken into account. That refugees flee grave suffering, hardship and uncertainty is well established and beyond doubt. That leaving their home country is often just the beginning of a long, arduous and sometimes torturous journey has also been well established. For many people, the realisation of protection and freedom may never come again. It is a worldwide tragedy of enormous scale.


As there are many different Disruptive Causes, there are many forms of suffering and hardships. Whether it be an Afghan suffering at the hands of the Taliban, or an Iraqi being tortured under Saddam Hussein’s regime or a Rohingyan enduring persecution in Myanmar, the experience can be devastating. For many, it will take their life, if not their sanity. Some are lucky enough to escape, but often with the physical and emotional scars of the terror they left behind.


The danger does not end with leaving their Country of Origin. To get to safety, an asylum seeker may have to travel across open seas or perhaps place themselves in the power and trust of people smugglers whom they have just met. Countries to which they flee, particularly non-signatories to the Refugee Convention, may show a great disinterest in helping them, or could even send them back to the country they fled.


Perhaps most alarmingly, even when asylum seekers manage to get to a country that has signed the Refugee Convention, their torment may have just begun. The most relevant example is Australia’s mandatory detention centres, off-shore processing centres and range of temporary visas. Australia’s migration and humanitarian processes have been shown to cause further harm to those who have fled such terror and already endured so much.


While not detailed explicitly in this book, the pain and suffering endured by asylum seekers is a critical data point that must be front of mind when understanding the situation and determining the best Holistic Approach Option. There are many accounts that help provide insight into the plight of refugees. Four good books relating to various stages along the Refugee Journey to Australia are: Raised In Conflict: Growing Up in Afghanistan by Essan Dileri as told by Jill Parris; The People Smuggler by Robin De Crespigny; From Nothing to Zero: Letters from Refugees in Australia’s Detention Centres preface and chapter introductions by Julian Burnside QC; and Lives In Limbo: Voices of Refugees Under Temporary Protection6 by Michael Leach and Fethi Mansouri.


End Notes:

  1. Dr. James Milner, “Integrative Thinking and Solutions for Refugees” (Talk presented via TEDxRideauCanal, February 2012).
  2. Norwegian Refugee Council and Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, Global Overview 2015: People internally displaced by conflict and violence, 7.




This was taken from the 2017 book, The Mess We’re In – Managing the Refugee Crisis. It can be purchased at any book store in Australia and online, including via this link.