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Year in Review: The Refugee Crisis in 2017

From the mass exodus of refugees out of Myanmar and South Sudan to escalating returns of Afghans and threats to send back Syrians, refugees faced a crisis of resources and institutions in 2017. We look back at some of the major developments this year.

Written by Charlotte Alfred Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Rohingya refugees at the Thankhali refugee camp. ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

The political crisis over refugees faced high stakes in 2017. The rise of populist and nativist politics in Europe and the U.S. threatened to distract from or roll back efforts to reform aid and refugee and migration governance agreed a year earlier. Politicians focused instead on closing migration routes and stepping up migrant returns.

Even so, the number of people displaced continued to rise, albeit more slowly than in earlier years of the Syrian war. The rapid exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar and ongoing mass displacement of South Sudanese exposed once again the need for more resources and new thinking in response to crises. Meanwhile, regime advances in the Syrian war emboldened leaders in the Middle East, Europe and the U.S. to escalate demands for Syrians to return.

Here’s a look back at the most significant developments that relate to refugees in 2017.


Shortly after taking office, U.S. President Donald Trump signed the first executive order restricting immigration from certain countries and freezing refugee resettlement. The halt sparked short-term chaos in U.S. airports and started a legal battle over the travel and refugee restrictions that stretched throughout the year.

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Also in January, a Nigerian airstrike on a displacement left dozens of civilians and aid workers dead. Several months later, the Nigerian military said they mistook people gathering at the camp for militants.


Displacement from South Sudan’s war became the largest refugee crisis in Africa. More than 2 million people fled the country by the end of the year, more than half of them children. Another 2 million people were displaced inside the country. Many survived by hiding out in remote areas with little access to food or medicine.

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Women displaced by Boko Haram’s insurgency take their children, suffering from severe acute malnutrition, for medical treatment in Nigeria’s Born State. (Danielle Villasana)


Dozens of Somali refugees trying to flee Yemen were killed when their boat came under helicopter fire off the Yemeni coast. U.N. investigators later found the Saudi-led coalition responsible for the attack.

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Russia, Iran and Turkey signed a memorandum to establish “de-escalation zones” in Syria, prompting human rights groups to warn that the deal should not entail the forced return of refugees. While deadly fighting continued to rage in areas earmarked for “de-escalation,” the idea that refugees could return to safe zones inside Syria helped fuel rhetoric calling for Syrian returns, both in Europe and in neighboring countries like Lebanon.

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The first-ever Solidarity Summit on Refugees in Uganda brought little solidarity. Uganda is hosting the majority of refugees from South Sudan and has won widespread praise for long-held progressive refugee policies. Yet the summit aim to raise $2 billion in fact saw pledges of around $350 million. The financial shortfall and a regional drought have put strain on Uganda’s refugee policies.

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A family of South Sudanese refugees lives under a tree waiting to be allocated a plot to build a permanent shelter in Uganda’s Palorinya refugee settlement in February 2017. (Natalia Jidovanu/Le Pictorium/Barcroft Images)

Meanwhile, the first group of Syrians in Lebanon returned to Syria under a deal brokered by Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside the Assad regime, with Syrian militant groups. Thousands of fighters and civilians returned in the following months amid Lebanese and Syrian battles to regain control of the border region.

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Also in June, the U.N. refugee agency said that the world’s displaced population reached a new high of 65.6 million, including 22.5 million refugees, but the number of displaced had grown more slowly than in previous years.


Migrant boat crossings in the central Mediterranean dropped sharply over the summer. Meanwhile, NGO boats faced increasing pressure over a new code of conduct drafted by Italy. In the coming months, several of the NGOs suspended Mediterranean rescue operations as reports emerged of deals between Italy and militias onshore in Libya to stem migrant crossings.

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Militant attacks in Myanmar’s Rakhine state spurred a brutal military crackdown on the Rohingya minority who poured over the border into Bangladesh to escape. Within weeks, nearly half a million Rohingya refugees had fled the country, many trekking on foot, dodging land mines and dozens drowning on a river crossing. It was the largest mass exodus in years totaling 660,000 people by year end. The destruction documented in Rakhine and the testimonies of the survivors led the U.N. human rights commissioner to describe the crackdown as ethnic cleansing and possible genocide.

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Also in August, a steady flow of asylum seekers crossing from the U.S. into Canada spiked at around 5,700 people, most of whom entered Quebec. The number had been rising since the election of Trump prompted fears of an immigration clampdown, causing a backlog in asylum claims in Canada. After a Canadian outreach campaign, the number declined in the fall.

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A 16-year-old sits with her daughter in the women’s section of the processing center. Both were born in Pakistan, and neither has ever lived in Afghanistan. (Preethi Nallu)


Germany resumed deporting Afghans whose asylum claims were rejected after stopping deportations when a May bombing near the German embassy in Kabul killed around 150 people. Several other European countries also stepped up deportation of Afghans, which are controversial due to concerns about the safety and reintegration of returnees. Meanwhile, thousands of Afghans have been forced to return from neighboring Iran and Pakistan.

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Hundreds of refugees held for years in an Australian-run detention center on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island camp were afraid to leave the facility despite its official closure, leading to a weeks-long standoff. They were eventually removed by force from the center, which had been ordered closed by the PNG Supreme Court. Tensions are high at their new accommodation, while a deal with the U.S. to resettle some of the refugees Australia holds offshore is proceeding slowly.

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The U.S. pulled out of international negotiations over a global migration compact on the eve of a key summit, citing sovereignty concerns. The withdrawal raised fears that the U.S. position could undermine progress towards a Migration Compact negotiated by U.N. member states and the U.N. refugee agency-led Refugee Compact set to be reached in 2018.

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