The failure of governments, civil society, and international organizations to act and adequately manage human mobility and displacement worldwide is regrettably stark. National and regional structures have demonstrated they are ill-equipped with the necessary procedures, responsibilities, knowledge, and skills to address mass displacement. The lack of preparedness by key international, national, and local stakeholders lies at the heart of the current refugee crises.

In light of such trends, capacity-building initiatives focused on protection can provide a crucial platform for bringing all relevant stakeholders together and developing common knowledge, principles, and best practices to respond to forced displacement.1 In order to achieve this, international organizations, governments, non-governmental organizations, and academic institutions must rethink completely the way they design  and implement capacity-building programs. These should not be a traditional top-down training exercise but a dynamic, innovative, and, above all, inclusive environment. Collaborative learning and  the construction and consolidation of responsibilities and procedures have the potential to avert the emergence of refugee crises, or the characterization of migrant flows as such by third parties, by making sudden and mass displacement manageable.


Never in modern history has the world been inhabited by such a high number of forcibly displaced persons as we are witnessing today. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that by mid-2021 more than 84 million people around the world had been forced to flee their homes.2 Among them are over 26 million refugees (the highest number ever recorded), four million asylum seekers, and 48 million internally displaced persons.3 These dire figures are concentrated in a number of crises across the world, some new, some longstanding, and some resurfacing after years.

Persistent mass displacement continues to affect countries such as Afghanistan, Colombia, South Sudan, Myanmar, Turkey, Iraq, Ukraine, Uganda, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Bangladesh, among others. Moreover, such trends do not seem to be headed for a reversal in the near future, as the impact of climate change is poised to exacerbate existing vulnerabilities driving tens of millions into displacement in the next decades.4 Beyond such alarming numbers, the risks associated with flight have also dramatically multiplied as restrictive measures preventing access to territories have put the lives of those who seek safety in severe danger.5

"Any one of us can see that we are heading in the wrong direction", Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees proclaimed, as states are increasingly struggling to respond to and govern human mobility and forced displacement.6  In light of such trends, capacity-building initiatives focused on protection can provide a crucial platform for bringing all key actors together and developing common knowledge, principles, and best practices to tackle displacement.  In turn, the collaborative construction and consolidation of responsibilities and procedures to tackle human mobility have the potential to avert the emergence of crises by making sudden and mass displacement manageable.

The Issue: Crisis as Lack of Preparedness

A situation becomes a crisis when it cannot be immediately and efficiently managed, leaving responsible actors operating in the dark without clear guidance.7 The lack of preparedness by key stakeholders lies at the heart of the current deficiencies in addressing human mobility and displacement worldwide.8 In particular, asylum systems and humanitarian interventions around the globe suffer from a lack of clearly defined roles, responsibilities, and processes as well as a dearth of adequately trained personnel. Such a context creates the perfect breeding ground for political agendas to engage in scapegoating and degrade protection as incompatible with national security interests.9 This is further aggravated by the limited cooperation and scarce exchange of best practices among states and stakeholders at all levels.

This systematic pattern of unpreparedness is directly connected to the recurrent emergence of refugee crises, as relevant actors are not properly capacitated to efficiently manage displacement. Moreover, widespread lack of preparation hides a double failure on the part of states and protection stakeholders. In the first place, there is a failure to recognize and grasp the systemic changes that occurred in the context of refugee protection and refugee law during the recent decades.10 Migratory flows are increasingly "mixed" as persons with different needs travel together en masse for varying reasons along the same few routes that remain accessible, given widespread restrictions in accessing territories.11 Consequently, the large numbers of persons on the move along with the wide divergencies in their profiles have rendered the provision of differential needs-based protection significantly more complex.

Refugee crises today are compounded by further complicating characteristics such as the emergence and acknowledgment of a new cast of non-state persecutors, new forms of persecution,12 and state's increasing measures to restrict access to territory13 and to prosecute civil society actors providing aid to asylum seekers.14 Moreover, additional complexities include the threat multiplier effect of climate change and environmental degradation,15 the recourse to dangerous sea and land crossings,16 the  rise in the number of protracted refugee situations17, and linkages between refugee movements and transnational crime.18 In a world of ever-changing and emerging realities, the very meaning of refugee protection is still limited by a restrictive interpretation of the 1951 Refugee Convention by national authorities.19 This is coupled with unproductive debates within the international community on the mandates of international organizations and the responsibilities of states while the applicability of broader frameworks, such as international human rights law, is often overlooked.20

Secondly, a deficient response to the ongoing crises worldwide also reveals a lack of political will to build the capacity needed to cope with and manage displacement itself. The politicization and securitization of refugee and migration issues has often led to a zero-sum game between protection and what many  perceive as national security interests. This, in turn, pushes politicians to avoid appearing "soft on migration," making governments reluctant to invest an adequate amount of resources in building sustainable structures and human resources for the training on and execution of protection measures.

As evidenced by the wide divergence in refugee recognition rates between countries with similar asylum systems, including on a prima facie basis,21 even some well-endowed states have been unwilling or unable to deliver higher standards of protection.22 Moreover, international cooperation has become increasingly focused on enhancing the capacity of transit countries to halt migratory flows through border control support and in-kind contributions.23 Frequently, governments have bought into the convenience of short-term solutions and adopted short-sighted, top-down approaches in the hope or expectation that the problem would subside. On the contrary, mass migration flows and refugee crises are here to stay.

The Role of Capacity-Building as a Tool for Crisis Prevention

Against this background, the role of governmental and non-governmental training institutions in building the capacity of stakeholders within the global regime of refugee protection is of primary importance.24 In the context of protection, the capacity-building is here conceived as the reinforcement of human, institutional, or community performance, skills, knowledge, and attitudes on a sustainable basis25 and with the aim of enhancing the capabilities of states to meet their international obligations.26 This involves supporting states in acceding to and harmonizing between relevant international legal instruments for the protection of displaced persons and the enforcement of their human rights, assisting the development of national legislation and procedures for the fair and humane treatment of displaced persons, as well as the building of synergies and independent monitoring mechanisms among private and civil society actors.27

Through such an endeavor, training institutions can provide key protection-stakeholders with the tools to develop structures and operational systems that will enable refugees and other persons of concern to benefit from effective protection. In the area of crisis prevention and management, capacity-building should not only aim at stocking up procedures, structures, and resource reservoirs but construct robust professional communities of practice that are able to effectively intervene and cooperate when needed.28 In this sense, capacity-building programs ensure that protection responses are not improvised and do not rely on personal experience or on the collective memory of previous interventions, which might differ from ongoing situations.29

By undergoing such a process, capacity-building enables relevant actors to tackle the challenges and changing nature of forced displacement through the application of appropriate legal frameworks, a coherent distribution of responsibilities and accountability frameworks, and the implementation of best practices. Conversely, the establishment of rigorous procedures and the adoption of legal safeguards contribute to shielding protection and humanitarian interventions from politicization and securitization and at the same time contribute to the coherent interpretation of international law across its different bodies. The structured and efficient management of forced displacement prevents the emergence of crises or the characterization as such by third parties.

As it has been demonstrated, in a situation of crisis, those authorities that are better structurally prepared, well-engaged in network cooperation, and able to learn from previous emergency situations, perform significantly better in their responses.30

Capacity-Building Beyond Training

In order for capacity-building to bring about change in the public management of crises, such an endeavor should not be seen as a standalone initiative. Capacity-building should not be framed as a one-time training, but rather as a process in which all of those who have a role in protection at all levels can come together and jointly assess the situation, identify weaknesses and opportunities, and forge ways to coordinate their response.31

As a result, capacity-building can become a catalyzer for sustained synergies among different protection stakeholders. In fact, as a United Nations report clearly states "[c]apacity-building is self-liquidating but in a manner that leaves neither a void nor a wasteland."32 Training should thus act as a platform through which clear structures, procedures, and frameworks for accountability are identified, concerted action is mutually agreed upon, and sustained commitment is established. This, in turn, will facilitate the identification of necessary skills for all professionals involved in the protection and the management of displacement situations, preventing their degeneration into crises. Furthermore, such a process will clear the way for the introduction of more equitable and predictable burden- and responsibility-sharing among stakeholders and the development of durable solutions, as the Global Compact on Refugees calls for.33

In order to achieve this, capacity-building interventions should display the following characteristics: clarity in terms of the legal frameworks, skills, and knowledge that should be mastered; dynamicity in their methodological approach; and, above all, inclusiveness in nature. Firstly, the efforts of training institutions should reach beyond the mere illustration of international refugee law as such and recognize the substantial changes that have occurred in the interpretation of relevant legal frameworks, present the development of regional instruments, domestic laws, and local best practices, and acknowledge the prominence of complementary bodies of international law such as human rights law.34

Moreover, capacity-building should focus on developing the precise skills needed to address today's challenges in forced displacement, such as conducting risk assessment, establishing individual case management, and promoting community-based protection mechanisms. Capacity-building programs aiming at enhancing such skills should be built upon concrete experiences and lessons learned from other emergencies.

Secondly, capacity-building needs to be interactive, innovative, constantly evolving, and adopt a collaborative approach. Traditional ways of doing capacity-building based on lectures and the enumeration of the relevant legal principles are no longer relevant or effective. Beyond the utilization of conventional classes, training methodologies should be expanded with the aim of providing well-rounded preparation. Activities should include case study analyses, roundtable discussions, joint scenario development, role-playing simulations, stakeholder mapping, and full-scale exercises tailored to the specific context and audience, thus strengthening experiential learning for individuals with different profiles.

Capacity-building delivered by governmental and non-governmental training institutions should not be a top-down exercise but lead to horizontal, peer-to-peer exchanges among practitioners in which common challenges are identified in both policymaking and practice. The sharing and in-depth analysis of best practices or ideas for implementation are crucial to support professionals and their organizations in overcoming the issues they encounter in their daily work.

Thirdly, all relevant stakeholders involved in the protection of displaced persons should be capacitated and included in training on an equal basis following a whole-of-society approach–in line with the Global Compact on Refugees. The audience should therefore not be only composed of "adjudicators", such as policymakers, government officials, or refugee status determination officers, but also of practitioners, police officers, judges, academics, journalists, teachers, medical personnel, etc. In particular, professionals on the frontlines of both prevention and protection should be systematically included, in order to effectively address the human dimension of forced displacement.35 An inclusive capacity-building effort is key to ensuring ownership, structured coordination, and effective implementation.

Ultimately, coordination between international organizations, governments, and non-governmental organizations becomes fundamental for establishing such a framework for capacity-building.36 While state and non-governmental organizations should integrate protection capacity-building into national programming, international organizations and United Nations agencies should act as enablers for national systems and all relevant stakeholders to assume greater responsibility and leadership in the process. Donors should carefully examine how to best strengthen and support national institutions' mandates and responsibilities with regard to protection through capacity-building programs for key actors at the regional, national, and local levels. At the same time, capacity-building projects targeting host and transit countries cannot be exploited simply as a way to avoid the responsibilities of donor states.37


The failure of governments, civil society, and international organizations to act and adequately manage human mobility and displacement worldwide is regrettably stark. National and regional structures have demonstrated they are ill-equipped with the necessary resources, procedures, responsibilities, expertise, and skills to mitigate the risks and negative impacts related to mass displacement. As a result, all too often displaced persons see their basic human rights denied if not outrightly violated.

This should force us to rethink completely the way we design and implement capacity-building programs. Capacity-building of stakeholders must go beyond training and material resources, which often are aimed at halting human mobility rather than protection. Instead, capacity-building programs should be platforms where stakeholders come together to assess and interpret the situation, learn the relevant legal framework and its application, define roles and responsibilities, develop their skills, and exchange best practices. Capacity-building should not be the traditional top-down training exercise but a dynamic, innovative, and inclusive environment where all relevant actors are equipped to perform their roles and learn from each other before the situation turns into an unmanageable crisis.


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Arash M. Akbari
Witnessing the Loss of Homeland
Dual Perspectives on the Evacuation of Afghanistan
Rethinking Refugee Policy in Europe
"Fortress Europe" and Its Consequences
Anthony Avice Du Buisson
Asylum-Seeker, Illegal or Refugee?
Policy Frames that Drive the Global Non-Entrée Regime
Kelsey LeBrun Keswani
Learning from Crises
Perspectives from Europe's Ukrainian and South America's Venezuelan Migration Crises
Jaqueline Mazza and Guillermo Caballero Ferreira
Taking Stock
Two Years after the Global Compact's Call for More Data on Forced Displacement
Sajjad Malik
Genocide and Human Displacement
Audrey Elliot
Dominican Racism and the Contestation of Citizenship
Patrick Sylvain
Going North on a Plane Rather Than a Train
Regulated Visas as an Alternative to Irregular Migration from Central America
Cristobal Ramón and Reva Resstack
War on European Soil
A Comparative Reflection on Human Security Approaches in the Former Yugoslavia and Ukraine
SAIS Journal Editorial Staff
The Impact of EU Visa Liberalization in the Western Balkans
Laurence Dynes
The Longer-Term Repercussions of Ukrainian Displacement
Strouboulis, Yayboke, and Halstead
Refugees Are Not Fiscal Burdens
The Real Economic Lesson of Sweden's Refugee Crisis
Peo Hansen
Refugees and Healthcare
Moving Beyond Contagious Diseases and Corrosive Narratives
Fadi Issa, M.D. and Michael Court, M.D.