Blog 79. 60 Million Refugees and IDPs

The New York Times (6/18/2015) article cites the United Nations with the headline: “60 Million People Fleeing Chaotic Lands, U.N. Says.”  Nearly 14 million were newly displaced during 2014, including 11 million who moved within the borders of their own countries.  (The 11 million aren’t called “refugees,” they’re “Internally Displaced Persons” or “IDPs”).  Half the displaced are children.  Most of those who flee their own countries (the “refugees”) wind up in less-developed nations.  Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan host the largest numbers of refugees; Ethiopia and Kenya take more than France or Britain.  [1]

Inside Syria, whose population was 22 million, 7.6 million were displaced within the country by the end of 2014, and 3.9 million had moved outside the country. [1]  Over 200,000 have been killed since the uprising of March 2011.  Syrian camps house only 16% of the those who flee; the rest are mainly in Iraq, Jordan Lebanon and Turkey.[2]

The Syrian government of strong-man Bashar al-Assad remains, fighting the several groups (ISIS, Kurds, Al Qaeda, the Free Syrian Army, and others, who also fight among themselves).  If Assad relinquished power, he and his people would probably be killed, but chaos and warfare would still reign.  Removal of Assad would not automatically generate peace and prosperity in Syria any more than removal of Saddam Hussein brought peace and prosperity to Iraq.

Many European countries and Australia are turning away refugees, feeling they can’t accept more.  The political parties that oppose immigration in the EU countries are gaining popularity.

Can the rest of the world help the refugees?

I don’t know how to solve the refugee crisis, but I suggest any successful solution must work within the severe constraints of reality.  I’ve heard various proposed solutions but little discussion of the constraints.

Solution 1: Put the refugees in lands now nearly vacant.  However, there’s a reason those vacant lands are unoccupied.  For human purposes, the good lands of the world are already taken.

Solution 2: Support the refugees in camps while teaching them governance and trades.  Can generous nations even support the camps, let alone bring the refugees into self-governance?  The camps are governed by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, with administration subcontracted to other organizations.  The refugees don’t officially govern the camps, but sometimes the camps have internal criminal groups or violence.  Would the refugees learn governance as we think of it?  They come with their cultures, which are not necessarily receptive to western ideas of law.  These people did not live in an idyllic democracy before they became persecuted by aspects of their own culture.  Furthermore, even if the refugees could be educated to western standards, where would the educated new workers go?  Other countries don’t need them.

There are practical constraints on what other nations can offer to so many refugees.

Constraint 1: If the refugees are allowed to migrate, the receiving lands must be able to support them ecologically, economically and socially.  If thousands or millions move, they will require supportive welfare until they assimilate.  A welfare-welcome for a few will attract even more.  Those who have moved will maintain their own culture, inviting relatives but not fully assimilating into the receiving culture.  The lack of assimilation causes much of the current political opposition to immigrants, a justification for those who claim, “enough already.”

Constraint 2: If the refugees migrate en masse, unoccupied damaged spaces will be left behind.  Who will fill those places?  What political entities will emerge from the ruins, or be planted there by ambitious foreign nations?  Will the fighting continue indefinitely, or will new regimes develop with the purpose of exporting terrorism?

These sobering considerations lead to one conclusion: given the large number of refugees (and IDPs), the best place for them is back home, as best that can be achieved.  The problem to be solved is the current warfare at home, the cause that turns people to flee.  Any attempted solution that fails to recognize this will probably fail, prolonging and spreading the misery.

Overwhelming military power is unlikely to solve that problem.  If other nations attempt to establish law and order by sending western armies into Syria (or Iraq, or Afghanistan), once again the world will discover that occupying armies are hated and harassed by insurgency warfare while the population wavers between the invaders and the terrorists.  The Romans discovered that.  The Russians made the same discovery in Afghanistan, as did the French in Viet Nam.  The U.S. repeated the exercise in Viet Nam.  And in Iraq.  And in Afghanistan.

An underlying problem is that much of the complex, interconnected twenty-first century world is being run by social systems, religions, and beliefs suited to simpler, agrarian, localized economies and cultures.  For an individual or for a society, when real facts conflict with belief, defense is the result, whether in a neighborhood bar, in a sub-continent, or in the U.S. Congress.  Defense often becomes offense rather than a rational search for a solution.  For example, in American politics, all sides are on the offense, none on rational evaluation.  As in the Middle East, winning, not solving, is the objective.  After the U.S. brings its own polarization within the constraints of reality, perhaps then it might develop rational policies to aid other regions.


[1.] New York Times, June 18, 2015.

[2.] Rochelle Davis, “Syria’s refugee crisis,” Great Decisions 2015 edition, pp. 65-76.  Foreign Policy Association.

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