The West’s current focus on the refugee crisis in Europe obscures the larger truths of a global crisis of displacement that endangers the international order. This is a crisis largely born out of war, and one that will be with us for decades to come. Understanding this reality is essential if Europe is to mount an effective response.
Deadly conflict, above all, is driving the massive exodus of refugees. Wars in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Syria alone were responsible for more than half of the world’s refugee population as of mid-2015. Forty million people—two-thirds of the world’s forcibly displaced—are displaced within their own countries by conflict and violence. The Middle East, with its political upheaval and conflict in recent years, has seen the fastest increase in forced displacement. Since March 2011, the Syrian war alone has accounted for almost 12 million displaced people, one-fifth of the world’s total displaced and over half of the country’s population.
After a period during which wars declined in number, in the past half decade there has been a rise in armed conflicts, and clashes have become more deadly. In today’s wars, civilians are also targeted with impunity by the fighting parties, and international humanitarian norms to protect civilians are routinely violated.
While the stream of refugees trying to enter Europe has helped catapult this issue to the front pages of the Western media, states adjacent to wars have seen far larger influxes of refugees. Western audiences are barely aware that the three countries that sheltered the most refugees as of mid-2015 were Turkey, Pakistan, and Lebanon. Nor are Westerners fully conscious of the conditions endured by the 2.5 million people forced from their home countries to Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, and Uganda. At the end of 2014, some 86 percent of the world’s displaced were living in developing countries that already struggled with enormous economic, development, and governance challenges.
The lifecycle of a refugee crisis is a long one. The average time a person spends as a refugee stood at a record seventeen years in early 2014, while the rate of those returning home was the lowest in decades.
Moreover, refugees create risk factors for new cycles of conflict, generating further refugee flows. Countries that host disproportionately large numbers of refugees without adequate support can be destabilized, exacerbating existing economic, political, and security strains. The legacy of today’s refugee populations is a generation of young people who lack economic prospects, political representation, or even participation; around half of refugee children receive no schooling. In this situation, refugees, who in some cases encounter hostility from their host countries’ populations and security forces, can be targets for radicalization by extremist groups.
No one can claim to accurately predict future wars and the impacts they will have on refugee flows, but there are clear risks of worsening conflict. Continued chaos in the Middle East would generate more terrorism and refugees, while sub-Saharan Africa has the potential to become a major source of conflict and transnational terrorism. The International Crisis Group’s early-warning work highlights an extensive list of potential conflicts spanning all corners of the globe—in contexts from instability in the Lake Chad basin and state fragility in Central Asia to the resurgent Kurdish conflict in Turkey and transnational crime in Mexico and Central America, to name a few.
On a larger scale, the conflicts driving today’s refugee crisis are symptomatic of the breakdown of the international system built over the past seventy years, increasing the risk of violence and weakening the world’s collective capacity for conflict management. Geopolitical shifts, intensifying rivalries between major powers, and rising regional tensions have fueled conflict and made wars harder to end. A decade and a half of poorly conceived, hubristic interventions has triggered a backlash toward isolationism and parochialism and weakened the rules-based international order. This undermines support for the legitimate, UN-backed engagements needed to prevent and contain local crises. Divisions within the EU show how the refugee crisis places further strain on the values and political solidarity that underpin the bloc.
There are some important direct consequences of the crisis, the foremost being the need to better finance humanitarian responses, respect the rights of refugees, support states that host refugee populations, and improve refugees’ conditions and prospects.
Ultimately, however, policymakers need to address the major conflicts that are the principal drivers of displacement. Efforts to resolve the wars in Syria and elsewhere have been intermittent and only half engaged. The crisis must highlight the importance of more determined and single-minded diplomacy, without allowing attention to be constantly distracted by the next day’s headlines. Policymakers must do more to de-escalate the international and regional geopolitical rivalries that feed off wars, do better at conflict prevention, and pay more attention to the political, economic, and development failures and grievances that turn into violence.
Looking to the longer term, the international community, and particularly permanent members of the UN Security Council, need to lead the way in rebuilding the international community’s credibility. The world needs to shore up multilateralism, reinforce institutions that were created to strengthen peace and security, and stop the steady erosion of international law. The primacy of international humanitarian and human rights law must be reasserted so that civilians caught up in conflict are protected rather than targeted.
The refugee crisis goes beyond human tragedy and threatens key precepts of the global order. Recognizing that this is a long-term problem, responsible countries must adopt a long-term mind-set to deal with it. This presents difficulties for policymakers, who are under tremendous pressure to find immediate answers. It has taken the arrival of the refugee crisis on the beaches and in the cities of Europe to drive home the need for a sustained political will to find solutions to the wars that have sent their victims to European shores.
Jean-Marie Guéhenno is the president and chief executive officer of the International Crisis Group.