The Nexus Between Refugees and War

By David Kampf

The so-called global refugee crisis is not disappearing anytime soon. Venezuelans are fleeing political upheaval and economic deprivation, while the government is preventing humanitarian aid from entering the country. Half of Syria’s prewar population has been displaced by seemingly relentless fighting. From Libya to Sudan to the Democratic Republic of Congo there are tinderboxes that could ignite into all-out civil war. And the deadliest terrorist attack in more than three decades in Kashmir reminded the world of the ever-present risk of nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan.

The past five years have been particularly bad, with a record number of conflicts displacing unprecedented amounts of people. Not only are there more conflicts and an ever-growing accumulation of people living in exile from previous wars, but the average number of people displaced every year by a civil war is increasing. And the relationship between refugees and war will complicate the diminution of the numbers.

The overall statistics are depressing indeed. The number of full-blown civil wars tripled in the last decade and recent years have been the deadliest on the battlefield since the end of the Cold War. The so-called Arab Spring led to years of upheaval in the Middle East and, in terms of sheer numbers, there has never been more conflict in Africa since the end of colonialism. Al-Qaeda’s global reach and the rise of the Islamic State fueled wars around the world, with the jihadist groups active in conflicts stretching from the Sahel to the Philippines.

Not only are there more conflicts, but there are also signs that wars are getting worse. Wars are longer, deadlier, and likelier to recur. Fighting in Afghanistan and Somalia grinds on with no immediate end in sight. As we saw when the Syrian government resorted to chemical weapons and the Islamic State victimized locals to sow fear, civilians are targeted by groups lacking any desire to win hearts and minds. And in places like Yemen and the Central African Republic, the proliferation of armed groups also complicate peace negotiations and the durability of peace deals. When one side fails to win a decisive victory, ebbs in tensions may prove fleeting.  

These worrying trends in conflict parallel the growth in refugees. More people are refugees today than at anytime since World War II. The bulk of new refugees are fleeing ongoing civil wars. The total number of people displaced by war or persecution around the world—nearly 70 million—is greater than the populations of France or the United Kingdom. And new refugee figures have spiked in recent years, with more people fleeing South Sudan than any other conflict last year and the 2017 onset of genocide in Myanmar causing the fastest exodus of refugees the world has seen in decades.

To make matters worse, the average refugee lives abroad for more than a quarter of a century. Two in three refugees are stuck in protracted situations, living in large exiled groups for at least five years. Children often spend their entire childhoods in other countries without citizenship. There are more than 40 protracted refugee situations in the world, so not only are we struggling to prevent new conflicts, we are not resolving old ones.

But the huge numbers of displaced people are not just due to the fact that more wars are breaking out and long-lost refugees are not returning home. Today’s civil wars are producing more refugees. The annual average is twice as high as it was during the 1990s, a period that includes the massive human outflows from Rwanda and the Balkans. While there are obviously significant differences between wars, this disturbing trend is likely to continue for three reasons.

First, populations are growing where wars are being waged. Some of the world’s highest growth rates are seen in the countries most at risk for conflict—and this is not a coincidence. Countries like Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mali have particularly high fertility rates. Research indicates that war may be more likely in countries with youthful populations or with high youth-to-labor force ratios, and the danger posed by frustrated, unemployed youth—particularly males—was on full display in recent years across the Middle East.

As the world urbanizes, conflicts are doing the same thing. In recent years, wars have destroyed the major cities of Aleppo, Mosul, and Sana’a. Terrorists and insurgents increasingly target urban areas for political and strategic reasons, endangering millions of civilians. One of the world’s deadliest terrorist groups, Boko Haram, was born in Maiduguri, a key urban area for the security of northern Nigeria and the wider region around Lake Chad. All indications are that the future of war will be in the city, so displacement will naturally accelerate as more people migrate to cities.

Second, globalization enables refugee flows. The world is more interconnected than ever before, and families with international contacts can more readily flee across borders. Preexisting refugee populations from past iterations of conflicts and diasporas facilitate new migrant streams. Plus, most refugees do not travel as far as we often think. The vast majority do not make it to Europe, much less the United States. Four in five refugees only make it as far as the country next door. But as global ties deepen, the range is likely to expand. 

And finally, the nature of war is changing, putting more people in danger. Conflicts are increasingly fluid environments. Opposition forces can quickly and easily form and splinter into separate groups, with factions fighting one another in ungoverned areas beyond the control of an internationally recognized government. While the average number of armed groups has gone up, there has also been a rapid rise in the number of jihadist groups. Groups affiliated with the Islamic State are now fighting in five times more conflicts than they were a mere five years ago, so even after the Islamic State’s loss of territory in Iraq and Syria religious terrorism is far from defeated.

Today’s conflicts also attract more outsiders. Foreign intervention is no longer dictated by the ideological struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union that predominated during the Cold War. Research shows that military interventions by external actors can make civil wars longer and deadlier. The disastrous implications of numerous outside countries getting involved are clear in Yemen and Syria. Too many competing agendas hinder diplomatic efforts and improve the odds that someone will spoil a peace process. Until peace is assured, refugees will hesitate to return home.

While these realities will make it difficult to reverse the growth in refugees and conflicts, it is not all bad news. Deaths caused by organized political violence were actually down in 2017 from their peak in recent years in the post-Cold War period. With the Syrian war accounting for so much human suffering, its end—even if Bashar al-Assad retains power—could help stem the tide. There is some cause for cautious optimism about talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan and finally incremental movements toward a resolution over the long-disputed status of Western Sahara. And if you take an even wider historical perspective, the case can still be made that the world has never been more peaceful. After all, the chance of war between countries has dropped dramatically and is now arguably lower than it has been in centuries.

The current trends, however, create a vicious circle. More conflicts generate more refugees—and more refugees often make it difficult to definitively end conflicts and can incite new ones. By definition refugees are innocent victims, and their arrival can both help and harm host communities. But if refugees do not return home soon after their temporary displacements or they are not fully integrated into new locations, tensions will fester and problems will linger.

With each war pushing more people abroad, it will be that much harder to find peace. After decades, Palestinian refugees continue to complicate the peace process with Israel and their exile has fundamentally altered the demographics of neighboring countries. The same could hold true for Syrian refugees. If Syrians cannot return home, their uncertain status in neighboring states will destabilize the region for years to come.

Despite the sobering statistics, the world appears distracted by other concerns and unwilling to pay enough attention to each conflict and refugee. This must change before things get even worse. Policymakers need to start doing more to both reduce war and improve the lives of refugees in order to halt the downward spiral. Just as conflicts and refugee flows are interrelated, their solutions will be inseparable.

David Kampf is a senior PhD fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies at The Fletcher School.

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