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Western Leaders Ignore New Peak in Global Displacement at Their Peril

Policymakers should take note of the latest U.N. global displacement figures for reasons both moral and arising from shared interests, says former U.S. acting director of national intelligence Michael Dempsey. He recommends three policy actions in response.

Written by Michael Dempsey Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A woman and her child, who were rescued from a dinghy in the Mediterranean Sea seen disembarking after their arrival at Port of Malaga. Jesus Merida/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Last week, the U.N. Refugee Agency said in its annual Global Trends report that the world’s displaced population numbered nearly 69 million people at the end of 2017, including roughly 25 million refugees. It was the fifth consecutive year in which global displacement has hit a new high.

In reading the study, three particular data points caught my eye. First, developing countries are currently hosting about 85 percent of the world’s refugees, and four out of five refugees are now living in countries next to their country of origin. This fact runs directly counter to the popular perception that most refugees are fleeing to the West.

Second, the majority of refugees are from just five countries – Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, and Somalia – and two-thirds of the refugees are located in only 10 countries, with Turkey host to the largest refugee population. Finally, the report said that children below the age of 18 constituted more than half of the refugee population, up from about 40 percent a decade ago.

At the risk of generating a “womp, womp” reaction from skeptical readers, let me highlight a few reasons why this data merits greater policymaker attention in the West.

Many of the countries that are hosting refugees are developing countries already struggling with their own political, economic and security pressures. They are therefore putting their own stability at risk by hosting large numbers of refugees, potentially creating a vicious cycle of increasing instability.

In Jordan, which has long been a linchpin of Middle Eastern stability, the burden of hosting refugees is undoubtedly contributing to the country’s economic malaise – which recently spurred a series of nationwide protests. Meanwhile, the Assad regime’s latest military offensive in southwestern Syria may soon drive additional Syrian refugees across the border.

Or consider the situation in Turkey, where the lira has depreciated by roughly 16 percent this year. Is Ankara really prepared to absorb a new influx of Syrian refugees if Assad’s looming offensive in Idlib Province forces thousands more Syrians into Turkey? Similar economic and security strains are already manifest in other countries hosting large numbers of refugees, including Colombia, Bangladesh and Ethiopia.

Many of the countries that are hosting refugees are developing countries already struggling with their own political, economic, and security pressures. They are therefore putting their own stability at risk by hosting large numbers of refugees, potentially creating a vicious cycle of increasing instability.

It’s impossible to scan the list of global hotspots and not come to the conclusion that even greater refugee flows should be expected in the coming months. In Venezuela, the situation seems to be going from bad to worse. There has been little diplomatic progress in ending the war in Afghanistan, militia and Islamic State violence in Libya is again on the rise, and surging violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) prompted the U.N. to warn of a “humanitarian disaster of extraordinary proportions.”

Because such a large proportion of refugees are below 18 years old, this crisis also risks the loss of an entire generation of refugees’ talent and potential, and could eventually heighten their susceptibility to exploitation by extremist and criminal groups. Just look at what’s happening with their education. According to U.N. data, only 23 percent of adolescent refugees attend secondary school versus 84 percent for the global adolescent population. Higher education is even worse, with only one percent of refugees enrolled versus 36 percent globally.

Over time, it’s clear that these trends will erode refugees’ ability to compete for professional job opportunities, heightening their sense of hopelessness. In my own experience, I vividly recall counterparts in Middle Eastern states warning that the West should pay more attention to what’s happening to the displaced and refugee populations because of the potential for extremists’ messages to appeal to those with little hope for the future.

So, are there specific actions that Western policymakers might now take to help mitigate this challenge? Let me offer a few.

As a starting point, Western policymakers would be wise to recognize that the current displacement crisis is not an abstract challenge but is instead one with concrete near-term implications for the political stability of key allies, and the conduct of the broader counter-extremist fight. Western leaders should be careful in their public statements to portray the displaced and refugee populations as a vulnerable group to protect and not one to fear.

Next, Western governments might consider significantly increasing the provision of financial and logistical support to countries on the front lines of this challenge, especially countries of first asylum such as Bangladesh, Colombia, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Just consider: In combating international terrorism, the West’s strategy since 9/11 has been to prioritize forward-based actions against terrorist strongholds in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria. Similarly, in the West’s counter-narcotics fight, the priority has long been to tackle the issue in source zone countries such as Bolivia, Colombia and Peru. Wouldn’t a similar forward-based approach to assist countries most directly affected by displacement flows make more sense than trying to deal with this issue only when it reaches the West’s borders?

Similarly, Western leaders could profitably use this moment to prioritize diplomatic efforts to end the conflicts that continue to generate most of the refugees. It is hard to fathom that we are now in the 17th year of the war in Afghanistan, the eighth in Syria, and the seventh since Gaddafi’s removal in Libya. Ending even one of these conflicts would have a highly positive effect in reducing refugee flows.

It would be understandable, given the pressing political, economic and security threats that Western leaders confront today, if they view the global displacement crisis as a second tier, over-the-horizon challenge that is not their primary responsibility.

But make no mistake: This issue is already generating human misery on an almost unimaginable scale, and has the potential to spread its misery well beyond its current borders. It is also beyond the ability of the countries most affected to fix alone. It is time for a joint effort by Western leaders to tackle this issue head-on. This would not only be the moral thing to do, but the right choice for our future shared interests.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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