DRAFT 11/25/2015

Is the Current Refugee Crisis the Worst since World War II?

Joshua S. Goldstein



One often hears that we face the largest refugee crisis since World War II. This is actually not true, and leads to bad policy choices.


The UN’s total for “forcibly displaced” people includes refugees (who have crossed borders, 19 million as of 2014), asylum seekers (2 million) and internally displaced persons (IDPs, 38 million). Not only are IDPs by far the majority, but they drive the increasing numbers. Refugees themselves totaled 18 million in 1992, dropped to about 15 million through 2012, and recently increased back to 1990s levels because of the Syria war.


For IDPs, the important number, data have been kept only since 1989 (UNHCR, Global Trends 2014, p.23: “This is unprecedented since 1989, the first year for which global statistics on IDPs are available). Therefore we do not know whether there are more or less than any time since the end of World War II. (Incidentally the IDP data come not from the UN but from an NGO, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and are estimates. Only 26 million are under UNHCR care.)


Data on people newly displaced during the year are available only since 2003 (Global Trends 2014, p.5). As to whether the increase in displaced persons in 2014 was the largest increase since World War II, again this cannot be evaluated for IDPs. For refugees it is not true. The 2.9 million increase in 2014 (UNHCR Global Trends 2014) was exceeded in 1990 and 1992, and equaled in 1980 (UNHCR Historical Refugee Data, http://data.unhcr.org/dataviz/). For IDPs, although no official data are available, the increase in 1971 from Bangladesh alone – estimated at more than 10 million – rivals the 2014 total increase. The partition of India in 1947 uprooted more than 15 million. So it’s unlikely that if we had data prior to 1989 they would show 2014 to be the highest year. (Note that the world population in 1947 was 1/3 of today’s so the displaced people relative to population would be far higher than today.)


Tracing the Error


In its 2012 report, released June 2013, the UNHCR had the story right: displacement at 18-year high, more than at any time since 1994 (Global Trends 2012; press release at http://www.unhcr.org/51c071816.html). Persons of concern were the second highest on record, behind 1993. The error occurred with the release of the 2013 report in June 2014. The report itself referred to IDP totals only as “the highest figure on record” with a footnote stating that data are available from 1989. However, the press conference held by UNHCR head António Guterres introduced the idea of “first time in the post-World War II era” (press story: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=48089#.VlYKvHarQgt). Guterres said in an interview, “we have for the first time since the Second World War more than 50 million people displaced…”


In this year’s Global Trends 2014, UNHCR says in the first paragraph that “the year saw the highest displacement on record.” It also refers to the previous year’s levels (now surpassed) as “not previously seen in the post-World War II era” (p.5). But the same report when it gets to details refers to refugee numbers as “the highest level since 1995” (p.9), and IDP levels as “unprecedented since 1989” (p.23). The post-WWII idea comes strictly from the previous year’s remarks by Guterres.


Once the UN put its stamp on the meme, it was reportedly extremely widely around the world and became accepted truth. A recent New York Times article even stated flatly that “There are more displaced people and refugees now than at any other time in recorded history.” Guterres himself called the 2014 numbers “the highest number of people displaced by conflict ever” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ctj1GFMcUcg). This means we are now worse off than during the two World Wars, the Thirty Years’ War, or the Mongol conquests – false!


Why It Matters


The intention of Guterres and his repeaters is good, to draw attention to a sharp rise in displacement in the last few years. But the erroneous claim leads directly to bad policy choices.


If displacement is worse than ever then this implies the international order is broken, the post-Cold War era is more unstable than the Cold War era, and we should go back to a Cold-War stability or onward to a radically revamped international order. Guterres himself leads in this direction in his June 6, 2014 interview recorded in Geneva for the UN: He attributes the surge in displaced people to “a multiplication of new conflicts in the world. And global conflict generates global displacement. At the same time, old conflicts seem never to die. … We live in a world that has no global governance system…” (2014-06-06-high-commissioner-guterres-global-trends-2013.mp4). The UNHCR Global Trends 2014 is, likewise, subtitled “World at War.”


These are not the right conclusions. It is not a multiplication of conflicts or a state of “global conflict” that has generated the surge of displaced: The majority worldwide come from just three conflicts (only one of them even new): Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia (UNHCR). And many old conflicts have died. In Latin America, for example, conflicts have died in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala, with the new peace deal in Colombia ending the last active armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere. In East and Southeast Asia, conflicts have died in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Aceh Indonesia, the southern Philippines, and Sri Lanka. That region too is almost entirely at peace now. This is not a world of global conflict.


Rather, this is a world of generally declining armed conflict over the post-World War II period, one of generally improving world governance, that took a sharp backslide in the past four years almost entirely because of the war in Syria. It is Syria, not the world, that shows the weakness of international governance, the increase in war deaths, and the dramatic surge in IDPs and refugees.


Thus we do not need a radical overhaul of global governance (unlikely) or a return to Cold War politics (unwise). We need to use the tools we have to focus specifically on Syria, as indeed should have been done much more vigorously several years ago. The world is not the problem. Syria is the problem. The policies and practices that ended wars in the Western hemisphere, East Asia, and Southern Africa (Mozambique, Namibia, Angola, South Africa) – such as UN diplomacy, peacekeeping, economic aid, and women’s participation – can with effort and intelligence end wars today in South Sudan, Yemen, and perhaps even Syria. Declaring that there is “global conflict” will not help end those wars. We need a narrower policy focus. And that’s why the “worst refugee crisis ever” meme is not only untrue but unhelpful.