The Middle East's Refugee Crisis

On Friday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees released the annual Global Trends Report on forcibly displaced persons.  This year’s report, compiled by a multilateral team of government agencies and NGOs, indicates a startling new statistic: the total number of the world’s displaced persons has surpassed 50 million for the first time since the World War II era.

By the end of 2013, approximately 51.2 million had been forcibly removed from their homes—an increase of more than 6 million from the previous year. This number includes people displaced both within the confines of their own borders and those seeking refuge outside of their home countries. Of the 51.2 million, 33.3 million are internally displaced persons, 16.7 million are refugees, and 1.2 million are asylum seekers.

It’s important to note that while the “number of refugees who had fled across borders by the end of 2013 was a fraction of the tens of millions of refugees left at the end of World War II, the number of internally displaced persons within their own countries skyrocketed as a direct result of the crisis in Syria.

Displaced Syrians represent almost 20% of the total 51.2 million. With more than 2.5 million refugees and over 6.5 million internally displaced persons, Syria “had moved from being the world’s second largest refugee-hosting country to being its second largest refugee-producing country – within a span of just five years.” While Syria is one of the primary reasons why the number of displaced persons jumped six million in one year, it is located in a neighborhood that reflects similar trends.

Two of the top three source countries for refugees are in the Middle East as are seven out of the top twenty refugee-hosting countries. There are 178 and 88 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants in Lebanon and Jordan, respectively. 

UNHCR Global Trends Report 2013

UNHCR Global Trends Report 2013

UNHCR Global Trends Report 2013

UNHCR Global Trends Report 2013

While this rather somber report does not forecast brighter statistics for 2014, it does highlight an important element of today’s international relations and how the root of crises has changed significantly in the past half a century.

During World War II and the Cold War era, displaced persons were primarily the result of inter-state warring and national policies. While it was not marked by world wars, the year 2013 did showcase “a continuation of multiple refugee crises” and human rights violations committed on a scale mirroring those of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. 

With the onset of the Arab Spring and the power vacuum that has resulted from both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, non-state actors and terrorist organizations have risen to prominence often bringing with them policies that target significant percentages of their populations in order to maintain or usurp authority.

On the flip side, leaders who have managed to preserve their power and quell dissent have done so with tremendously violent policies as seen in Bahrain, Afghanistan, Syria, and most recently in Iraq.

Beyond causing extreme despair for the current state of our world, the 2013 report reinforces how, in today’s globalized world, non-state actors and internal state politics have increasingly become determinants of the security of entire populations.