Can the Rise in Refugees Be Stopped?

The number of refugees and internally displaced persons around the world reached record heights last year and is likely to continue climbing. Prospects for reversing the trend are not bright, notes Paul Saunders, given the conflict of interests among the world’s major powers in such geopolitical hotspots as the South China Sea and Ukraine.

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According to a recent United Nations report , a record number of people were forcibly displaced from their homes during 2014—nearly 60 million—due to war, other conflicts, and persecution. What is disturbing is the real possibility that there may be many more record years to come.

The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres explains this year’s figures by saying that on the “one hand there is more and more impunity for those starting conflicts, and on the other there is seeming utter inability of the international community to work together to stop wars and build and preserve peace.”

The statement is an accurate one, in that the statistics represent the combination of 14 million newly displaced people (fleeing new conflicts), with most of the balance remaining displaced (due to unresolved conflicts). Nevertheless, it fails to assess underlying causes in any meaningful way. Why are there more new refugees and growing numbers of long-term refugees?

A Long-Term Trend

One possible explanation could be that the last few years have been unique due to sustained instability in the Middle East (especially the civil war in Syria), the conflict in Ukraine, and other factors. However, even a cursory look at available data makes clear that this is not an adequate reason in itself, because statistics show an obvious growth trend in the number of internally displaced persons (who remain inside their country of residence) and relatively consistent numbers of refugees (who cross borders seeking safety outside their country of residence) since the mid- to late 1990s. [ ]. The phenomenon is therefore a long-term one, building to current levels over nearly two decades.

An alternative hypothesis—likely favored in the United States by both Republicans and Democrats who support an activist and even interventionist US foreign policy—could be that the Obama administration’s reluctance to use force has created the sense of impunity Mr. Guterres describes and also prevented the swift resolution of conflicts. Yet the data do not support this either—again, the number of IDPs grew relatively steadily (with occasional declines) since 1997, while the number of refugees has fluctuated within a relatively narrow range with no definitive trend up or down.

Though the rate of increase in the number of IDPs has accelerated since 2012, which may reflect the impact of Syria and Ukraine, earlier US assertiveness did not materially reduce the numbers of either IDPs or refugees in any enduring way. So to the extent that one defines global peace and security using the number of displaced people, the Clinton and Bush administrations’ activism in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere did not provide it.

Destabilizing Rivalries

A third option may be that after a few years of virtually unchallenged US international dominance following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, the international system has moved steadily away from a flirtation with unipolarity and toward the structural multipolarity that many US rivals—especially China and Russia—have assertively sought. From this perspective, new and enduring conflicts are a side-effect of an evolving international system in which order increasingly depends upon stable relations between the world’s major powers rather than US deterrence and intervention.

In this case, worsening relations among the major powers—particularly America’s ties with China and Russia, in view of their challenges to the US-led international order—simultaneously facilitate new conflicts and undermine efforts to resolve ongoing ones. In the former case, this is less a “cause” of new conflicts than a contributor to them. In the absence of unity among major powers in a multipolar system, potential initiators of conflict can reasonably expect that external intervention to enforce peace is less likely, something that weakens America’s already limited ability to deter conflicts in one place through the demonstrative use of force elsewhere.

Importantly, initiators can also expect that outside help in starting and pursuing a conflict is more easily attainable. At the same time, major power tensions prevent collaborative efforts to stop conflicts once they start (among other things, by preventing action in the UN Security Council, which many US allies see as a key factor in their decisions to support US efforts). The data are consistent with this explanation for rising IDP populations, though that in itself is not sufficient to prove that this dynamic is the fundamental one.

Collision of Interests

That said, if system-level changes are an important driver in the growth in the number of IDPs, greater American activism and more frequent US intervention are unlikely to solve the problem of conflict or reduce the number of displaced people. Indeed, since this American conduct has been a principal complaint and motivator for Beijing and Moscow, it might stiffen their opposition to US foreign policy, which would in turn provide more opportunities for regional actors to start conflicts rather than fewer. (The problem is that each major power defines order and stability differently, so that Washington’s pursuit of order does not satisfy Beijing or Moscow.)

Moreover, because the United States is demonstrably unable to sustain more than one or two significant interventions simultaneously, the number of conflicts could quickly multiply beyond Washington’s ability to manage them (if it has not done so already). This suggests that improving America’s relations with China and Russia and attempting to work together with each to establish a more stable international system may be a more productive way to establish global order and peace than sequential intervention in individual conflicts.

The greatest challenge in pursuing this approach is of course the collision of US, Chinese, and Russian policies in places like the South China Sea and Ukraine. In essence, these disputes fuel many others worldwide by exposing the deep rifts between these three leading powers (and America’s major power allies, Europe and Japan) and heartening others considering using force to achieve their national, ethnic, or sectarian goals. Thus, failing to resolve these complex disagreements could lead to new record numbers of displaced victims of conflict for many years into the future.

Unfortunately, since succeeding would require active cooperation from Beijing and Moscow and new approaches by all the world’s leading powers, there is little basis for optimism.

Paul J. Saunders

  • Senior Fellow in US Foreign Policy at the Center for the National Interest

    President, Energy Innovation Reform Project