April 17, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Growing Refugee Security Crisis

• There are more refugees and internally displaced people (IDP) now than at any time since WWII

• The number of people unable to live in their home countries, estimated in 2014 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at over 51 million, is a catastrophe from the individual to the global level, and will worsen in coming years as violent extremism and instability spreads

• Conditions in Syria and now Libya are so bad that thousands of people a week risk an unsafe journey over the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, with 400 dying this week alone in one tragic sinking

• As more conflicts start and none of them ever truly end, the numbers of refugees will further exceed the ability of the international community to deal with them, leading to more camps beset with explosive tensions and conditions.


While it is the fighting that gets the headlines and the resolutions, the people fleeing conflicts suffer on the sidelines for years after global attention has shifted to the next conflict. Yet it is the terrible conditions among massive refugee populations in camps that more resemble desperate cities that in part drive future conflict. In a 2014 report, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated that there were now over 51 million refugees, internally displaced persons (IDP), or asylum seekers, the largest number since the end of WWII. Yet unlike that war, the current conflicts never end, and the refugees never return home.

The UNHCR reported that refugees from Afghanistan, Somalia, and Syria account for half of the total number—an extremely troubling statistic that illustrates the nearly endless suffering that results from long-lasting conflict and bad governance. Many of the current two million Afghan refuges fled during the Soviet invasion of the 1980s and have never returned home due to the endless fighting since that time. The complete collapse of the Somali government in the 1990s has led to over one million Somali refugees still unable or unwilling to return home two decades later. This should alarm the international community when considering the more than two million Syrian refugees and the ongoing war with no end in sight. The half-life of the humanitarian costs of conflict rivals uranium in its toxicity and length.

While the abject poverty and hopelessness that exists in camps from Kenya to Pakistan aren’t the only drivers of violent extremism, when concentrated they form a combustible fuel that awaits only a spark of violence to ignite an entire region. The enormous numbers of Afghan refugees destabilized the border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, not causing but certainly exacerbating the current instability in both countries. Likewise, in response to the Garissa massacre that left 148 people dead, the Kenyan government announced it would close the Dadaab refugee camp that houses 350,000 Somali refugees, one of the largest camps in the world. The Kenyans believe the presence of so many vulnerable Somalis provides a target-rich environment for the Somalia-based al-Shabab terrorist group that was responsible for Garissa, the Westgate Mall attack, and many others. The refugees themselves are caught between the extremists and the governments that both suspect and resent them.

It is not just camps or detention centers that are vectors of despair. Conditions in Syria and now Libya have gotten so dire that people by the tens of thousands are foregoing neighboring refugee camps and attempting to flee directly to Europe in hope of asylum or some reprieve. This week alone saw an estimated 400 refugees, many of whom were children, drown as their unseaworthy vessel quickly overturned on its trip from Libya to Italy. In the same week, the Italian coast guard has rescued or intercepted 10,000 people fleeing their countries and heading for Italian shores.

The UNHCR states that over 3,500 people drowned crossing the Mediterranean Sea in 2014, a huge increase from 2013 and stark proof of how bad conditions are in Libya, Syria, and other countries in the region. As conditions worsen, more and more will attempt the voyage, adding a maritime dimension to the human tragedy crowding the region. As seen in Afghanistan and Somalia, modern conflicts resist resolution. As more conflicts, such as those in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria, Sudan, Central African Republic, and more are added to the list of seemingly permanent conflict, the ranks of permanent refugees will swell to unmanageable levels and lead to more and more conflict. Better care for refugees is a humanitarian imperative but better conflict resolution is needed in order to break the cycle of permanent refugees and permanent conflict.


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