September 1, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Refugees of a World at War

• Europe is confronting a humanitarian crisis involving numbers of refugees on a scale rarely seen since World War II, with no realistic hope that the numbers will drop in the near future

• The refugees are not fleeing a World War but a world at war; the cumulative impact of never-ending armed conflicts in collapsing societies across a huge region is exacerbated by a paralyzed international community

• Europe’s relatively open internal border system was designed to speed documented travel; it is struggling to adjust to the huge increase in undocumented travel by refugees without any recourse

• Improvements in the handling of humanitarian refugees will likely be made in much of Europe, but the key challenge is that places like Syria, Afghanistan, and Eritrea will continue to fuel desperate migrations for years.

The statistics are a sterile accounting of a desperate humanitarian crisis in Europe. An estimated 322,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean Sea so far this year; in all of 2014, there were 219,000 such attempts. Over 2,500 have died in attempted crossings. The numbers of refugees are increasing rapidly, exceeding the ability of many European countries to handle the flow with existing rules and regulations, and exhausting the tolerance of those concerned with the impact of such mass migrations. New arrivals will have lots of company, as the crisis has been unfolding steadily for four years. Images of adults and children suffocated in a refugee-smuggling van in Austria, drowning off the coast of Libya, or rioting in the port city of Calais have brought public attention to a problem that demands action on many fronts.

The optimistic view is that Europe has handled far worse crises in its modern history, while its economy and infrastructure were in far worse shape. Countries such as Germany, France, and others will expand their already noteworthy humanitarian efforts while pushing others to do the same. At the end of World War II, Europe was devastated in nearly all aspects; millions of refugees and internally displaced persons moved across the continent trying to escape the devastation and predations of their home towns and countries. Now in 2015, Europe is remarkably wealthy compared to its past, and will be able to help people move from danger and chaos to some semblance of safety and stability. It will be difficult and will require imaginative and rapid solutions, but it is as achievable as it is necessary.

The pessimistic view is that this refugee problem—one of the worst since World War II—has been caused by a series of wars that have either been ignored or exacerbated by the international community. Such is the cumulative effect of never-ending armed conflicts and sustained lawlessness across the Middle East, parts of Africa, and Central Asia. The current number of refugees pales in comparison to the numbers to come. Many of the recent conflicts and wars are civil wars—the hardest to end once ignited. The international community has been unable to resolve these ongoing conflicts, and therefore hopes to merely contain them while they ‘burn themselves out’—ignoring that human lives are the fuel consumed by these conflagrations. Libya and Syria, two of the major drivers of the current refugee crisis, are not-coincidentally both the obvious results of an absence of long-term planning.

There is a tragic parallel between the current humanitarian crisis in parts of Europe and the rise of the so-called Islamic State. Dealing with the violent group is an immediate priority, but dealing with the conditions that enabled its rise is a strategic priority—one that must be addressed in order to break the cycle. This includes resolving the Syrian war that depopulated the country and empowered the rise of the Islamic State. The current world at war is, in effect, a world of many savage and spreading wars that will not resolve themselves (either from deep societal/ethnic/religious/economic rage or the helping hands of meddling countries and proxy warfare), and an international conflict resolution system that was to deal with conflicts past, and not future.


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