The Refugee Century

The 21st Century will be the Refugee Century. That much is certain, and it would be blind to argue otherwise.

The Refugee Century commenced with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. No doubt historians will look at the Iraq War as the catalyst for so many changes in the global order, but there is little question that the war produced tremendous outflows of people. In 2008, there were an estimated 2 million Iraqi refugees and other 2 million "internally displaced" Iraqis (e.g., Iraqis who had to flee their homes but stayed in Iraq). Then came Syria, then Libya, adding millions more to the refugee rolls. Many of these people fled to Europe, where they encountered significant distrust and hatred. Indeed, one of President Donald Trump’s objectives with his travel ban was to reduce the number of refugees into the U.S.

Millions of refugees pose a problem, and the world struggles to accommodate the present number. Basic needs barely get met; other human needs and desires—economic security, psychological well-being—are certainly ignored. Man does not live on bread alone, yet even bread is a rare luxury to a family fleeing war. 

What happens when millions of refugees become tens of millions, or hundreds of millions? This is not a fantasy. War continues to embroil the Middle East. As the planet gets hotter because of global warming, ice caps will melt and sea levels will rise. Island nations and low-lying countries are at particular risk. Places like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Bangladesh could see epic forms of disaster within the decade. There are 169 million people in Bangladesh. Where will they go when the sea levels rise?

Governments do not give any indication that they are prepared for any aspect of the Refugee Century. Perhaps they talk behind closed doors, but don’t say anything openly for fear of alarming the public. I think more likely they are just hoping some thing or someone else will deal with the issue. Perhaps leaders believe they don’t have the democratic mandate to do anything today, and that they need to wait for a disaster in order to marshal the public. These are all certainly possibilities. A more cynical conclusion might be that leaders just don’t care. That too is a distinct possibility.

The Refugee Century is here. The people movement that has taken place since 2003 will be dwarfed by the people movement to come in the next few decades. Societies and governments need to start preparing for this inevitability. It will be a crisis, no doubt. And only the better prepared countries will be in a position to manage, survive, or even thrive from the challenges and opportunities that come from the Refugee Century