Imagine if some crisis — war, famine, ecological disaster — suddenly displaced the entire populations of California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho. That would be some 51 million people driven from their homes and on the move, seeking food, shelter and safety.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, that is about how many refugees there were in the world at the end of 2013, the highest level since World War II (of course, there are more than twice as many people in the world now). As then, many have been rousted by war, particularly in Syria and central Africa, places where renewed violence already this year has added hundreds of thousands more people to the rosters of the displaced.
The UNHCR released its annual Global Trends report Friday as part of World Refugee Day, one of those calendar-based recognitions that shine a temporary publicity spotlight on what in reality is a long-running and overwhelming problem. In fact, 6 million Syrians were displaced in calendar year 2013 alone, a distressed flow of humanity that received far less attention than the raging war that sent them running.
There are other long-running refugees crises around the world, from Myanmar to Colombia to Eritrea. And the current flow of mothers and children from Central America through Mexico to the United States gets pretty close to a refugee crisis. U.S. officials Friday pegged the number of unaccompanied minors caught at the border (who knows how many got in unnoticed) from Oct. 1 through the end of June at 52,000. Another 39,000 mothers with minor children were snagged from Oct. 1 through the end of May. European countries face a similar problem with migrants trying to cross in from North Africa, and migrant laborers flow through Southeast Asia like an irrepressible wind.
This is a world on the move. It is entirely reasonable for a nation to determine who gets to live within its borders, but that sovereignty gets sorely tested when a human tide wells, whether it's propelled by violence or crushing poverty. In fact, the violence might be easier to resolve, with stronger, coordinated regional responses to separatist movements and ethnic or religious frictions.
What's clear is the world needs to do more to deal humanely with those fleeing inhumane acts and violence, and to blunt the violence before it reaches crisis proportions. Military responses might squelch uprisings, but peace established at the barrel of gun is an uneasy peace, at best. From the ethno-centric clashes that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia to what's unfolding now in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, we can see what happens when political issues fester.
While the UNHCR struggles to deal with the displaced, the smart solution is to try to find ways to stop the flows before they begin.