Monday, September 28, 2015

While the World Watches

News, day after day, of countless refugees coursing through Europe in search of succour and shelter, and of the millions more on Europe’s doorstep in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon needs no elaboration. Syria alone is reportedly responsible for up to 4 million refugees, with Iraq and Somalia accounting for a further 3 million. Hundreds of thousands more are coming from Afghanistan,Libya, Eritrea, Nigeria and so on. Alarming numbers, but no longer surprising because the media have rendered them familiar.

What is less documented and less widely-known, ignored perhaps because the repercussions have largely failed to reach the First World, is that the number of people who have lost or fled their homes is much larger. UNHCR (the United Nations High Commission for Refugees) estimates the current number of displaced people at a staggering 59.5 million, of whom ‘only’ 19.3 million are classified as refugees or asylum-seekers.[1] In official parlance, displaced people who are not refugees are known as IDPs (Internally Displaced People).

Refugees and IDPs

A refugee is someone who has left their home country because they have a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, adherence to a particular social group or political opinion and cannot obtain sanctuary in that country.[2] Drafted in the aftermath of World War II and formally adopted in 1951 at the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees, this definition looked back on the recent history of war and restricted the term to that experience. The idea probably did not occur to those who drafted the Geneva Convention that it might also apply to people who have been driven from their homes but lack resources to effect an escape, or have no alternative countries willing to accept them, or even know that such countries exist. If you are fleeing for your life in Darfur, no matter the distance you have traveled, or the reason for your flight, you are a refugee only after you have crossed an international border; until then you are merely an IDP.

Almost 80 per cent of the 13.9 million people displaced in 2014 as a consequence of conflict or persecution were and remain IDPs. Refugees are the concern and merit the protection of the international community - in theory if not in practice. IDPs, though they may be recognised and supported by the UNHCR, occupy a much smaller place in the conscience of the world. And as we shall see, even the UNHCR’s perspective suffers from serious limitations.

The two most widely recognised drivers of Internal Human Displacement are violence and persecution, and natural disasters.

IDPs - from Violence and Persecution

It will come as no surprise that Syria is currently reported to have the highest number of violence-related IDPs - with estimates of the number varying between 6.5 million and 7.6 million - the large numerical differences reflecting both the momentum of continuing human movement and the difficulty of collecting accurate data in conflict zones. Nor will any consumer of Western media be startled to learn that IDPs in Iraq are believed to have grown to over 3.5 million, or even that up to 1.5 million South Sudanese and one million Afghans are displaced in their own country.

What may be less well-known is that the country with the second largest number of violence-related IDPs is not in the Middle East, or North Africa, but in South America. Colombia has an estimated 6 million IDPs - victims of internal violence perpetrated both by guerilla armies and by official and unofficial government forces and militia. We hear little about them, perhaps because Colombia has never functioned as an ideological battleground between East and West or between competing religions, and is of more interest to drug traffickers and coffee traders than to oil executives.

IDPs - from Natural Disasters

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in Geneva, between 2008 and mid 2015, the number of people displaced by natural disasters was just under 185 million. No, that is not a misprint. These are people forced out of their homes and way of life by earthquakes, mudslides, floods, fires and drought. In 2014, the number displaced by disaster was a relatively modest 19.3 million(below the annual average), the most severely affected countries being The Philippines with 5.8 million, and China and India with roughly 3.5 million each. Major disasters tend to hit the world’s headlines, though most are also quickly forgotten. But how many of us know that nearly a million Chileans and Indonesians, 250,000 Malaysians, 200,000 Bolivians, 150,000 Brazilians and Sri Lankans, 130,000 Sudanese, and 80,000 Paraguayans were displaced last year?

Are natural disasters merely random occurrences unrelated to what humans do to the Earth? Not according to the World Bank which appears to have accepted the scientific consensus. Moreover, the number of severe events is showing a clear upward trend - notably in the frequency of severe storms and floods. If that trend continues and, despite the best efforts of environmental scientists and prominent campaigners like Al Gore and Naomi Klein, there is little reason to think it will not, then we can expect more natural disasters, and many more people left homeless and bereft by them.

IDPs - from economic development

Largely ignored both by the international media, and the international agencies, including UNHCR, economic development projects are a third and almost certainly the largest cause of human displacement and unmitigated misery on the planet. Dr Michael Cernea, former senior policy advisor to the World Bank, has probably done as much as anyone to raise the alarm. Speaking at an Oxford University conference back in 1995, Cernea told his audience that “…world-wide about ten million people annually enter the cycle of forced displacement and relocation in two "sectors" alone — namely, dam construction , and urban/transportation... Development-caused displacements….have turned out to be a much larger process than all the world 's refugee flows taken together each year.” This 10 million figure, Cernea noted, was partial because it did not include displacements from forests and reserve parks; mining and thermal power plant displacements; and many others. His catalogue of the most common ravages of development-induced displacement include landlessness, unemployment, homelessness, marginalisation, food insecurity, increased morbidity and mortality, and social disintegration; and, as he makes clear in a Brookings Institute paper published in 2014, the process has continued unabated.

Victims of large economic development projects are seldom adequately compensated or resettled. Given the environmental degradation and human misery associated with projects like tar sands exploitation in Alberta, Canada, or the Cerrejón mining operation in northern Colombia, it is hard to see how any compensation could truly be described as restitutive. In Everybody loves a good drought, journalist P. Sainath’s masterly account of the lives of India’s poor, the author writes of IDPs that have spent 45 years waiting for compensation. Even the World Bank is curiously lack-lustre when it comes to safeguarding the interests of people marginalised by Bank-financed projects, regardless of its formal commitment to do so.

Among the most damaging development projects - damaging that is to the people directly affected - are large-scale dams. Arundhati Roy, in The Greater Common Good, an essay fired by anger and indignation, offers a heartbreaking picture of how the lives of villagers in India and - notably Tribals - have been shattered by the construction of large dams. Hundreds of villages have been lost to dam-associated flooding, agricultural land as well as valuable forest areas now lie under water, social structures have fractured, villagers have sunk into poverty and despair. Roy refers in her essay to a study of 54 large dams by the Indian Institute of Public Administration which estimates the average number of people displaced by large dams at just under 45,000. India’s Central Water Commission maintains a national register of large dams, from which we learn that the country currently has 4,858 completed dams with another 313 under construction, making a total of 5,171. Using a round figure of 5,000 dams multiplied by a cautious average of 20,000 displacements per dam (rather than the IIPA estimate), we get a total of 100 million people uprooted by dam construction in India alone. “Big dams,” Roy writes, “are to a nation’s development what nuclear bombs are to its military arsenal. They are both weapons of mass destruction… emblems that mark a point in time when human intelligence has outstripped its own instinct for survival… malignant indications of civilisation turning upon itself.”

Dams are far from being the only large-scale development projects dependent on forced evictions. Mining, cattle-ranching, agro-industry, pulp and paper plants, even military firing ranges also figure in the mix of activities requiring - if not demanding - human sacrifice.

We are in an uncontrolled universe in which the wealthy, the powerful and the aggressive use the weapons most suited to the circumstance - be they bombs and tanks, or dams, mines and polluting industries - to further their objectives and thereby shatter the lives of the weak and vulnerable. We rightly deplore the plight of refugees on our doorstep; but to the wretched of the earth, those who live and die miserably elsewhere, we are generally blind or indifferent. In our efforts to impose our religion, our politics, our consumerist way of life, even our development fantasies on others, we end up ruining both them and the environment of which they are the custodians. Military imperatives and economic development are big business; and nothing, it seems, is allowed to get in their way.

[1] An asylum seeker is someone who has applied for but not yet been granted refugee status.

[2] The formal definition is slightly more elaborate.


  1. This is a great article and and one which deserves widespread publishing. So much of your stuff remains here with no comments and I often feel that this media that you are using remains hidden too much. Perhaps much of the time it only reaches the "converted" which is a pity.
    I sense that you might be adverse to exposing your views within the more popular social media but I feel they do deserve more general revelation....just a thought.

    1. Thanks for your comment!. For at least the last few years, most of my posts, including this one, have been published in Open Democracy (see link under "Polemical Links" on the left), so this blog is really just an archive with the occasional added supplement. You can find my OD publication list by searching my name in Open Democracy's search box then clicking on it in the top right-hand corner. All the best....