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Tackling Global Displacement Is in the U.S. Security Interest

Washington is paying little attention to the global refugee crisis, but ignores this critical trend at its own peril, says the former acting director of national intelligence Michael Dempsey, arguing that addressing forced displacement helps the U.S. stay safe.

Written by Michael Dempsey Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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An Iraqi woman lies on the ground as civilians flee Mosul while Iraqi forces advance inside the city during fighting against the so-called Islamic State group’s fighters on March 8, 2017.ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration is grappling with a series of immediate international challenges ranging from North Korean missile activity to the counter-ISIS campaign. Yet there is an emerging global challenge that is receiving much less focus in Washington but which has potentially far-reaching implications for U.S. security interests – human displacement.

The international population of forcibly displaced people has doubled in the past two decades, from 33 million in 1997 to nearly 66 million this year. That’s a population on the move that is roughly the size of that of the entire United Kingdom. U.N. data indicates that 51 percent of the displaced are below the age of 18 years old, and that another 20 people are displaced every minute of every day.

In recent years, the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have been the primary drivers of refugees, but emerging crises in countries from Myanmar (where more than 500,000 Rohingya have fled their homes in recent weeks) to Venezuela are adding to these numbers.

I’d like to highlight three reasons why this issue merits near-term focus by U.S. policymakers.

First, migrant flows at the current level reflect global instability, but also drive more of it. If Europe is still struggling to accommodate the 1 million or so migrants it absorbed in 2015, imagine the pressure Lebanon is experiencing with more than 1 million refugees in a population of only 4.5 million. Similarly, countries such as Bangladesh and Ethiopia are absorbing thousands of migrants a month, putting their own stability at risk given the daunting economic and security challenges they already confront.

Consider the situation in Colombia, which already hosts several hundred thousand Venezuelans. Will Bogota really be able accommodate another million or so displaced persons from Venezuela within the next year or two, a not implausible scenario given the extent of the economic crisis gripping Caracas? And in Southeast Asia, the crisis has become so acute that U.N. secretary-general Antonio Guterres last month warned that violence in Myanmar and the outflow of Rohingya refugees seeking shelter could destabilize the broader region.

Second, the displaced communities in countries such as Jordan and Lebanon are attractive targets for exploitation by extremist groups such as Hezbollah, al-Qaida and ISIS, as well as by criminal groups involved in drug and human trafficking.

At the Rukban refugee camp along the Syria-Jordan border, for example, nearly 80,000 people, many of whom fled ISIS rule, are now trapped in a barren no man’s land. ISIS is widely reported to have established cells within the camp – Jordanian officials estimate that there may be 4,000 militants living there – and last year an ISIS suicide bomber killed Jordanian soldiers less than a mile from the camp. Middle East experts warn of a similar extremist presence (including al-Qaida operatives) inside some Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.

Of particular concern, the appeal of these groups to segments of the displaced population may increase in the coming years if children remain outside of a formal education process and young adults are cut off from productive employment opportunities. As former deputy national security advisor Avril Haines remarked last year, “If we allow this crisis to fester, we push some of the world’s most desperate people into the arms of some of the world’s most unscrupulous people, padding criminals’ bank accounts and funding activities that threaten our security.”

And third, U.S. military strategists are already factoring ways to handle the displaced into battlefield plans, a requirement that will only grow as the global refugee crisis deepens. In Iraq, the U.S. intelligence community, military and state department have spent considerable time and resources trying to protect at-risk populations and manage population flows in advance of military operations in Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul. U.S. officials have also worked with their Iraqi counterparts to tamp down sectarian divisions in recently liberated areas, and to coordinate the restoration of basic services so the displaced can return home. Similar challenges exist in U.S.-backed military campaigns in Afghanistan and eastern Syria.

So, what are some options to address this challenge?

First, the most productive step would be for the international community to creatively explore ways to help ease the fighting in the countries that are generating most of the refugees, including Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan – where one in four people have been forced from their homes.

Second, the U.S. might consider expanding and targeting our humanitarian and development assistance to countries of first asylum, especially those facing the most immediate risk such as Bangladesh, Jordan and Lebanon. In addition, the U.S. government could build on the excellent private–public sector partnership established in the last administration to provide educational tools and learning opportunities to those most at risk – refugee children.

And finally, the Trump administration could consider appointing a senior official to coordinate and prioritize all of the U.S. government’s relief and humanitarian support efforts that are already underway.

Today’s global displacement crisis in not an abstract, over-the-horizon threat with little immediate impact on the United States. Rather, it is causing human misery on an industrial scale, threatening the political stability of key allies, complicating the fight against extremists and influencing the way in which the U.S. conducts military operations. Tackling this challenge now is not only the moral thing to do, it’s also the best choice for our future security.

The views in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

Though the author is on a government-sponsored fellowship, the opinions expressed here are his alone and do not reflect the views of the U.S. government.

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