Violence Has Forced 60 Million People From Their Homes

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the number of refugees and internally displaced people has reached its highest point since World War II.

Syrian refugees walk to a border gate in Turkey, headed back to their homes in northern Syria. (Umit Bektas / Reuters)

Updated on June 18, 2015, at 10 a.m.

War reporting tends to capture the devastation of buildings and the casualties of battle, but it’s harder to visualize the effect of conflict on those who aren’t killed or enlisted to fight. Even sweeping vistas of tent cities set up at dusty border crossings don’t seem to convey the scale of destruction.

Numbers can go a long way toward filling that gap. For example: According to annual figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, released on Thursday, in 2014 there were almost 60 million refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) around the globe right now. Put another way, that’s one in every 122 people worldwide. Put yet another way, that’s roughly the equivalent of the entire population of Italy being pushed out of their homes.

Not since World War II have there been so many refugees or IDPs. (Finding definitive numbers is tough, but the UN reports that the number of refugees and IDPs last exceeded 50 million during the Second World War, an astonishing figure given that the global population was significantly smaller then.) The annual Global Peace Index, released on Wednesday and based on the number of refugees and IDPs recorded through the end of 2013, offers some more detail about how the number got so high. Most of the growth in that period was actually not from refugees—that number had grown a comparatively scant 23 percent between 2004 and 2013—but among IDPs, or those uprooted within their home country, whose ranks had swelled by more than 300 percent since in that time.

Total Refugees and Internally Displaced People, 2004-2013

Unsurprisingly, many of these people are concentrated in the Middle East and in particular in Iraq and Syria, where ISIS’s advance and the Syrian civil war have driven many people from their homes. A third of the world’s refugees come from those two nations alone. The Global Peace Index reported that more than 9.5 million Syrians, or 43 percent of the Syrian population, had been displaced. Last year, Uri Friedman dug deeper into displacement in Syria; Alan Taylor this week compiled a powerful gallery of Syrians attempting to get over the Turkish border and escape ISIS fighters.

Somewhat more surprising, given the comparative lack of attention, was the share of IDPs in Colombia, where people have been forced to move due to the government’s battle with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Refugees and IDPs by Country of Origin

The Global Peace Index, produced by the Australia-based Institute for Economics and Peace, places the numbers in a broader context of conflict. If it seems like the world is getting more violent at the moment, that’s not just an illusion—the index’s metrics suggest that the world has become less peaceful over the last eight years, after a sustained period of improved stability after the Cold War.

This mass movement of people has a huge monetary cost. Economic activity stalls in the locations from which people flee; displaced people often lose most of what they possess and have trouble earning money; and someone has to pay to help feed and shelter them wherever they end up. The annual cost of this displacement, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, has now reached almost $100 billion.

But the most important effects are probably hidden far in the future. Studies have documented the deep and long-lasting effects that war and migration have on mental health. And World War II led to huge cultural changes across the globe, from the elimination of centuries-old ways of living to an intellectual efflorescence in the United States spurred in part by European Jewish refugees. While it’s impossible to predict what changes today’s surge of refugees and IDPs will set in motion, it’s fair to assume the reverberations will extend far beyond the Middle East.