Blog post by Dr James C. Simeon, the Head of McLaughlin College and an Associate Professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration (SPPA), Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies at York University, Toronto. He is a former Director of the SPPA, a former Acting Director and Deputy Director at the Centre for Refugee Studies (CRS) at York University, and a Senior Research Associate at the Refugee Law Initiative.



UNHCR’s December 2020 mid-term report on the state of global forced displacement was a grim one indeed. It indicated that there were 80 million people, one percent of the world’s population, who were forcibly displaced in the world today. Troubling still are the now all too familiar seemingly ever-escalating statistics on the numbers of those uprooted: 45.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs); 26.4 million refugees; and, 4.2 million asylum seekers. Two more statistics are worth emphasizing even more: 67% of all refugees come from just five countries; and, 82% of all those displaced across borders come from, remarkably, only 10 countries. They are, not surprisingly: Syria (6.6 million); Venezuela (3.7 million); Afghanistan (2.7 million); South Sudan (2.2 million); Myanmar (995,000); Somalia (910,000); Democratic Republic of Congo (822,000); Sudan (772,000); Central African Republic (609,000); Eritrea (514,000). All, save Venezuela, have been wracked with protracted armed conflict for years.[1] It is evident from these statistics that the primary cause of cross-border forced displacement in the world today is protracted armed conflict.[2] What is perhaps even more jarring is the fact that the number of those who have been forcibly displaced in the world, according to UNHCR, has doubled over the last decade from 41.1 million in 2010 to over 79.5 million in 2019, and over 80 million today.  


This dire state of affairs, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has affected dramatically everyone’s lives, but most assuredly those who have been uprooted from their homes and happiness, has prompted the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, to state, “With forced displacement doubling in the last decade, the international community is failing to safeguard peace.” This is a refreshing, and, quite a remarkable thing for a top UN official to say, given the principal responsibility of the UN is the maintenance of international peace and security. However, Grandi also stated, “We are surpassing another bleak milestone that will continue to grow unless world leaders stop wars.” Both of these statements from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees indicate the specific central challenge and problem confronting the world today; that is, the international community’s inability to end wars and to safeguard peace. Some would even go so far as to say that our inability to end wars not only ensures an ever-escalating number of forcibly displaced persons in the world but poses an “existential risk” for humanity.  


While conflict-induced displacement is disproportionately the cause of cross-border forced displacement in the world today, it is not, of course, its only cause. There is also development-induced displacement, when people are forced to leave their homes due to the results of politics and development projects such as dams, canals, railways, roads, airports, harbours, and so on. And there is disaster-induced displacement where people are displaced due to natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, droughts, etc. Climate change may be a slow onset human induced disaster in the making. People are also displaced due to human inflicted disasters such as radioactivity and industrial accidents.[3] War may fall within this latter category when there is a failure to resolve peacefully the differences between opposing sides.[4] But those people who are forcibly displaced by development and disaster-induced displacements remain largely within the borders of their respective countries.  


There are currently over 40 armed conflicts that are taking place in the world today, depending on the way that you define armed conflict and war. Three of these armed conflicts have been classified as “major wars:” Afghanistan (20,797 killed in 2020); Yemen (19,780 killed in 2020); and Tigray (Sudan and Ethiopia clashes, 15,200 killed thus far in 2021). A major characteristic of armed conflict in the world today is that it tends to be non-international armed conflict or civil war. Many of these “intrastate” armed conflicts become internationalized and involve other States that make it that much harder to resolve. A further characteristic of armed conflict today is that it tends to last for years and years like the protracted armed conflicts in Afghanistan, Yemen, Tigray, Syria, South Sudan, and on and on.  


Some have argued that what we are witnessing in the 21st Century are new types of wars. Mary Kaldor is one of the leading proponents of the “new war thesis,” who argues that wars in the post-Cold War period display the following characteristics:

  • The extreme organized violence takes place between varying combinations of State and non-State networks.
  • The fighting is in the name of identity politics as opposed to ideology.
  • The objective is to achieve political, rather than physical, control of the population through fear and terror.[5]  
  • The armed conflict is financed not necessarily through the State, but through other predatory means [organized crime] that seek the continuation of the violence.[6]  


Wars are protracted and seemingly endless because it is in the interest of the opposing sides of the conflict not to resolve the armed conflict but to continue them ad nauseam.  


Further, and sadly, forced displacement is employed deliberately by the warring sides as an instrument of warfare. Consequently, forced displacement is not an incidental outcome of the armed conflict but is used, as Kelly Greenhill argues, as a “weapon of mass migration.” It is a deliberate strategy in an armed conflict as a ‘weapon of war’ in order to achieve victory.[7]  


What all this suggests is that we are sorely in need of looking at the problem of protracted armed conflict and forced displacement in entirely new ways. The 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants while acknowledging the problem of conflict-induced forced displacement does not address it centrally or vigorously. Likewise, the 2018 Global Compact on Refugees acknowledges the cause of the mass production of refugees but falls far short of seeking to address it in any meaningful way. Both of these non-binding international instruments are focused primarily on dealing with the symptoms and not the causes of forced displacement. As a start, we must seek to take new approaches and methods to peacebuilding, peacemaking and peacekeeping that are geared to addressing the new dynamic and reality of warfare in the 21st Century.[8] The United Nations, as an international institution, must adapt to the “new wars” reality and double its efforts and adopt new measures to bring about an end to war, as it is waged at the present, if the ever-escalating current trend in cross-border forced displacement is to be halted and reversed.[9]    




[1] Five of these countries appear in the International Crisis Group’s “10 Conflicts to Watch in 2021.” See Robert Malley, Commentary/Global, December 30, 2020, (accessed April 9, 2021)

[2] It is also important to point out that 42 percent of all IDPs are in three countries, Colombia, Syria, and Democratic Republic of Congo. All have experienced internal armed conflict for decades. The situation in Colombia has been complicated by the mass arrival of Venezuelans. UNHCR, UNHCR’s Initiative on Internal Displacement 2020-2021. (Geneva: UNHCR, 2021), (accessed April 14, 2021) See also Jacob Kellenberger, President of the ICRC, “Root causes and the prevention of internal displacement: the ICRC perspective,” 23 October 2009, International Committee of the Red Cross, (accessed April 14, 2021)

[3] The two most prominent examples here are obviously, the nuclear power plant accident in Chernobyl on April 26, 1986, World Nuclear Association, “Chernobyl Accident 1986,” updated April 2020, (accessed April 10, 2021), and the Union Carbide India Limited, Bhopal Disaster on December 2, 1984, Alan Taylor, “Bhopal: The World’s Worst Industrial Disaster, 30 Years Later,” The Atlantic, December 2, 2014, (accessed April 10, 2021).

[4] Joseph Zibulewsky, MD, “Defining disaster: the emergency department perspective,” Baylor University Medical Centre Proceedings, (April 2001) 14:2, pp. 144-149, (accessed April 19, 2021), Wherein it states, “Disasters are divided into 2 basic groups: natural and man-made. Among the natural disasters are earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, floods, and fires. Among the man-made disasters are war, pollution, nuclear explosions, fires, hazardous materials exposures, explosions, and transportation accidents.”; Likewise, so-called “man-made disasters have been defined as, “Man-made disasters have an element of human intent, negligence, or error involving a failure of a man-made system, as opposed to natural disasters resulting from natural hazards. Such man-made disasters are crime, arson, civil disorder, terrorism, war, biological/chemical threat, cyber-attacks, etc.” Emergency Management, Monroe County, Florida, (accessed April 19, 2021); Barton Myers, “Disaster Study of Wars,” Disasters. (December 1991), Vol. 15, No. 4, pp, 318-330.

[5] Christel Querton, “Fleeing Contemporary Armed Conflicts in International Refugee Law: Judicial Practice in the European Union,” February 10, 2021, McLaughlin College Lunch Time Talks, York University. (accessed April 27, 2021)

[6] Ibid

[7] Kelly M. Greenhill, Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion, and Foreign Policy. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010)

[8] United Nations, Department of Peace Operations, (accessed April 10, 2021); United Nations Peacekeeping, (accessed April 10, 2021)

[9] Alexandre Marc, “Conflict and Violence in the 21st Century: Current Trends as Observed in Empirical Research and Statistics,” World Bank Group, Fragility, Conflict and Violence, undated, (accessed April 10, 2021)    



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