Fleeing from War

By James C. Simeon | 2016-07-01 12:00:00

The protracted armed conflicts in the world today are blights on all humanity. Refugees flee from war zones where food, medicine, transportation and communications networks are cut off, making their living conditions untenable. The right to seek asylum is, of course, one of the most fundamental human rights.1

The State of War in the World

The renowned Uppsala University Department of Peace and Conflict Research indicates that in 2014 the world had one interstate conflict, 26 intrastate conflicts, and 13 internationalized intrastate conflicts.2 That makes a world total of 40 armed conflicts, an increase from 34 the previous year.3

A different source, the “Wars in the World” website, lists the following armed conflicts by continent:4


29 Countries and 209 between militias-guerrillas, terrorist-separatist-anarchic groups involved in armed conflict.

Hot Spots:
Central African Republic
Democratic Republic of Congo
South Sudan


16 Countries and 164 between militias-guerrillas, terrorist-separatist-anarchic groups involved.

Hot Spots:


10 Countries and 80 between militias-guerrillas, separatist groups and anarchic groups involved

Hot Spots:


7 Countries and 236 between militias-guerrillas, terrorist-separatist-anarchic groups involved.

Hot Spots:


5 Countries and 25 between drug cartels, terrorist-separatist-anarchic groups involved

Hot Spots:

This works out to an astonishing 67 states that are engaged in armed conflicts with some 714 militias-guerrillas, terrorist-separatist-anarchic groups, and drug cartels. Indeed, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) stated in its Armed Conflict Survey 2015 that there were 180,000 casualties in some 42 conflicts in 2014.5 The IISS report noted that the “inexorable intensification of violence” was due to “the extremely violent fighting in Syria and Iraq and deaths in Afghanistan increasing following the withdrawal of western combat troops.”6 The report notes,

Moreover, the international community’s failure to create enduring solutions to armed conflicts is reflected in the rise of both the number of people displaced and the average duration of their displacement, which has reached around 17 years. Meanwhile, the constraints on humanitarian actors’ access to civilians affected by armed conflict contribute to new displacements and to the suffering of those already displaced.7

Accordingly, the number of persons fleeing conflict zones is increasing.

Refugees are the direct casualties of war, for the trauma of being forcibly displaced can have be as severe as incurring physical injury in a conflict.

Refugees have always resulted from wars, but especially do so in this “age of modern warfare.” Current wars blur the distinction between combatants and non-combatants; seek to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the opponents and therby undermine their will to resist; conduct the combat street to street, block to block, in highly populated civilian areas; and sometimes inflicts high numbers of civilian casualties.

As Nick Harvey, UK Minister of State for the Armed Forces, has observed, “We have also seen a continued blurring of the boundaries between states and non-states, and between peace and conflict.” Compex modern conflicts can no longer be described in terms of the conventional categories of warfare, terrorism and organized crime.8

The Consequence of War-Forced Displacement

The vast majority of the refugees today are the result of protracted armed conflicts. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) titled its 2014 global report on displacement, World at War.9 It reported that a record numbers of persons were being forcibly displaced as a consequence of war and persecution. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees at the time, Antonio Guterres, stated that “the response required is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before.”10 The war in Syria is now the world’s single-largest driver of displacement.11

The UNHCR noted that “every day 42,500 people became refugees, asylum seekers, or internally displaced, a four-fold increase in just four years. The 2015 global trends report on displacement noted that there were 65.3 million forcibly displaced people in the world—5.8 million more than the previous year.12

The current United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, has stated that the factors that endanger refugees are multiplying too. “At sea, a frightening number of refugees and migrants are dying each year; on land, people fleeing war are finding their way blocked by closed borders. Closing borders does not solve the problem.”13

Forced displacement has increased over the last five years for the following three reasons:

a) Conflicts that cause large refugee outflows (e.g. Somalia and Afghan­istan—now in their third and fourth decade respectively) are lasting longer;

b) New conflicts are occurring more frequently (e.g. in South Sudan, Yemen, Burundi, Ukraine, Central African Republic, and Central America); the rate at which solutions are being found for refugees and internally displaced people has been on a falling trend since the end of the Cold War, leaving a growing number in limbo.14

States are closing their borders. While the United Nations struggles with peacebuilding, states are unable to end these conflicts, but are content to allow them to continue. They are also unwilling to accept the refugees who are the direct consequence of these wars. This is reprehensible. All of us bear some responsibility for this global predicament.

Root Causes of Forced Displacement

While we may speak of a “just war”, as in “self-defense” or “in defense of a just cause,” in fact, the use of war as a means for settling disputes can never be justified. Some societies have abolished the death penalty because they have concluded that the taking of a person’s life is never justified, even when the offense is heinous.

Moreover, under customary international law no one can be sent to a country where they can face torture or persecution. The principlen of non-refoulement—that no one can be returned to a country where they can face persecution—is the basis of the international refugee protection regime today.

If torture, persecution, and the death penalty can be banned by the international community and states, then why should war not also be considered a violation of international law? Armed conflicts create the conditions for “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity”—both of which are serious breaches of international law. Why then, should we not include war and armed conflict in these categories?

The current refugee crises in the world today need to be addressed with humanitarian compassion. More than half of the world’s refugees (51%)15 are children. In fact, if we were to solve only three of the current protracted intrastate conflicts in the world today we would have solved half of the world’s refugees.16 We all continue to be “casualties of war”—some of us more so than others—until we respond appropriately to the root causes of these conditions and end these seemingly endless armed conflicts.

Professor James Simeon teaches public policy at York University.


1 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, Article 14, states, “(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights.

2 Uppsala University, Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Armed Conflicts 2014 Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), www.pcr.uu.se.

3 ibid.

4 Wars in the World, Daily News on Wars in the World and on new States, “$”:http://­www.warsintheworld.com/?page=static1258254223

5 International Institute for Strategic Studies, Armed Conflict Survey 2015, www.iiss.org/en/Topics/armed-conflict-survey/armed-conflict-survey-2015-46e5.

6 Richard Norton-Taylor, “Global armed conflicts becoming more deadly, major study finds,” The Guardian, 20 May 2015, “$”:http://www.theguardian.com/­world/2015/may/20/armed-conflict-deaths-increase-syria-iraq-afghanistan-yemen.

7 International Institute for Strategic Studies, Armed Conflict Survey 2015, Part IV: Preventing Displacement in Armed Conflicts, www.iiss.org/en/Topics/armed-conflict-survey/preventing-displacement-in-armed-conflict-84c9.

8 International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Shangri-La Dialogue 2012 Fourth Plenary Session, “New Forms of Warfare—Cyber, UAVs and Emerging Threats,” Nick Harvey, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, United Kingdom, www.iiss.org/en/events/shangri%20la%20dialogue/archive/sld12-43d9/fourth-plenary-session-1353/nick-harvey-ddd3.

9 UNHCR, Global Trends Report, Forced Displacement in 2014, World at War, Geneva: UNHCR, 2015. Indeed, the UNHCR’s Global Trends 2013 report was entitled, “War’s Human Cost,” and noted that, “The 2013 level of displacement was the highest on record since comprehensive statistics on global forced displacement have been collected.” Geneva: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2014, p. 2,

10 UNHCR, “Worldwide displacement hits all-time high as war and persecution increase,” 18 June 2015, www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2015/6 558193896/worldwide-displacement-hits-all-time-high-war-persecution-increase.html.

11 ibid.

12 UNHCR, Global Trends in Forced Displacement in 2015. Geneva: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2016. s3.amazonaws.com/unhcrsharedmedia/2016/2016-06-20-global-trends/2016-06-14-Global-Trends-2015.pdf.

13 ibid.

14 ibid.

15 ibid.

16 ibid. “More than half (54%) of all refugees worldwide came from just three countries: the Syrian Arab Republic (4.9 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million), and Somalia (1.1 million).”

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2016

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2016, page 22. Some rights reserved.

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