A Convergence of Calamities: The War Refugee Crisis will be Dwarfed by ClimateRoundup
tags: climate change, refugees, African history
Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch and a fellow at the Type Media Center. He is the author most recently of Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan and of the bestselling Kill Anything That Moves. This article was reported in partnership with Brown University’s Costs of War Project and Type Investigations.
Worse Than World War II
Women, children, and men driven from their homes by conflict have been a defining feature of modern warfare. For almost a century now, combat correspondents have witnessed such scenes again and again. “Newly routed civilians, now homeless like the others with no idea of where they would next sleep or eat, with all their future lives an uncertainty, trudged back from the fighting zone,” the legendary Eric Sevareid reported, while covering Italy for CBS News during World War II. “A dust-covered girl clung desperately to a heavy, squirming burlap sack. The pig inside was squealing faintly. Tears made streaks down the girl’s face. No one moved to help her...”
The Second World War was a cataclysmic conflagration involving 70 nations and 70 million combatants. Fighting stretched across three continents in unparalleled destructive fury, including terror bombing, countless massacres, two atomic attacks, and the killing of 60 million people, most of them civilians, including six million Jews in a genocide known as the Holocaust. Another 60 million were displaced, more than the population of Italy (then the ninth-largest country in the world). An unprecedented global war causing unimaginable suffering, it nonetheless left far fewer people homeless than the 79.5 million displaced by conflicts and crises as 2019 ended.
How can violence-displaced people already exceed World War II’s total by almost 20 million (without even counting the nearly five million more added in the first half of 2020)?
The answer: these days, you can’t go home again.
In May 1945, the war in Europe came to an end. By the beginning of September, the war in the Pacific was over, too. A month later, most of Europe’s displaced -- including more than two million refugees from the Soviet Union, 1.5 million French, 586,000 Italians, 274,000 Dutch, and hundreds of thousands of Belgians, Yugoslavs, Czechs, Poles, and others -- had already returned home. A little more than a million people, mostly Eastern Europeans, still found themselves stranded in camps overseen by occupying forces and the United Nations.
Today, according to UNHCR, ever fewer war refugees and IDPs are able to rebuild their lives. In the 1990s, an average of 1.5 million refugees were able to return home annually. For the last 10 years, that number has dropped to around 385,000. Today, about 77% of the world’s refugees are trapped in long-term displacement situations thanks to forever wars like the conflict in Afghanistan that, in its multiple iterations, is now in its sixth decade.
The violence in Burkina Faso has led to a cascade of compounding crises. Around one million Burkinabe are now displaced, a 1,500% increase since last January, and the number only keeps rising. So do the attacks and the fatalities. And this is just the beginning, since Burkina Faso finds itself on the frontlines of yet another crisis, a global disaster that’s expected to generate levels of displacement that will dwarf today’s historic figures.
Burkina Faso has been battered by desertification and environmental degradation since at least the 1960s. In 1973, a drought led to the deaths of 100,000 people there and in five other nations of the Sahel. Severe drought and hunger struck again in the mid-1980s and aid agencies began privately warning that those living in the north of the country would need to move southward as farming became ever less feasible. By the early 2000s, despite persistent droughts, the cattle population of the country had doubled, leading to increasing ethnic conflict between Mossi farmers and Fulani cattle herders. The war now tearing the country apart largely divides along those same ethnic lines.
In 2010, Bassiaka Dao, the president of the confederation of farmers in Burkina Faso, told the United Nations news agency, IRIN, that the impacts of climate change had been noticeable for years and were getting worse. As the decade wore on, rising temperatures and new rainfall patterns -- droughts followed by flash floods -- increasingly drove farmers from their villages, while desertification swelled the populations of urban centers.
In a report published earlier this year, William Chemaly of the Global Protection Cluster, a network of nongovernmental organizations, international aid groups, and United Nations agencies, noted that in Burkina Faso “climate change is crippling livelihoods, exacerbating food insecurity, and intensifying armed conflict and violent extremism.”
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