The United Nation’s refugee agency recently released its annual report on people displaced by war around the world, and the news is bad:
The number of people forcibly displaced at the end of 2014 had risen to a staggering 59.5 million compared to 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago.
The increase represents the biggest leap ever seen in a single year. Moreover, the report said the situation was likely to worsen still further. The report focuses on raw estimates of displaced persons, but I think it makes more sense to look at this group as a share of world population. The number of people on the planet has increased by more than half a billion in the past decade, so we might expect to see some growth in the number of forcibly displaced persons even if the amount of conflict worldwide had held steady.
The chart below plots annual totals from the UNHCR report as a share of mid-year world population, as estimated by the US Census Bureau.
The number of observations in this time series is too small to use Bayesian change point detection to estimate the likelihood that the upturn after 2012 marks a change in the underlying data-generating process. I’m not sure we need that kind of firepower, though.
After holding more or less steady for at least six years, the share of world population forcibly displaced by war has increased by more than 50 percent in just two years, from about one of every 200 people to one of every 133 people. Equally important, reports from field workers indicate that this problem only continues to grow in 2015.
I don’t think I would call this upturn a “paradigm change,” as UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres did. But there is little doubt that the problem of displacement by war has worsened significantly since 2012.
In historical terms, just how bad is it?
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to say for sure. The time series in the UNHCR report only starts in 2004, and a note warns that methodological changes in 2007 render the data before that year incomparable to the more recent estimates.
The UNHCR describes the 2014 figure as “the highest level ever recorded.” That’s technically true but not very informative since recording started only recently. A longer time series assembled by the Center for Systemic Peace (here) supports the claim that the latest raw estimate is the largest ever. But as a share of world population, it’s probably still a bit lower than the levels seen in the post–Cold War tumult of the early 1990s (see here).
Other relevant data affirm the view that, while clearly worsening, the intensity of armed conflict around the world is not at historically high levels, not even for the past few decades. Here is a plot of annual counts of battle-related deaths (low, high, and best estimates) according to the latest edition of UCDP’s data set on that topic (here), which covers the period 1989–2013.
Note that these figures have not been adjusted for changes in world population.
We see a similar pattern in the Center for Systemic Peace’s Major Episodes of Political Violence data set (second row here), which covers the whole post-WWII period. For the chart below, I have separately summed the data set’s scalar measure of conflict intensity for two types of conflict, civil and interstate (see the codebook for details).
Like the UCDP data, these figures show a local increase in the past few years that nevertheless remains well below the prior peak, which came when the Soviet Union fell apart.
I’ll wrap this up by pinning a note in something I see when comparing the shorter-term UCDP estimates to the UNHCR estimates on forcibly displaced persons: adjusting for population, it looks like armed conflicts may be killing fewer but displacing more than they used to.
That impression is bolstered by a glance at UCDP data on trends in deaths from “intentional attacks on civilians by governments and formally organized armed groups,” which UCDP calls “one-sided violence” (here).
As the plot below shows, the recent upsurge in warfare has not yet produced a large increase in the incidence of these killings, either. The line is bending upward, but it remains close to historical lows.
So, in the tumult of the past few years, it looks like the rate of population displacement has surged while the rate of battle deaths has risen more slowly and the rate of one-sided violence targeting civilians hasn’t risen much at all.
If that’s true, then why?
Improvements in medical care in conflict zones are probably part of the story, but I wonder if changes in norms and values, and in the international institutions and practices instantiating them, aren’t also shaping these trends. Governments that in the past might have wantonly killed populations they regarded as threats now seem more inclined to press those populations by other means — not always, but more often.
Meanwhile, international organizations are readier than ever to assist those groups under pressure by feeding and sheltering them, drawing attention to their miseries, and sometimes even protecting them. The trend may be fragile, and the causality is impossible to untangle with confidence, but it deserves contemplation.
President of Lithuania's Constitutional Court Dainius Zalimas says Russia's Constitutional Court became an accomplice in an international crime and aggression against Ukraine when it legitimized the accession of occupied Crimea to Russia.( ) Read all
Dagmar Turner wasn't just showing off when she played the violin during her brain surgery at King's College Hospital in London. Surgeons asked the 53-year-old to play her instrument to ensure that the professional violinist's musical abilities were not damaged during a tumor removal....( ) Read all
For the first time in Switzerland, a restaurant catering specifically to nudists will open its doors at the end of February. We reveal all. According to the newspaper Schweiz am Wochenende, the eatery, called "Edelweiss Basel - Nudisten Lounge", will open at Rebgasse 39, in the...( ) Read all
Many of the personnel changes announced recently by Russian President Vladimir Putin appear to be of little significance. However, there are indications that a major policy change towards Ukraine may be underway following reports that Putin has replaced his chief troublemaker Vladislav...( ) Read all
It’s done. A triumph of dogged negotiation by May then, briefly, Johnson, has fulfilled the most pointless, masochistic ambition ever dreamed of in the history of these islands. The rest of the world, presidents Putin and Trump excepted, have watched on in astonishment and dismay. A...( ) Read all
Moldova has a fascinating recent history, and Leontina Vatamanu is perhaps its most articulate cinematic chronicler. Poke through her films, and you’ll realize that her cinema is one of hidden histories: whether it’s exploring one of Moldova’s most famous modern poets and...( ) Read all
From the Black Sea to the Adriatic, the issue of falling population numbers is a drama. In Moldova, it is a trauma. Since 1989, its population has shrunk by almost a third and in 15 years it may be only just over half of what it was back then.( ) Read all
Until the 21st century, the worst a coronavirus, a large family of viruses capable of infecting humans and animals, could do to humans was to deliver the common cold—annoying but hardly sinister. But three times so far in the 21st century, novel coronaviruses have emerged that could...( ) Read all
The 75th anniversary of the end of World War II was the only forthcoming event Russian President Vladimir Putin mentioned in his New Year’s address to the nation. Creating an alternative to the dominant Western narrative about that war is key to Putin’s way of securing Russia’s...( ) Read all
Trains and flights out of the central Chinese city have been canceled as the toll from a new coronavirus grows. The Chinese city of Wuhan, the seventh largest in the country with approximately 11 million people, will be under a partial quarantine from 10 a.m. Chinese time Thursday, according...( ) Read all
The Russian president’s amateur history lessons are outraging neighboring countries. While he is right to criticize a recent EU Parliament resolution, his historical revisionism doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.( ) Read all
In December 2019, I met with the Prime Minister of the Republic of Moldova, Ion Chicu. We agreed that Council of Europe experts would visit Chisinau with a view to offering our assistance towards reforms needed to create an independent, accountable, efficient and professional judiciary for the...( ) Read all
On Friday, January 10, Viorel Morari, Moldova’s Anti-Corruption Prosecutor, was detained. Initially held for 72 hours, Morari’s arrest was extended on January 13 for a further 30 days. A number of international outlets reported Mr. Morari’s circumstances, due to the political...( ) Read all
With the narrative that floats around, one is tempted to think that the Ukraine crisis is all about Crimea; that it started and ended there. So what about the internal oblasts like Odessa, Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Donetsk (the South- Eastern regions) where a protracted conflict broke out? Are...( ) Read all
During his visit from 21 to 23 January, the OSCE Special Representative for the Transdniestrian Settlement Process Ambassador Thomas Mayr-Harting will hold talks with high-level Moldovan officials and the political leadership in Tiraspol.( ) Read all
The past few days have been witness, to some important statements made in the context of the Joint Comprehensive Program for Action (JCPOA) — also referred to as the Iran Nuclear deal. US allies, including the UK and some EU member states do not seem to be in agreement with the US...( ) Read all
When Russians woke up on Wednesday morning, most had likely never heard of Mikhail Mishustin, the head of the country’s tax service. But by the time they went to bed that night, Mishustin had been named as Russia’s new prime minister after a day that included a flurry of...( ) Read all
Washington (CNN)Days after President Donald Trump claimed the US killed Iran's top military general because he was targeting four American embassies, two of the President's top national security officials are declining to provide evidence of the intelligence used to justify the US drone...( ) Read all