By: Serge Schmemann
Statistics are not usually effective at depicting tragedy, which is why United Nations reports rarely generate passion. But the figures released this past week by the United Nations refugee agency offer perhaps the starkest reflection of the strife raking vast stretches of the globe.
The number of people around the world forced by conflict to flee their homes, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported, has soared past 51 million, the highest number since World War II. That’s more than six times the population of New York City, emptied into squalid camps. Half the refugees are children; a growing number of these are on their own, according to the report. Most are what the United Nations refers to as “internally displaced” — people who have fled their homes but not their countries.
The continuing bloodshed in Syria was the biggest generator of refugees in 2013, but strife in Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Mali, Somalia and elsewhere added hundreds of thousands, while the eruption of new sectarian strife in Iraq, along with conflicts in places like South Sudan and Ukraine, promised to further swell the ranks of the displaced in 2014.
The stunning figures offer a bitter counterpoint to the growing resistance in Europe and the United States to letting in immigrants and asylum seekers, and to the endless sterile blame-games about responsibility for the various conflicts. Only a lucky trickle of the refugees made it to developed countries; the vast majority, 86 per cent, were living in developing countries.
Whether in fact the US had the duty or ability to prevent or resolve conflicts far from its shores was once again a subject of bitter debate in America as a brutal Sunni militia rampaged through Iraqi cities for which thousands of American soldiers had fought and died. A chorus of conservatives and neocons, led by veterans of the George W. Bush administration and supported by hawkish pundits, piled on to President Obama, accusing him of pulling American troops out of Iraq too early and too completely, and in general of allowing America to be perceived as weak.
President Obama has made it an article of faith in his foreign policy that military intervention is neither the solution to every problem nor necessary for America to avoid looking weak. He announced on Thursday that he was sending up to 300 military advisers to Baghdad, and was prepared to take “targeted and precise military action”. But he made clear that there would be no mission creep: It was for Iraq to do the heavy lifting and to find the leaders who could unite them, he firmly declared. And in an indirect retort to his critics, he made clear his belief that the Iraq war had been a mistake.
One issue on which there seemed to be general agreement was that Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki was heavily responsible for creating the Sunni anger on which ISIS fed by openly favouring his fellow Shiites in government and the military. There was a strong feeling that Maliki had to be replaced by someone better suited for the herculean task of trying to bring Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds together again. Another aspect of the struggle with Middle Eastern extremists that has confounded the Obama administration is what to do with captured terrorists when every effort is being made to empty out the infamous Guantánamo Bay prison.
By the standards of Syria or other Middle Eastern conflicts that defy all efforts at resolution, Ukraine is but a blip. Yet three months after Crimea was annexed by Russia, encouraging similar rebellion among Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, nasty skirmishes persist between them and ineffective Ukrainian forces, confounding hopes in the West and in Ukraine that the conflict will taper off of its own accord.
Announcements of a unilateral cease-fire by Ukraine’s new president, Petro O. Poroshenko, and his discussions of a possible peace plan with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, have done nothing to curb the rebels or stop the bloodshed. With his ability to turn the military and economic pressures on Kiev up and down, Putin seems to have Ukraine where he wants it — weak, disordered and dependent.
From ‘The New York Times’