Is the Syrian Refugee Crisis the Worst Since World War II?

by Akim Reinhardt

RefugeesThere's a new meme infecting the internet.

The Syrian refugee crisis is the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

It's all over the place. Just google the words “worst refugee crisis.” Don't even put “Syria” or “WWII” in the search bar. What follows is a string of mainstream media articles labeling the current Syrian refugee crisis as the worst since the big deuce. It has become conventional wisdom.

But is the flood of humanity currently vacating Syria really the worst refugee crisis of the last 70 years?

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees estimates that about 4,000,000 Syrian refugees have now left their homeland. Millions more are Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), people who have abandoned their homes but remain in Syria.

This is a formidable number, marking the Syrian exodus as certainly one of the worst refugee crises since World War II. And it may yet get worse. But is it actually the worst?

Probably not. A quick review explains why.

  • The 1947 partition of India that created Pakistan led to what is unquestionably the world's worst refugee crisis since World War II. As an isolated event, it is perhaps the worst refugee crisis of all time. Some 14 million people were displaced. Yes, I just said 14 million.
  • The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan spawned well over 6 millions refugees, about half of whom went to Pakistan and half to Iran. Twenty years after the invasion and ten years after the Soviet withdrawal, there were still two and a half million Afghan refugees living outside Afghanistan. Afghans constituted the largest number of world refugees every year for over three decades.
  • The war in Darfur created 2.5 million Internally Displaced Persons and hundreds of thousands more international refugees just over a decade ago.
  • In 1994, 800,000 people (mostly Tutsis) died in the orgy of violence that was the 1994 Rwandan genocide. When a Tutsi rebel group seized control of the country afterwards, 2,000,000 refugees (mostly Hutus) fled the the country for the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
  • It's particularly ironic to find the new meme in the U.S. press given that during the past 30 years, well over 4,000,000 Iraqis have been displaced, about half of them internally and the rest of them fleeing the country. Of course, much (although not all) of this results from the two U.S. invasions of Iraq.

When the meme about Syria began earlier this summer, the number of refugees who had left Syria was closer to 2 million than its current number. Which means the crisis had not yet reached the numbers seen in most of the events listed above. Perhaps the Syrian numbers were already worse than Rwanda (minus the genocide, of course), and on a par with Darfur. That would make it something like tied for fifth-worst since World War II.

Even as the number of Syrian foreign refugees has increased over the past several months, at the moment their total still seems to be less than the number of Afghan refugees. And even if one combines all displaced Syrians, refugees and IDPs alike, the total is still currently far less than the number of people displaced by the India-Pakistan partition.

So why the commonplace assertion that the Syrian refugee crisis is the worst since World War II, when it so clearly is not?

In truth, the above data is not very difficult to find. If I can pull it together while working unpaid for 3QD outside my regular full time job, one would think that many of the professional journalists who have recited the meme of Syria-as-worst could have also found it.

Part of the confusion seems to stem from the misinterpretation of a United Nations report, and that confusion has now transformed into mainstream misinformation.

Last year, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that in 2014, there were over 50 million refugees worldwide. By now, the total combination of foreign refugees and IDPs on planet Earth may exceed 60 million.

Those figures numbers are daunting. In raw volume, 60 million combined foreign refugees and IDPs in 2015 would indeed likely constitute the world's worst displacement crisis since World War II. Although it is important to note that today's global population of more than 7 billion is nearly triple the 1945 world population of about 2.5 billion, so as a percentage, it's nowhere close. Furthermore, the same U.N. report claims the total annual number of displaced persons has been well over 30 million every year since at least 1992. Many years the total has exceeded 40 million. So this represents the worsening of a consistently very bad situation.

Nonetheless, the current global refugee crisis is catastrophic, both in terms of raw numbers and ratio: the report estimates that about 1/122 people around the world are displaced. And so it is quite fair to say, as the U.N. report does, that today's situation, on the whole, is indeed the worst global refugee crisis since World War II.

Somehow, that assertion has morphed into the meme that specifically the Syrian refugee crisis is the worst refugee crisis since WWII, which it almost certainly is not.

Syria is hardly the only nation to see vast numbers of its citizens flee. There are still over a million Somalian refugees living outside Somalia; likewise, there are still two and a half million Afghan refugees outside Afghanistan.

Syrian refugees who have fled their nation, based on the 4,000,000 figure, comprise less than 1/12 of the world's current population of displaced people (refugees and IDPs combined). They comprise maybe 1/6 of the world's foreign refugees. All displaced Syrians combined, refugees and IDPs alike (about 9 million people), probably constitute barely 1/7 of the world's displaced people.

Thus, to call the Syrian refugee crisis the worst since WWII is beyond inaccurate. It makes light of the victims, survivors, aid workers, and host countries of past refugee crises, such as those involved in the Afghani crisis or the partition of India.

Furthermore, and perhaps more important, the current meme about Syria does very real damage in the here and now to the other 6/7 of the world's displaced people by effectively erasing them from the conversation. The mainstream Western press' hyper focus on Syrian refugees renders other, ongoing refugee crises nearly invisible.

But if an innocent misreading of a U.N. document possibly explains the origin of the meme of Syria as worst since WWII, then what explains the meme's relentlessness and growth? Blaming lazy internet journalism will only get us so far.

It would seem to me that the runaway growth of this meme has less to do with Syrians, or any other refugee groups past or present, and more to do with Europe.

Indeed, the current situation emanating from Syria might rightly be described as the worst refugee crisis to affect Europe since World War II. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are arriving in Europe. Granted, this is a mere fraction of worldwide refugees, but it is the first time since World War II that Europe has faced a refugee crisis of this scale.

And so in a way, what is most disturbing about the inaccurate meme of of “the worst refugee crisis since WWII” is the subtext underpinning it. It suggests that Westerners are quick to make the claim simply because it is worst refugee crisis that Europe has faced since WWII.

Europeans have to struggle with this particular crisis because people are showing up at their borders. Since rich, (largely) white populations are directly affected, then it must be the worst. And if it substantially affects wealthy, (largely) white European nations, then at the very least it must deserve much, much more attention than any of the other refugee crises.

To the extent that this is the logic at work, it represents a horrific interpretation of the Syrian refugee crisis, precisely because it suggests that Syrian pain and suffering are only relevant insofar as they create problems and misery for Europe.

It suggests that no one suffers like the citizens of rich nations who have to witness the suffering of others.

At the very least, the persistence and growth of this meme in the Western press suggests a degree of navel gazing by the world's wealthy nations that continues to break new boundaries in self-absorption.

The overblown worst-ever claims of the current Syrian crisis allow the mainstream Western media to justify paying little attention on all those other refugee crises that were actually worse or as bad.

I do not mean to sound callous. My heart goes out to the current refugees from Syria and the IDPs who remain behind. I hope the war ends soon and I hope they are able to return home safely, or at the very least, land somewhere else that is safe and welcoming.

However, when we casually issue phrases like “the worst since World War II,” as if we're handing out blue ribbons at a county fair dedicated to suffering, the overall effect is not only to magnify the current crisis, but also to justify our blind spots to many others.

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