Fall 2017

The Global Refugee Crisis: Regional Destabilization & Humanitarian Protection

Sarah Kenyon Lischer

In addition to being a tragic output of civil war, large-scale displacement crises often become enmeshed in the politics, security, and economics of the conflict. Refugee and internally displaced populations thus exacerbate concerns about regional destabilization. The Syrian refugee crisis, for example, is deeply entwined with civil and international conflict. Neighboring host states of Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon bear the brunt of the crisis, while European states seek to prevent further encroachment by Middle Eastern asylum seekers. Policy-makers often mistakenly view host state security and refugee security as unrelated–or even opposing–factors. In reality, refugee protection and state stability are linked together; undermining one factor weakens the other. Policies to protect refugees, both physically and legally, reduce potential threats from the crisis and bolster state security. In general, risks of conflict are higher when refugees live in oppressive settings, lack legal income-generation options, and are denied education for their youth. The dangers related to the global refugee crisis interact with many other threats that emanate from civil wars and weak states, such as fragile governments, rebel and terrorist group activity, and religious or ethnic fragmentation.

SARAH KENYON LISCHER is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University. She is the author of Dangerous Sanctuaries: Refugee Camps, Civil War, and the Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid (2005) and has published articles in such journals as International Security, The American Scholar, Conflict, Security, and Development, and Global Governance.

Millions of people around the world today have fled their homes to escape civil war and other violence. Recent United Nations figures report 22.5 million refugees and 38 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). Statistics from 1996 to 2016 show that refugee numbers are at a twenty-year high. Internal displacement, in which people are forced from their homes but cannot cross the border, is also at a twenty-year high. Remarkably, 55 percent of the world’s refugees come from three states experiencing protracted civil wars: Syria (5.5 million), Somalia (1.4 million), and Afghanistan (2.5 million)1. Contrary to their expectations of sanctuary, many of these people continue to experience security threats in their new locations. Manipulation of refugee groups for political and stra- . . .


  • 1United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Figures at a Glance, Global Trends 2015,” http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html; and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Figures at a Glance,” June 17, 2017, http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a -glance.html.
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