Refugees are an inevitable part of war. Yet the costs associated with caring for them are too seldom factored into war's calculus, especially once refugees are safely outside the theater of war.
According to a report released this week by the U. N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of refugees and other forcibly displaced people is at a 15-year high. Nearly 44 million people were driven from their homes in 2010 — a figure roughly equal to the entire population of South Korea or Colombia. The majority of these were children, some of whom have been separated from their families.
When a country determines military action is justified to address an untenable situation, it takes upon itself a grave moral responsibility not only for casualties of war, but also for the inevitable collateral damage — a phrase increasingly used as a euphemism for civilian casualties. Collateral damage also includes refugees forced to flee their homes.
Nearly half of all refugees worldwide are from Afghanistan and Iraq — the two countries where the U.S. has waged war in recent years. Most have fled to neighboring countries, as do the majority of refugees overall. As a result, more than 80 percent of refugees are hosted in developing countries, with developed countries shouldering relatively little of the burden.
U.N. High Commissioner Antonio Guterres has called on wealthier countries to help.
"Developing countries cannot continue to bear this burden alone, and the industrialized world must address this imbalance," he said at the release of the report. "We need to see increased resettlement quotas. We need accelerated peace initiatives in long-standing conflicts so that refugees can go home."
Guterres also noted that Western fears of refugees overwhelming industrialized countries are overblown and confuse refugee resettlement with issues of migration. However, another important reason the imbalance occurs is that many refugees — three quarters, in fact — prefer to stay close to home.
This means that Pakistan, Iran and Syria currently have the largest refugee populations in the world. The West's complicated, strained relationships with these countries make it problematic for developed nations, including the U.S., to determine how to appropriately pull their weight.
Nonetheless, the U.S. and its allies should take Guterres' call to action seriously by facilitating resettlement in developed countries for refugees who desire it. In developing countries where humanitarian refugee assistance is politically straightforward, Western countries should take steps to carry their fair share of costs. And in negotiations with allies like Pakistan and dealings with other countries like Iran and Syria, concern for refugees should be among America's top priorities.
Even in an environment of complicated global relations, collateral damage must always retain a human face.