Human displacement has reached record levels as old wars continue and new conflicts emerge. The second half of the 20th century saw a decline in wars between states, but a steep rise in the number of internal armed conflicts and other violent situations that caused mass displacement across borders. These internal wars have proven to be more protracted and complex. They are characterized by a diversity of actors (state and non-state, including terrorists and insurgent groups) with competing economic, political, and sectarian interests.
The toll of armed conflict on civilians remains high. Not only are civilians killed in war, but war also causes displacement, famine, poverty, injury, and disease. Far more civilians die as an indirect consequence of armed conflict, than directly in armed conflict. The Syrian Centre for Policy Research reported in early February that more than 470,000 deaths could be attributed, directly and indirectly, to the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011 and is still raging. The country has also generated more than 4.5-million refugees and 6.5-million internally displaced people.
After decades of political instability and conflict in both countries, Somalia (1.1-million refugees) and Afghanistan (2.6-million) are among the oldest and largest sources of refugees. By mid-2015, Syria had surpassed both since the war began five years ago.
The deadly supply of weapons to Syria
The Syrian conflict has been fuelled by the steady supply of weaponry to all sides. Since 2011 the Syrian government has relied on military support from Russia; at the end of 2012, Iran stepped up its military support of government forces. The rebel groups have acquired weapons from a host of sources: the black market, battlefield capture, improvised factories, and foreign governments. Many of the arms that were meant for so-called moderate rebel groups are now in the hands of ISIS and other militants.
The steady supply of heavy weaponry, including aerial and chemical weapons, has increased lethality and prolonged the conflict. Since 2012, indiscriminate and disproportionate bombardments have killed many civilians and caused mass displacement. Homes, medical facilities, schools, water and electrical facilities, bakeries, and crops have been destroyed, making many parts of the country unlivable. Mr. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, concluded in 2015 that the scale of harm caused by the different groups depended solely on their respective military capabilities.
Increasing numbers of Syrians are trying to find safety in neighbouring countries and Europe. They are not economic or ‘illegal’ migrants, but genuine refugees fleeing persecution and war in Syria. They have the right to seek asylum.
Many of the weapons that threaten, maim, and kill civilians get into Syria because arms transfers between countries are poorly regulated. The international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) aims to reduce the human costs of war that result from this uncontrolled trade in conventional weapons. If universally accepted and effectively implemented, it will reduce the likelihood that exported conventional weapons will be used to violate human rights or in war crimes. If there is a reasonable risk of such abuse, the arms deal cannot be authorized by the seller.
Increased control of the supply of conventional arms is an important first step in disrupting the deadly cycle of violence and resulting displacement. The ATT will also provide transparency in arms transfers and make arms-exporting governments accountable for their role in conflicts.
World Refugee Day
War exacts huge costs, especially from civilians. With no political solution in sight in Syria, more Syrians are escaping to already over-crowded neighbouring countries and refugee camps, while increasing numbers employ unscrupulous human smugglers to help them reach Europe. In 2015, 3,771 migrants and refugees died while crossing the Mediterranean Sea. By June 8 of this year, the toll for 2016 was 2,856.
More than 60 million people in the world today are displaced. This number is the highest since the Second World War, but it is expected to grow as people flee other protracted armed conflicts in northern Africa, southern Asia, and Latin America.
On December 4, 2000, the United Nations General Assembly, in Resolution 55/76, decided that, beginning on June 20, 2001—the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees—the world would mark World Refugee Day. As World Refugee Day 2016 approaches, the need to consider the plight of refugees and, perhaps most importantly, the conditions that drive and exacerbate forced migration, is as urgent as ever. As Project Ploughshares has long advocated, through rigorous evidence-driven research, there is a need to advance, in Syria and other conflict zones, a comprehensive security package that includes not only short-term responses to the most pressing manifestations of such crises, but lays the foundation for sustainable peace and better arms control measures.