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Economists on the Refugee Path

NEW HAVEN – Today’s global refugee crisis recalls the period immediately after World War II. By one contemporary estimate, there were more than 40 million refugees in Europe alone. These “displaced persons,” as they were called at the time, were forced to flee their homes because of violence, forced relocation, persecution, and destruction of property and infrastructure.

The dire postwar situation led to the creation in 1950 of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which was expected to serve only a temporary mandate, protecting displaced people for three years. But the problem never went away. On the contrary, the UNHCR is not only still with us; it is sounding an alarm.

In its 2015 mid-year report, the agency put the number of “forcibly displaced” people worldwide at 59.5 million at the end of 2014, including 19.5 million internationally displaced, which they define as true refugees. Some countries – Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Colombia, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Ukraine – each accounted for more than a half-million forcibly displaced people at the end of 2014. The report noted that the total number had certainly grown substantially since.

Unfortunately, the report underscores the incompleteness of our understanding of the refugee problem. In fact, throughout history, the fate of refugees seeking asylum in another land has largely been unstudied. Historians record wars, and they mention diasporas, but they rarely show much interest in how refugee crises arose or were resolved.