THE BLOG
11/03/2014 01:04 pm ET Updated Jan 03, 2015

A Rising Tide: The World's Displaced People

Syria commands daily media headlines. It has become associated with a conflict that now involves our nation and our politics. Syria is also almost indelibly linked to the rise of The Islamic State/ISIS and its actions, including the use of a very 21st century platform such as Twitter to recruit women from Western nations to join its cause. Yet while we consider the sensationalistic irony of a self-proclaimed caliphate's use of the most modern of technologies, let's not forget the extraordinary tide of displaced Syrians.

Half of Syria's population has been forced to flee their homes, with 3 million people seeking refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. To add to the magnitude of this situation, nearly 6.5 million civilians have been displaced within Syria, and nearly 11 million Syrians are in need of aid inside the country itself. If we total the sizes of both of the displaced groups, the conflict in Syria has resulted in roughly 10 million displaced people--that's the equivalent of displacing the entire population of states like Georgia, Michigan or North Carolina. Staggering.

As dismaying as these figures may be, they are dwarfed by the fact that, today, there are over 51.2 million forcibly displaced people in the world. These are the highest numbers since World War II. Of this total, 16.7 million are refugees - people who fled their native countries to preserve their lives or their freedom and now reside in another country. The top three "source countries" for refugees are Afghanistan, Syria and Sudan.

By far, though, today's largest group of displaced people consists of those living within their own borders. Officially referred to as "Internally Displaced People" or "IDPs," they amount to a record 33.3 million people. That's more than the total population of Texas, our second most populous state. Perhaps even more striking, only two nations account for half of the total number of internally displaced people - Syria and Congo.

These numbers are mind-blowing.

Unfortunately, these shocking statistics reflect the changing nature of conflict and displacement in the 21st century. War has shifted from nations battling one another to nations being torn apart from within by insurgencies and civil war. And the number of forcibly displaced people grows as the number of conflicts increases and wars don't end.

Despite the debates raging in the U.S. and Europe over immigration and refugee policy, the fact remains that so-called "developing" countries host over 86% of the world's refugees, compared to 70% ten years ago.

Not surprisingly, women and girls constitute about half of any refugee, internally displaced, or stateless population.

What is more surprising is that more than half of the world's displaced people are under 18. These young people are especially vulnerable to abuse, neglect, violence and exploitation. Much needs to be done to keep such children safe and ensure that communities do not "lose" entire generations of children.

But how do we deal with such a complex problem, one that spans continents and is often associated with conflicts that are themselves complex? Yes, it is encouraging to see donor nations, including ours, pledge to increase support for Syrian refugees. However, more needs to be done in terms of addressing root causes.

How about starting with something basic - good governance. We can help the displaced not only by providing them with food and shelter, but also by ensuring that their rights are upheld and that the rule of law is strong wherever they reside. Good governance doesn't only protect marginalized groups and the vulnerable such as children, but helps prevent countries from breaking down in the first place. In short, peace and good governance are crucial to well-being. This priority should be more fully reflected in our foreign aid policy.

I know that ensuring peace and good governance is much easier said than done. But, to me, it is one of the most promising starting points.

While holding true to this long-term "north star," the world, particularly the U.S., needs to provide 21st century options for refugees, asylum seekers, and IDPs. Large camps are no longer the only solution. In its Policy on Alternatives to Camps, the United Nations Refugee agency, also known as UNHCR, states that camps, by definition, place limitations on the rights of those housed within them and have negative impacts over the long run for all parties concerned.

Rather than isolating people in camps indefinitely, why not try to integrate refugees and IDPs into their host communities? This is already occurring with some communities in the U.S. as the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement has helped settle 3 million refugees in cities throughout the country since the 1940s. In 2012 the government of Brazil granted permanent residency to nearly 2,000 former Angolan and Liberian refugees that were already largely integrated into society in the cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

As we follow media narratives about the twists and turns in Syria and IS/ISIS, it is important to cut through the blitz to focus on the often invisible faces of this conflict - the 10 million Syrians who have been forcibly displaced. Let's think about our role in this humanitarian crisis. Let's figure out a way to support peace, good governance and global economic development. If we can, then this rising tide of displaced people has the potential to lift so many boats.