Today, there are 51.2 million forcibly displaced people around the globe.

The current number of individuals forced to uproot due to political turmoil is the largest it has been since the Second World War, with 16.7 million refugees, 33.3 million internally displaced people, and 1.2 million asylum seekers.

In 2013 alone, there were 10.7 million newly displaced people due to conflict or persecution. These figures are the highest on record since global refugee statistics have been collected.

If forcibly displaced people were to form their own country, it would be the twenty-sixth-largest in the world.

Bigger is Not Always Better

It is hard to conceptualize 51.2 million displaced people, most of whom live in unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

The developed world, protected by distance and friendly habitation, witnesses the obscenity of this current figure—which is 4.5 times the number of people killed in the Holocaust—from a safe perch. We express our empathy for this tremendous human plight via social media, but, in fact, most of us are relatively untouched by the gravity of these numbers.

Data that point to the sheer volume of human tragedy might actually in some way undermine any response, for two reasons.

First, heightened numbers give the impression that such travesty is commonplace—or worse—uncontrollable. With so many people displaced from their homes, how can foreign policy or international aid make a noticeable improvement?

Second, raw numerical data remove both the human and the political from the travesty. Not only are individual stories muted, but the political nature of the humanitarian crisis is diluted in the midst of calls for food, water, shelter, and doctors—management of disease and safety—to respond to these figures.

While it’s important to address the host of issues that plague refugee camps and other congregations of internally displaced people, it is critical to remember forced movements in population are the result of politics gone haywire.

Where Have I Heard That Before?

Gil Loescher, long-established expert on international refugee policy (and dedicated global public servant), argued in Beyond Charity that the growing refugee crisis was not just a humanitarian problem, but a political one.

Loescher called attention to the fragility of international law and the need to restructure the political management of the global refugee regime. This was not, according to Loescher, just about fixing the current problem. It was about avoiding a political implosion.

That was twenty-one years ago.

Even back then, Loescher grasped the growing role refugees would play in the game of geopolitics, observing they were often perceived as a political threat to the host country’s national security. Loescher underscored at the time how governments—fearful that a mass population influx of “ideologically incompatible” groups of people would endanger political relationships—were reluctant to offer asylum.

Entangled in tools of realpolitik, refugees increasingly became instruments of warfare and military strategy, putting them at risk of physical attack by both the armed forces of the countries of origin and by the agents of the new host countries.

Loescher presciently warned how the refugees—faced with a landscape in which they were vulnerable on many fronts—would themselves develop military and political capabilities of their own.

There is often a fine line between humanitarian and military aid.

More than twenty years later, Loescher’s depiction of the political nature of forced displacement reads as incredibly insightful. Militant developments by displaced people from within Syria reveal that Loescher’s assessment of what he called “refugee warriors” is not a phenomenon reserved solely for the 1990s.

The increasing influence of ISIS—the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant—is evidence that the political potency of groups under-represented by a formal political entity are connected to decades of displacement, political disenfranchisement, and the inability of international organizations and key players to address the growing demands of the refugee regime.

The Politics of Aid

As the number of forcibly displaced people continues to grow, and violent trends take on a transnational element, it is important for the international community to recognize the politicization of even the most “humanitarian” aid.

In conflicts as convoluted as the breakdown of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, there is often a fine line between humanitarian and military aid.

Humanitarian aid has long-been associated with military tactics, argues Jamie A. Williamson, legal advisor to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and former UN attorney. Williamson cites the U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24, which recognizes humanitarian assistance as an essential element of the “counterinsurgency toolkit.”

Williamson defines this “militarization of humanitarian aid” as the combination of political, social, and economic programs with military incentives. In Afghanistan, for example, humanitarian action was considered an instrument for “winning the hearts and minds” of local, refugee populations by the U.S. government. The ICRC expressed concern during the war in Afghanistan that the aid system has been co-opted by the international military coalition.

The United States—preparing to aid Syrian rebel groups with the $500 million requested from the White House last Thursday and providing continued assistance to Syrian refugees through USAID-funded programs— entrenches itself in that murky humanitarian-military gray area.

Forced movements in population are the result of politics gone haywire.

The Names Behind the Numbers

Raghad was married for only 40 days before her home in Syria was shelled, her husband was killed, and her family was forced to flee to Egypt. When she tells the story of losing her husband, she speaks of hope and stability simultaneously vanishing. As a Syrian, she always viewed Egypt as a beautiful place to visit as a tourist. She never imagined she would be trapped there as a refugee.

As statistics of forcibly displaced people multiply— due to increased violence from well-organized, transnational extremist militants, and the forceful national government backlash— foreign policy officials and international activists must remind the public that there is not only a political nature to humanitarian responses.

Individuals, such as Raghad, comprise the numbers that drive those politics.

Photo credits: Flickr, Creative Commons