A Recipe for Refugees: War, Climate and Sanctions
The crisis in Ukraine has brought to the limelight the plight of refugees. As soon as the conflict started, Western governments quickly announced their plans to accept refugees while Presidents staged photo ops hugging perfectly healthy and well-dressed young refugees. People around the world showed their empathy by putting Ukrainian flags on their windows and social media accounts and some even organized collections of food and medicine for the refugees. This sudden and intense interest in refugees from just one country is surprising in the light of the millions of refugees around the world that are routinely ignored. There are no flags, empathy, or Presidential photo ops for the rest of the refugees caused by even more gruesome conflicts, draconian economic sanctions, and climate change.
Why should some refugees deserve more attention than others? After all, a refugee is a refugee, a person who has been uprooted from his home and culture due to circumstances beyond his control. Refugees usually end up separated from their families, alienated, traumatized, and in a worse economic situation. All refugees deserve a helping hand, but unfortunately, the geopolitical strategies of powerful countries create a refugee hierarchy in which some are more deserving than others. The media follows their lead by concentrating on a few while ignoring all the rest.
Unfortunately, thanks to the ongoing climate crisis, the word “refugee” will be increasingly used in the years to come. The Earth’s climate is becoming increasingly unpredictable, making agriculture and survival progressively more difficult. Around the world, extreme unprecedented droughts, sometimes followed by torrential floods, are causing hunger and despair. Water sources are dwindling or being contaminated and extreme temperatures are making more and more places unlivable. Anybody who is truly aware of our climate predicament would understand that there is no time to waste on dividing people, imposing sanctions, or creating wars. The world’s leaders are content with mouthing their climate concerns, while quietly continuing business-as-usual.
Wars are part of this business-as-usual mentality, and the US war on terror is a very good example. This series of conflicts that the US started in 2001 for no valid reasons have caused not just destruction and death but an eternal flow of refugees. According to a 2020 paper by David Vine et al. titled Creating Refugees: Displacement Caused by the United States Post-9/11 Wars, the war on terror has caused, in a conservative estimate, about 37 million refugees from the countries directly affected: Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, Libya, and Syria. This number goes up if you count the African countries to which the post 9–11 conflicts later extended: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Niger, and Tunisia. In total, we have between 48 million (conservative estimate) to 59 (more likely) million displaced by the US war on terror.
The whole Mid East area is experiencing serious climate derailment that combined with the US interventions in the war on terror have exacerbated the refugee crisis. Afghanistan, the first to be hit by the war on terror is the source of about 6 million refugees, 85 % of which live in Pakistan and Iran. Pakistan itself has also endured bombings under the war on terror and Iran suffers from crippling US sanctions. It is difficult to imagine how these affected countries can deal with such a huge number of refugees!
Iraq, the neighbor of Iran, has suffered a mix of devastating sanctions and interventions for so long that it is doubtful many Iraqis remember a normal time. The situation has been so desperate that according to the study mentioned above, about 9.2 million Iraqis have been displaced since the 2003 invasion.
The plight of Iraq’s population began well before 2003 with the 1990 Gulf War, when much of the essential civilian infrastructure was bombed and destroyed, leaving people in dire conditions. The sanctions that ensued compounded the problem by prohibiting chemicals for water treatment and other basic civilian necessities which caused hygiene and food availability problems leading to the death of about 500,000 children in Iraq. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq under false accusations of nonexistent WMD put the toxic cherry on the cake and turned the country into a complete disaster. About 95% of Iraqi refugees remain in the Middle East, going to places like Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon while only a few can reach Europe or the US.
Many Iraqis have gone to Syria, but in 2011 this country was hit with US sanctions that prescribed an embargo on oil and the freezing of the assets of the Syrian state. The sanctions also prohibited the export of goods and services originating from the US or its companies, as long as at least 10% of the value comes from the US. This led to food and fuel shortages and inflation that have affected the civilian population. This crisis was deepened by the US coalition’s military intervention that started in 2013. In total, the combination of severe droughts, sanctions, and war had displaced 13.3 million Syrians by 2018.
In an area with so many refugees, where do Syrians go? Where do Iraqis who went to Syria turn to? They all have to pile up in the few nearby countries that are not targeted by the War on Terror. Jordan is the main recipient of Syrians, where according to the UNHCR, 650,000 Syrians have registered as refugees. The majority remain in limbo, on the border between Jordan and Syria where they remain in precarious camps under desert conditions. Others have been accommodated about 10 miles from the Syrian border in one of the largest refugee camps in the world, the Zaatari camp. Few manage to get refugee status, but even those lucky ones don’t have the same rights as citizens, and many end up living in extreme poverty. According to the World Food Program, nearly 90% of Syrian refugees experience food insecurity. Other Syrians and Iraqis have gone to Lebanon, but the US started sanctions on Lebanon too. Sanctions, refugees, and climate derailment are not a recipe for well-being anywhere.
The refugee suffering continues in Yemen, another conflict zone caused by the intervention by Saudi Arabia with the full support of the US and its allies in Europe. This ongoing war that started in 2014 has caused the largest humanitarian crisis of the past 10 years. The continuous bombardment of the country has led to food shortages and lack of water that were exacerbated when the US Navy and its aircraft carriers implemented a blockade of food and medicine to relieve the crisis. Oxfam calculates that the Yemen response plan is currently 70% underfunded and has left 17 million people facing acute food insecurity, with predictions the number will rise to 19 million by the end of 2022.
The Yemen crisis brings to mind the situation in Northern Africa. Thousands of refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia, where drought, food shortages, and the US war on terror have made their appearance, had fled to Yemen hoping for some peace. After the war in Yemen started in 2014, you can imagine the quality of life of refugees from two countries that suffer bombings and droughts, who go to another country that also suffers drought and is suddenly bombed without pity.
The war on terror and the climate problem continue in Africa, where there is a substantive increase in extreme weather-related events that negatively impact the food security and survival of many Africans. The imbalance of the Earth’s systems is changing atmospheric and ocean currents causing an expansion of the Sahara to previously wet areas. The unpredictability of the climate is making people migrate in great numbers. Central Africa has become a merry-go-round in which refugees go to each other’s countries with the Ivory Coast as the main net recipient. In Southern Africa, the destination for refugees is South Africa. Here is farmer Timothy Murombedzi, 30, from Zimbabwe who had to resort to living in South Africa illegally, and describes the situation that is happening in many places around the world:
“I was a farmer in Zimbabwe but the climate conditions have become unpredictable. It is now difficult to have a good rain-fed cropping season. I used to have more than 20 head of cattle but lost 15 beasts due to drought. I came here in 2010 and am doing menial jobs on the local farms. It is better than watching my cattle dying back home. Yes, some people are running away from (President Robert) Mugabe’s iron-fist rule but I am not one of those people. I am running away from drought and hunger.”
Mugabe died in 2019, but the US war on terror continued in Africa with the US and NATO’s intervention in Libya. Under the guise of fighting terrorism, the US increased its military bases in the area, usually euphemistically called outposts or cooperation and assistance centers. In reality, according to Tom Dispatch in 2013 alone, the US had military involvement with no fewer than 49 African nations. The degree of involvement varies depending on the year, but we can be sure that Africa is now suffering not just from climate and poverty problems, but also from western interventions that are ignored by the media.
Libya itself, a country that had the highest GDP in Africa and was acting as a recipient of Africa’s climate, War on Terror, and poverty refugees, was destroyed by the NATO alliance and turned into a non-functioning country that joined the refugee list. The Africans that used to migrate there are no longer going, or just using it as a stepping stone on their dicey attempt to get a life in a stable place.
The unpredictability of climatic conditions in the Middle East and Africa can link with those all around the world. This unpredictability is the result of the interplay of ocean and atmosphere temperatures and wind currents. The disturbance of these currents can be exemplified in the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the interplay of La Niña “cold” and El Niño “warm” phases of the Pacific Ocean.
‘El Niño’ phase is characterized by an unusual warming of surface waters in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean which can bring a series of weather effects around the world. El Niño brings extreme and unusual drought in what is called the dry corridor of Central America, which includes Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, plus Southern India, Papua New Guinea, and nearby islands. This same phenomenon produces excessive rain in Northern South America and the Horn of Africa.
‘La Niña’ phase has strong winds that cool the Pacific Ocean in tropical South America while blowing the warm surface water to Indonesia. The lower-than-normal air pressure over the western Pacific can increase rainfall in several areas to produce catastrophic floods in Australia, increased monsoons in Southeast Asia, and above-average rainfall in East Africa. By contrast, South America and western North America tend to experience unusual droughts.
El Niño and La Niña can be normal events, but recent climate catastrophes show that the occurrence of the extreme versions of these phenomena is becoming more frequent. As the emissions continue to climb, we can expect an exponential increase in extreme events of ENSO and other currents around the world, increasingly creating more refugees.
The Western world shows a high cognitive dissonance regarding refugees. Most of the wars and sanctions are started by them, yet they can’t understand why the refugees from the destroyed countries might want to go to their country. They also seem to forget that this climate crisis was caused by the industrialization of the Western world while most refugees come from countries that have not contributed much.
It is quite certain that the climate crisis will increasingly add to the refugee count in the world, so why do we insist on increasing that count with business-as-usual wars and economic sanctions? The climate crisis is going to affect everyone, even countries with advanced technology where people tend to feel secure. Recent climate events like severe droughts in the American West, and droughts and floods in Australia tell us that we are all vulnerable –we are all potential refugees.
So maybe it is time to consider the reality of all refugees in the world, not just the ones that the media chooses to focus on for geopolitical reasons. It is time to see all refugees as deserving of help and to design a humane global strategy for dealing with all refugees without any discrimination. The climate derailment is here and the unpredictability that it brings will cause trouble all over the world, and as this derailment continues fewer people will be left untouched.