Donald Trump has officially closed America’s doors to some of the world’s most desperate, banning all refugees from entering the country for 90 days — and banning Syrian refugees indefinitely.
His timing could hardly be worse.
The world is currently in the midst of a refugee crisis unlike anything we’ve seen in the post–World War II era. A series of conflicts around the world, most notably but not only the Syrian civil war, has left more than 60 million people without homes or a safe place to return to.
The crisis is swamping governments around the world with huge numbers of refugees they are either unwilling or unable to take in. Jordan, with a population of just over 6 million people, is now home to more than 600,000 Syrian refugees, which its government says it cannot afford to support indefinitely. Turkey, with a population of 76 million, has taken in 2.5 million.
The crisis is also roiling global politics, threatening the futures of moderate leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, under fire for taking in more than 1 million refugees (roughly 600,000 of whom are Syrians), while boosting the standing of far-right populists like Hungarian President Viktor Orbán, who has literally constructed a wall on Hungary’s border to keep out refugees.
The United Nations has also proven unable to support such a massive number of refugees, and the massive human suffering shows no signs of abating.
Don’t believe me? The following nine maps and charts show, in very clear terms, how bad things are out there — the scale of the crisis, the reasons it’s happening now, and just how devastating American hostility to refugees can be.
1) The number of displaced persons is the highest it’s been since World War II
In the middle of last year, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees released a striking report. It found that the number of displaced persons — people forced from their homes as a result of conflict or insecurity — has never been higher. In fact, the report found, we haven’t seen anything like this since the Second World War (though there are a lot more people alive now than there were then).
Let that sink in for a second. World War II is the most devastating conflict in human history, claiming more than 60 million lives. And while no conflict today is anywhere close to that deadly, there are a lot of smaller ones going on that people in the developed world can live their days mostly ignoring.
2) Most of these people aren’t technically “refugees”
This terrible situation often gets referred to as “the refugee crisis,” but that’s actually misleading. The majority of people who have been displaced are what’s called “internally displaced people,” or IDPs — people who have been forced from their homes but have not left their countries. Refugees and asylum seekers are people who have been forced from their homes and their countries (though they have slightly different status under international law).
This fact explains, in very simple terms, why the refugees fleeing their countries can’t just “go home.” Huge numbers of them are stuck in their own countries, often in giant camps for displaced persons. The situation in their home country is so unsettled — their country is too violent, too poor, or both — for people to go back to their home towns and cities and live normal lives.
Hence why this became an international, and even global, crisis. People can’t stay at home, so they’re fleeing abroad.
3) Syria is the single largest driver of the refugee crisis, but a whole lot of other problems are contributing
Generally, we think of the refugee crisis as a Syrian refugee crisis. And indeed, Syria’s civil war is the single largest source of refugees worldwide.
But in total, Syrians only make up a third of the world’s 16 million refugees. The remaining two-thirds are fleeing a group of other conflicts — such as fighting between the Taliban and Afghanistan’s government, ethnic violence in South Sudan that some observers warn is verging on genocide, and the Myanmarese government’s systematic oppression of the Rohingya Muslim minority.
When World War II ended, that was it — the main driver of the refugee crisis at the time was over, and the Allies could focus on rebuilding and resettlement. Now, though, there’s basically no chance that all of these conflicts will end at the same time — which means the refugee crisis will be with us for the foreseeable future.
4) The refugee crisis is straining nearby states to the breaking point
Here’s another little-known fact: The vast majority of refugees do not go to wealthy countries.
That’s because the countries wracked by civil war and violence are pretty far from the wealthy West. Refugees, who flee their countries with virtually nothing, often don’t have the resources or connections to get into a rich country. They generally settle in the first relatively stable country they can get to that borders their own nation.
The result, then, is that poor and middle-income countries are the ones being forced to feed and clothe these refugees. Turkey currently hosts 2.5 million Syrians, the most of any country. Germany, the largest recipient of Syrian refugees in the developed world, has taken in 600,000 — even though its population is roughly the same as Turkey’s, and its GDP is about 4.5 times higher.
Even tiny Lebanon has taken in more Syrians, roughly 1.1 million to be exact. In 2013, Lebanon’s population was 4.5 million — so that rapid influx increased the country’s population by about a quarter.
5) International relief efforts are chronically underfunded
Theoretically, international agencies are supposed to pick up the slack: to help countries like Lebanon that have way more refugees than they can afford to supply. In practice, though, that’s not what happens.
The above chart shows the gap between what the UN requests for humanitarian relief — refugee resettlement, IDP camp maintenance, emergency medical supplies, and the like — and what it actually receives. It shows that when the refugee crisis started getting really acute in 2014 and 2015, funding didn’t increase nearly as much as it was supposed to. The UN got a little more than half of what it said it said it needed to manage the humanitarian crises plaguing the world.
As a result, then, life for refugees — either in camps or otherwise — ends up being pretty miserable. Amnesty International reported in 2015 that "at least 40% of refugees [in Lebanon] live in inadequate accommodation ‘including in makeshift shelters (garages, worksites, one room structures, unfinished housing) and informal settlements’ whilst ‘others are at risk of eviction or live in overcrowded apartments.’"
In the midst of all this, Trump is reportedly weighing an executive order that would cut off 40 percent of US funding for the UN — a double whammy with his order barring refugees from entering the country.
6) The result is that refugees are fleeing to Europe through some dangerous routes
The result of regional and international failure is refugees are increasingly fleeing to the West. In 2015, the last year we have full data, 1 million refugees fled to Europe — an increase of four times over the 2015 numbers.
These routes are dangerous. Refugees crossing the Mediterranean often travel in poorly constructed dinghies that make even the short trip from Turkey to Greece dangerous. Between January and October 2016, roughly, 3,800 migrants died crossing the Mediterranean — a figure higher than the number of migrant deaths on the Mediterranean in all of 2015.
And even when you get to land, you're not safe: In one incident, in August 2015, 71 migrants crammed into a truck suffocated to death in a truck in Austria. So those arrows on the map by no means indicate secure travel routes — rather, they point to roads and seaways born out of desperation.
Once on the European continent, Syrian refugees often go to the Balkans to enter the European Union at Hungary or Croatia. But even once in the EU, refugees must confront a number of European countries that are working to keep them out, or keep them from moving freely across Europe. The border controls between Hungary and its neighbors, for example, or between Austria and Germany are a major and at times perilous impediment to refugees.
7) Europe isn’t taking in a ton of people
While millions of people are looking to Europe for refuge, Europe simply won’t provide it. As you can see on the above chart, the number of people who were granted asylum status in various European countries in 2015 was dwarfed the number of people who applied that year (since the approval process takes years, many of those granted asylum may have applied before 2015).
Part of this is a “can’t” question. Greece, a major entry point for refugees, is so wracked by its own financial crisis that it simply cannot process a large number of refugee applications. The result is that huge numbers of refugees are living in makeshift refugee camps while waiting to be resettled. Here’s how the International Rescue Committee’s Panos Navrozidis describes the situation at Moria, one such Greek camp, where three people have died in just the past week:
We have known that conditions at Moria do not meet humanitarian standards; we have known that Moria is overcrowded; we have known that thousands of people have been forced to live there, their lives on hold with limited recourse for up to 10 months now; and we have seen the ramifications of inadequate accommodation and preparations for winter.
But another part of this is a “won’t” question. Some European countries, like Hungary, simply don’t want to admit large numbers of refugees — so they’re building walls and penning up refugees indefinitely.
8) And Europe’s citizens are voting for far-right anti-immigrant politicians in increasing numbers
Since the refugee crisis really picked up in 2015, far-right anti-immigrant parties in Europe have surged in the polls — as the above map, published by the German publication Der Spiegel in early 2016, shows. This year, France, the Netherlands, and Germany are all holding national elections — and far-right parties are expected to have a historically good showing.
This isn’t especially surprising. The best research we have suggests that the rise in far-right populism, the European equivalent of Trumpism, is a direct response to the continent’s growing diversity. Large numbers of native white voters are made uneasy by nonwhite, especially Muslim population growth — and vote for parties that promise to radically crack down on immigration from those demographics.
If these parties do make electoral gains in major European powers, as is expected, then the odds of Europe opening its doors even further — and alleviating the crisis in the Middle East and elsewhere — are not looking very good. Already, you’re seeing some mainstream conservative parties, like Merkel’s Christian Democrats and Theresa May’s Tories, take a harder line on immigration than they had in the past.
9) Even before Trump’s order, America wasn’t taking in a ton of Syrian refugees
Since World War II, the United States has let in more refugees than any other country on Earth. But has failed to step up in the past few years, particularly in response to the outflow from Syria.
The United States has resettled a total of 18,000 Syrian refugees, according to the Migration Policy Institute — far fewer than major European recipients like Germany. Part of this is geography, but not all of it. Over the same time period, Canada accepted 40,000 Syrians — despite having a population one-tenth the size of America’s.
Now, however, all refugee entry in the United States has been suspended temporarily — and Syrian refugee resettlement has been suspended indefinitely. Ostensibly, this is in response to security concerns, but no Syrian refugee admitted to the United States has committed a terrorist attack.
And as America dithers, the global refugee crisis only gets worse.
Brad Plumer helped with research for this piece.