Refugees, Migration and Population

Mass migration, whether through force or by choice, has always been a part of history. Often, it was through such population movement that new civilizations--new mixes of people--were formed. What is new in recent decades has been the scale and speed of migration. The forces contributing to the size of modern migration include:

In the last decade, millions were forced from their homes and countries of origin because of war, civil conflict, and persecution. Millions more chose to relocate to another country for political, economic and social reasons. These migrants had substantial political impact in many countries, including several :

Migration is the most dramatic demographic development of the 1990s, but it is only part of the population story. The world's population is expected to increase from 5.8 billion in 1996 to 9 billion in 2050. The greatest increase will take place in the developing world, where people are least able to sustain themselves and their environment. The resulting coalescence of rapid population growth, underdevelopment, poverty, and environmental degradation is likely to strain fragile societies to the breaking point.

These events will have important implications for security issues. For the U.S. military, a major effect will be to increase pressure to use the military for emergency humanitarian activities in times of crisis.

Background and Trends

Forced Movement of People is Becoming More Common

During the 1990s, massive outpourings of people from their countries of origin because of violent, man-made upheavals of dreadful proportions have been increasing. In 1960, there were 1.4 million refugees; by 1980, the number had swelled to 8.2 million; in 1996, there were 15 to 20 million refugees and approximately 25 to 30 million internally displaced civilians. Fully 80 percent of the displaced were women and children. In the 1996 global population of 5.8 billion, roughly 1 of every 120 persons was displaced by war, civil strife, or persecution.

Refugees and Asylum Seekers by Host Country

Source: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, World Disasters Report 1996.

Waves of Refugees Across International Borders

People who flee from conflict and cross international borders are generally recognized as refugees. More formally, according to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees--a legally binding treaty drawn up at the creation of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)--and a 1967 Protocol, a refugee is any person who has a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group and because of this fear has fled his country of origin.

After large numbers of Africans fled their homelands in the late 1950s and early 1960s as the result of civil wars, wars of liberation, or intra-African conflicts, members of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1969 broadened the definition of a refugee to include any person who flees his homeland owing to "external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his country of origin or nationality." Although the OAU directive is not the legal definition of a refugee, most of the nations that signed the 1951 convention or the 1967 protocol observe this broader definition of refugee status.

A critical distinction is made between migrants and refugees for social and legal reasons. A refugee flees involuntarily. A migrant, on the other hand, relocates voluntarily either because of a desire for a better life elsewhere (a pull factor) or a deterioration of living conditions (a push factor) due to violence, environmental degradation, or economic circumstances.

Originally, the UNHCR was mandated to protect refugees produced by World War II and promote durable solutions to their problems. Protection was generally in legal terms, safeguarding the right of asylum-seekers not to be pushed back to their countries of origin once they had crossed an international border. Only in later refugee flows did the need for physical security--both protection from physical attack and through access to humanitarian assistance--become manifestly more urgent.

In the 1990s, refugee movements from countries in distress have been greater in number, frequency, and complexity. In many post-Cold War civil conflicts, such as those in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda, political leaders exploit ethnic, tribal, religious, and linguistic differences and incite neighbors to battle neighbors. Civilians caught in these conflicts are no longer simply by-products of war. Instead, they become targets of war, part of the military strategy, even though the Geneva Conventions expressly forbid the purposeful uprooting of civilian populations.

Because of sweeping devastation, overpowering numbers of people seek safety at the same time. For example, in 1991, following the Persian Gulf War, people viewing television the world over were numbed by the sight of a sixty-mile stretch of humanity, two million Iraqi Kurds fleeing Saddam Hussein's forces, inching through mud and relentless rain into the rugged northern mountain terrain that separates Iraq from Turkey and Iran.

Yet even that sight did not prepare the world for what occurred in Rwanda in the spring of 1994. Following the genocidal massacre of at least 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus and the subsequent defeat of extremist Hutus, the flight of people from Rwanda to Tanzania and to the Goma area of Zaire constituted an exodus of a magnitude never before seen in such a short space of time. A quarter of a million fled into Tanzania in the space of forty-eight hours at the end of April 1994; then one million crossed into Zaire within a four-day period in mid-July 1994.

More Internally Displaced Persons

An emerging category, resulting from the proliferation of internal conflicts in a number of countries, is an internally displaced person (IDP), which includes people who do not cross a border and are, instead, displaced within a state for the same reasons that a refugee flees across an international border. Although not afforded protection under the U.N. convention, it is becoming more common for IDPs to be assisted by humanitarian organizations as though they did qualify for refugee status.

In the mid-1990s, more victims of conflict become internally displaced within their own borders than seek asylum by crossing an international border. However, with 25 to 30 million civilians internally displaced as of 1996, the international community is forced to grapple with the complex issue of conflict between national sovereignty on the one hand and the protection of basic human rights and humanitarian access to the internally displaced on the other.

At times, for a variety of reasons, a government cannot or will not bear the responsibility of protecting the human rights of its citizens. Some governments, burdened by armed conflict and the consequent displacement of people, simply do not have the resources to protect those displaced citizens. In other instances, a state may collapse, as did Somalia. Still other governments, such as that of Sudan, abuse citizens they are bound to protect by punishing segments of their population simply for being who they are--ethnically, religiously, or racially.

In all these cases, international organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) find it difficult, or extremely costly, or, in some cases, almost impossible to gain access to and provide protection for internally displaced civilians. Oftentimes, the internally displaced are trapped in the midst of armed conflict or live in a country where all governance has broken down, leaving no one with whom humanitarian organizations can negotiate access. In some cases, the very government charged with protecting its citizens may refuse access to those in territory held by rebel factions.

Population Growth Rate

Source: World Bank, World Atlas 1996.

Population is Interrelated with the Environment and Stability

During the 1990s, as complex humanitarian emergencies follow one upon the other and disrupt the lives of millions, more and more attention is being given to addressing the root causes of violent man-made upheavals and thus preventing them. Demographers, environmentalists, economists, and sociologists, are coming to realize more fully the complex interrelationship among rapid population growth, environmental degradation, and economic and social underdevelopment.

Population Growth Rate is Slowing, But Size of Population Increase Remains High

Two contrasting trends are emerging in the field of global demographics. On the one hand, the rate of global population growth is slowing. The 1996 rate of 1.7 percent is expected to drop to 1.0 percent by the year 2025. But at the same time there is a fall-off in the birth rate, the total number of people will continue to grow about the same speed. In 1950, world population stood at 2.5 billion; this figure is expected to reach 8.5 billion in 2025. From 1950 to 1955, the global population increased by 47 million. By contrast, despite the lower growth rate, the world population is expected to increase by 98 million a year between 1995 and 2000 because the absolute number of people is so much larger.


The most dramatic areas of growth will be in the less-developed areas, where political, economic, and social conditions and infrastructures are least able to accommodate this growth. This region stretches from South Asia, into the Middle East, across into the middle sector of Africa, and down to the Cape of Good Hope. Between 1990 and 2025, it is estimated that the population in the more developed states will increase by 12 percent, while the corresponding growth in the developing world is projected at 75 percent, an explosive 142 percent. In the least developed countries, where more than one billion people live in abject poverty, the population will grow.

The changing distribution of age groups within the global population presents another concern. In absolute numbers, the largest increase will be among youth entering the labor force. Finding employment for these young people will be a challenge. In countries with high youth unemployment, extremist elements may find more success, as illustrated by Algeria's experience.

Empty tents and portable toilets
at Camp Oscar, Naval Base,
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Cuban
immigrants living there were
moved elsewhere on Guantanamo.

Megacities May Prove Destabilizing

To a large extent, the growing populations will be urban. Whereas in the past the growth of population was absorbed on the farm and in the countryside (where labor-intensive activities required larger populations), nearly all population growth from the late 1990s on will be in cities. Urban population will increase from 2.2 billion in 1990 to approximately 5.1 billion in 2025. As with absolute population growth, the most spectacular increase in urbanization will occur in the less-developed regions of the world. By 2025, more than two-thirds of urban population will live in developing countries. The urban growth rate will be fastest in Africa, where the urban population is expected to double between 1985 and 2000. For example, Lagos, Nigeria, the capital of Africa's most populous country, had a population of under 300,000 in 1950. In 1996, the population was over ten million and by 2015 Lagos is expected to be the third largest city in the world with 24.4 million people. Cities in Asia are projected to absorb an additional population of some 500 million. Of them, only Tokyo will be in the developed world.

Potential Flashpoints

Military Involvement in Man-Made Humanitarian Emergencies

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military has repeatedly deployed in response to mass sudden migrations, from the Kurds in northern Iraq to Haitians and then Cubans in the Caribbean, as well as Rwandans. On almost every continent there are many sites that could erupt, leading to the involvement of the U.S. military in either humanitarian or peacekeeping operations. The section on troubled states delineates some of the potential areas for U.S. involvement in the Balkans, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East. The situation in the Balkans is particularly important to the U.S. military, because the 500 U.S. soldiers in Macedonia (in Operation Able Sentry) are right in a path that would be taken by ethnic Albanians fleeing trouble in Kosovo--and the Macedonian government would be reluctant to host these migrants, because they could add to the substantial ethnic Albanian minority in Macedonia.

When a large-scale humanitarian crisis arises, the UNHCR and humanitarian relief organizations must respond rapidly to assist and protect massive numbers of people, who are often in critical condition and who are also crossing international borders. More and more frequently, the UNHCR and NGOs find that they are not adequately equipped to respond to such crises without the support of certain specific, enhanced technical assistance of the kind only military forces can offer.

Complex Humanitarian Emergencies, 1996

If present trends continue, more humanitarian assistance will take place among internally displaced populations than among those that have crossed an international border. Providing for the internally displaced, often in the midst of active fighting, is relatively new territory both for relief organizations and military contingents involved in humanitarian assistance operations, as is their relationship to one another in the midst of humanitarian crises. While the cultures of relief organizations and the military differ, the two can be complementary in the midst of a humanitarian crisis.

For relief organizations, the hallmarks of assistance are that it be neutral, impartial, and humanitarian. Neutrality assures all parties involved that those giving assistance will not take sides. Impartiality means that aid is given solely on the basis of need. The humanitarian principle guarantees sovereigns that the singular purpose of the presence of relief workers is to provide protection for the physical security of displaced civilians and to relieve their human suffering through the provision of such basic needs as food, medical assistance, sanitation, water, and shelter.

Traditionally, the military involves itself in situations of direct combat. Rather than being neutral or impartial, military forces direct their energies toward engaging in conflict with an enemy.

Frequently, warring parties view humanitarian assistance as interference on behalf of one party or the other and object to the presence of relief workers or even obstruct their relief efforts. The presence of military contingents, though present solely to assure the secure delivery of relief assistance to civilians in need, heightens the perception of partiality.

Denial of access to the internally displaced by humanitarian personnel is often used as a weapon of war by parties to the conflict. This is in stark violation of Article 59 of the Geneva Convention Relating to Protection of Civilian Persons, which states that humanitarian assistance and personnel be guaranteed free passage to civilians in need.

The belligerents might not respect or observe international humanitarian law. For instance, efforts in Bosnia-Herzegovina were thwarted continually and relief workers were daily in danger of coming under fire or being hit by snipers' bullets. Humanitarian activities and relief convoys were constantly blocked throughout the country. Water and gas lines to Sarajevo were cut. During the siege of Sarajevo, Bosnian Serb forces denied the people of the city access to food and basic medical supplies.

The United Nations Protection Force's (UNPROFOR) mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina was mandated to support and protect the humanitarian relief operations of the UNHCR. However, belligerents from all sides, most particularly from the Bos-nian Serb forces, held up convoys, sometimes for weeks, in order to deny civilians in enemy-controlled areas access to food and medical assistance.

In 1993, the Security Council declared six Bosnian government-held enclaves to be safe areas. Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Tuzla, Zepa, Gorazde, and Bihac were to be neutral, UNPROFOR-protected areas where civilians could take refuge. Ideally, they would be safe from attack and would receive humanitarian assistance. But that is not what happened. In contrast to the forces protecting the safe haven created in northern Iraq for Iraqi Kurds, UNPROFOR troops were not accorded the same rights to threaten or use force for the Bosnian safe areas. Consequently, Bosnian Serb forces, who never accepted the neutrality of these enclaves, bombarded them and impeded passage of humanitarian convoys. In turn, Bosnian government forces used the enclaves for military bases. The end result was the fall in July 1995 of Srebrenica and Zepa to Bosnian Serbs and the slaughter of thousands of Bosnian Muslim men whose remains have been found in mass graves not far from the two designated safe areas.

Military Involvement in Natural and Technological Disasters

Just as the military is equipped to respond rapidly to catastrophic man-made humanitarian crises, so too do military forces have the capacity to assist in natural and technological disasters such as fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, typhoons, floods, nuclear plant failures, oil spills, and chemical and gas accidents. When it is beyond the capacity of international organizations and NGOs to respond adequately to the needs of affected populations, members of joint U.S. military forces frequently provide additional support at the request of the U.S. government or foreign governments. These forces can organize and coordinate the distribution of food, water, and medical supplies; provide for transportation and equipment needs; assess the loss of life and the extent of injuries and illness within the distressed population; and and construct needed shelter and infrastructure.

For example, in the summer of 1996 additional manpower was needed in the western United States where wildfires were more fierce and spread over more acreage in more states than in the previous twenty years. At the end of August, to relieve and assist hundreds of exhausted firefighters, a 550-man Marine battalion from Camp Pendleton in California was dispatched to eastern Oregon while 500 troops from the Army's Fort Carson in Colorado were sent to other areas.

The Bangladesh cyclone of 1991 was particularly devastating and overwhelmed the newly installed Bengali government. Nearly 150,000 people lost their lives and close to 3 million lost their homes, many of the latter being deprived of livestock and livelihoods as well. Following a request of the government of Bangladesh, and an assessment by the U.S. Pacific Command, the U.S. military, in cooperation with international organizations and NGOs, airlifted thousands of tons of relief supplies to the neediest and most inaccessible areas. Medical teams added their support, as did other teams in infrastructure repair efforts.

Caribbean and Mexican Migration Control

Given the turbulent nature of several regions close to U.S. shores or important to U.S. interests, circumstances could occur that would lead to U.S. involvement. The most likely locations involving mass migration where U.S. forces could become involved are the Caribbean basin and Mexico.

The migration of Caribbean people to the United States has been particularly troublesome during the 1990s. Thousands of men, women, and children have spilled out from Haiti and Cuba, risking their lives to reach the United States. Lesser flows of migrants have crossed the Mona Straits in boats to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

Boat people flee Caribbean countries for a variety of reasons, but the main cause of migration is economic. This creates a difficulty for the United States, because economic refugees are not recognized by the UN as having legitimate rights of asylum. However, political refugees do have such a right and, in the case of Cubans, have been welcomed onto the mainland since the rise of the Castro government. Boat people, as a result, pose significant dilemmas for U.S. decision makers. One question is whether U.S. immigration law is sufficiently flexible to deal with the complexities of Caribbean boat people in light of illegal economic migrants and legal political refugees. A second and related question is whether the national and international laws have been used appropriately in an environment that overlaps illegal maritime drug traffic. And lastly, Caribbean migration raises the issue of whether the United States is expected to do more to ameliorate the economic, political, and social conditions that impel people to take to their boats in the first place.

Because of the magnitude of migrant waves, the Clinton administration has had to shift the approach to outflows. Prior to his inauguration in January 1993, candidate Clinton stated that he opposed the Bush administration approach of interdicting fleeing Haitians on the seas. However, once inaugurated and faced with an even greater outpouring of Haitians, President Clinton at first interdicted Haitian boat people and returned them to Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital. In May 1994, he reversed this position when he authorized that Haitian boat people picked up at sea could have interviews on board U.S. Navy ships to determine their refugee-status. Soon, however, the ships were overwhelmed and did not have the capacity to screen properly the great number of Haitians seeking refugee asylum. In June 1994, President Clinton announced that Guantanamo Bay naval base would serve as a site for future Haitian interviews. In early July 1994, as the exodus from Haiti continued to swell, the administration determined that no further Haitians arriving at Guantanamo would be considered for refugee status. Instead, they would be held at Guantanamo, which was declared a temporary safe haven, with the military providing basic humanitarian assistance such as food, water, shelter, sanitation, and medical attention. At the same time, the Clinton administration sent U.S. troops to occupy Haiti in order to assist in restoring and securing democracy and facilitating the return of deposed President Jean Bertrand Aristide. In 1995, the U.S. declared that all those in the safe haven not determined to be refugees could safely return to Haiti. Those who did not go freely were repatriated against their will.

Caribbean Migration Patterns

Cuban emigration also began to increase in 1994. Prior to that time, under the terms of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, all Cubans who entered the United States were given permanent resident status one year following arrival. The Clinton administration reversed this approach and placed Cubans who had been picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard into the Guantanamo safe-haven camp. The Clinton administration reached an agreement with the Cuban government whereby the U.S. would admit up to 20,000 Cubans each year provided Havana took effective measures to prevent unauthorized departures from Cuba. The vast majority of the 33,000 Cubans at Guantanamo were paroled into the United States in 1995.

Future flows from the Caribbean and Mexico are quite possible. The chapter on North America analyzes the potential for chaos in Cuba following the end of the Castro regime. If either economic or social conditions deteriorate in Cuba, it can be expected that another mass departure will materialize with which U.S. forces will invariably become involved.

Of all the scenarios that threaten to destabilize the United States and that worry security planners, a mass migration north across the Mexican border is the most troublesome. The large population of Mexico is heavily concentrated from Mexico City north. Given the traditional nature of border crossings into the U.S. by Central Americans and Mexicans, this safety valve could easily become overwhelmed should a sizeable percentage of these people feel sufficiently threatened. Conditions in Mexico that could lead to this phenomenon are discussed in the chapter on North America.

If protracted and severe violence were to erupt in Mexico, it is expected that the number of crossings would increase dramatically and overwhelm the capacities of the Border Patrol agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The thousands of miles of border are not easily defended given the rugged nature of the terrain over large stretches. Further, the proximity of large urban areas to the border facilitates a fast transition from one side to the other, and the ease with which illegal immigrants can blend into the large Hispanic population makes identification of illegal immigrants very difficult.

Perhaps the most pressing issue in preventing by force mass crossings is the establishment of appropriate rules of engagement. Military forces are neither trained nor equipped as law-enforcement officials, and it could be difficult to prevent significant serious violations of human rights when using military forces to quell a massive movement of people across the southern U.S. border.

U.S. Interests and Approaches

Net Assessment

In all likelihood, further fragmentation of states, both from ongoing conflicts and new upheavals, will occur. Nationalism built on ethnic, racial, or religious exclusivity is on the rise in several areas of the world, as discussed in the section on troubled states. From that assessment, we see states in various parts of the world engaged in ongoing conflicts, renewing old hostilities, or poised on a precipice, ready to fall into crisis. Most of these conflicts will be civil conflicts giving rise to massive internal displacement of civilians. Access to the suffering populations will be dangerous and limited. In some situations, military intervention will be necessary to safeguard regional security and to protect the delivery of assistance as well as the lives of relief workers.

Furthermore, the combination of population pressures, the internationalization of economies, and travel-easing technological progress will make migration more attractive to people in countries with oppressive governments or limited economic circumstances. The U.S. may experience additional waves of migrants on its southern borders. The U.S. military may be called upon to assist in controlling these migrant waves.

U.S. Interests

Protecting U.S. Borders

In the 1990s, the U.S. national mood has shifted towards more vigorous enforcement of immigration laws. Some have argued for reduced numbers of legal immigrants, which could influence the attitudes towards sudden waves of refugees fleeing a far-off conflict. These trends look likely to continue, with the result that more emphasis will be put on the U.S. interest in protecting U.S. borders from those who would enter illegally.

Defending Humanitarian Values

Americans are shocked when hundreds of thousands of people flee from disasters like the genocidal civil war Rwanda of the early 1990s. While these situations may not threaten vital U.S. national security interests, the U.S. will act on humanitarian grounds in face of a dire situation. However, in those situations where it is unclear what can be done to help, as is often the case in civil unrest, the U.S. may confine its actions to relieving the immediate suffering of the emigrants, rather than addressing the causes of the conflict. It is quite possible that in messy internal strife, the U.S. may not act, because it may be difficult to find ways to provide relief without being drawn into the conflict.

U.S. Approaches

U.S. foreign policy interests dictate the kind and degree of involvement in humanitarian crises. The willingness of the U.S. government to become engaged on a large scale in humanitarian operations depends not only upon the extent of human suffering caused by the emergency but also upon the degree of U.S. interest in the area and the tasks engaging the military at the time. Important to military engagement in any situation is a clear mission statement, objectives, rules of engagement, and exit strategies, designed to ensure "mission creep" does not occur.

Involvement in some areas of the world is broader than in others. In an area not of historical or immediate strategic concerns, such as Burundi, contingency planning for military engagement is limited to diplomatic missions, military advice, and the provision of airlift and air support to any active peacekeeping force.

Close to home, in the face of growing antagonism toward immigrants and refugees, the U.S. government is making even greater efforts to secure U.S. borders which involve the military in a backup role.

The military is only one of the instruments that the U.S. government uses for humanitarian aid. Most of the responsibility falls on civilian agencies, often working through NGOs and international agencies.

Military humanitarian involvement can be effective in several areas. For instance, in refugee repatriation, troops can accompany repatriation convoys, protect civilians at reception centers, secure the distribution of seeds, tools, and supplemental foodstuffs, and help with the demobilization of soldiers. Military-operated equipment, trucks, and machinery can be used to remove landmines and rebuild roads, bridges, and other devastated infrastructure.

The U.S. is increasingly interested in developing early warning systems, engaging in conflict resolution, and addressing root causes of conflicts in order to prevent increasingly violent man-made upheavals. If preventive action becomes more widespread, the number, frequency, and complexity of humanitarian emergencies that call upon military humanitarian intervention may begin to diminish.

| Return to Top | Return to Contents | Next Chapter | Previous Chapter |