A Well-Founded Fear: The Social Ecology of 21st Century Refugees

By Hein, Jeremy; Niazi, Tarique | Harvard International Review, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview
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A Well-Founded Fear: The Social Ecology of 21st Century Refugees

Hein, Jeremy, Niazi, Tarique, Harvard International Review

In 1951, the United Nations defined a refugee as a person who "owing to well-founded fear of being-persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country." Given this emphasis on nationality and country, research on 20th century refugees focused on states, revolutions, and international relations. Among the many legacies of this literature are ecological metaphors--uprooting, flow, wave, boat people--to describe forced migration from political violence.

While hackneyed, these phrases indicate an unconscious attempt to use the social-ecological paradigm to understand refugee crises. This paradigm explains social conflicts by analyzing how power and resource allocation mediate humans' ability to sustain themselves from nature. We explicitly use social ecology to argue that the violent development of natural resources is the distinctive feature of 21st century refugees. Rather than oceanography, we draw ecological metaphors from geology in order to identify' the world's refugee fault lines: regions where the friction of ethnic diversity, political disunity, and the abundance or scarcity of natural resources perennially destabilize the territorial nation-state.


Refugee Fault Lines

There are some 200 territorial nation-states on earth. But fewer than ten of these geo-political units account for most of the world's 13.6 million refugees. Two-thirds of all refugees are Afghani, Palestinian, Iraqi, Burmese, Sudanese, and Somali. Add the central Africans from Congo-Kinshasa and Burundi to this sad list and the proportion reaches 70 percent.

To appreciate the density of the world's refugees, consider that all international land borders add up to about 242,000 kilometers. But a mere 3,300 kilometers account for Afghanistan's borders with Iran and Pakistan, and nearly the same distance accounts for Myanmar's borders with Bangladesh, India, and Thailand. Those are the "long refugee borders." An international line of 1,300 kilometers separates Chad from Sudan. About 700 kilometers demarcate Somalia from Kenya; Iraq from Syria and Jordan; and Eritrea from Sudan. Only 400 kilometers mark the difference between homeland and host for the 240,000 Burundians in Tanzania, virtually the same linear distance that defines Gaza and the West Bank. This geographic concentration suggests the existence of refugee fault lines.

The world's grand refugee fault line runs north from Lake Tanganyika to the mouth of the Nile, then east to Kashmir, and then southeast to the Mekong Delta. A more parsimonious delineation reveals four major refugee fault lines (see Table 1).

The World's 4 Major Refugee Fault Lines


Fault Line                    Approximate Length  Refugee Population *

Sinai-Kashmir                      3,500 km            7.500 mil
Congo Sources-Ogaden Plateau       2,500 km            1.000 mil
Mt. Everest-Mekong Delta           3,000 km            1.000 mil
Darfur-Danakil Desert              2,000 km             .800 mil
WORLD                             12,700 km**         13.600 mil

Global Distribution of Refugee Population

Sinai-Kashmir                 55%
Congo Sources-Ogaden Plateau   8%
Mt. Everest-Mekong Delta       8%
Darfur-Danakil Desert          6%
Rest of the world             24%

* Within an approximately 500 km belt left and right of fault line.
** Diameter from pole to pole.

Note: Table made from pie chart.


Our use of rivers, glaciers, and deserts to measure refugee axes is intentional. Today's forced migrations are inextricably tied to valued natural resources. Conversely, during the Cold War, places such as Cuba and former Indochina had geo-political--not economic--value.

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