Time to build a (virtual) wall addressing the root causes of forced migration

Time to build a (virtual) wall addressing the root causes of forced migration

More people are displaced now than at any other time in human history. A record 68.5 million people have been uprooted from their homes by conflict and war. Over the next 20 years, the consequences of not dealing with the growing forced migration crisis will be grave.

For the first time in modern history, almost 1 percent of the world’s population has been a “refugee” or an “internally displaced person” (IDP). A report we recently released uses the term “forced migration” to describe and include anyone who has been forced to leave home, including refugees, IDPs, asylum seekers, irregular migrants, etc. Terminology matters, and there are laws on the books that need to be enforced, especially around refugees, but much of the global debate has gotten bogged down in words instead of actions.


How will the global community cope if the number of forced migrants doubles or triples – as it is likely to do with projected demographic growth – by 2030?  Allies like Jordan or Lebanon could collapse due to the strain of hosting large populations of forced migrants. Other countries might withdraw from the EU and weaken our alliances. Allies could become unwilling or unable to meet their NATO commitments because resources for defense will be reallocated to confronting the costs of forced migration.


The enormity and complexity of the issues have led to “analysis paralysis” and minimized a focus on solutions.

Over the past year, I convened some 30 experts from the private sector, cabinet level agencies, U.S. cities, academia, and the global community to examine this crisis. We went to Bangladesh, Jordan, Senegal, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda, and U.S. cities including Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, and San Diego. We met with refugees and forced migrants in camps, in cities, in their homes, and in their places of work. The resounding conclusion we took away from this research is that the challenges are great, but ultimately the crisis is solvable.

The U.S. and a coalition of committed partners need to act now – to, in essence, build a metaphorical wall that addresses why people are forced to leave home. If we don’t, we will pay a lot more later.

Forced migration can only be reduced through economic development, good governance in poor countries, and peace. The world is going to have to develop tailored strategies for the 20 or so countries most responsible for forcing people from home. The good news is that the U.S. does not have to bear all or even most of the costs.

The global system is already spending large amounts of money (about $28 billion of global foreign aid in 2016, almost the same as what the world spends on AIDS, tuberculosis, and other global health issues in poor countries) responding to the emergency and almost none on managing the “root causes” of forced migration.

First, we must realize the developing world bears the brunt of the crisis. In 2016, 84 percent of refugees were located in developing countries. A number of developing countries have served as population “shock absorbers,” including Pakistan, Uganda, Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. While developed countries like the U.S. debate accepting 45,000 refugees, countries like Jordan or Uganda host at least a million each – we need to help them. We also need to continue accepting refugees ourselves, if nothing else as a signal of global leadership; when our acceptance rates drop, other countries often follow suit, thus making the problem worse.

Many developing countries are reaching a breaking point. In countries like Lebanon, refugees now account for almost 25 percent of their total population, more per capita than anywhere else in the world. Before the Syrian Civil War began in 2010, Lebanon enjoyed 8 percent annual GDP growth. Now, after taking in around one million refugees, economic growth was just 2 percent in 2017.

Second, we must realize that forced migration is rooted in widespread economic underdevelopment and conflict. Development is the undergirding support system for ensuring people are not forced to migrate.

While in theory migration is a net benefit to recipient countries - certainly the U.S. has benefited immensely from the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have come here -  in practice, today, the volume of forced migrants is overwhelming the ability of countries to accommodate them. 

Ultimately, we must realize that the U.S. will not be protected by a physical wall or two oceans; if we do nothing, between 180 and 320 million people could be displaced globally. We are likely to see increases in human trafficking, transnational crime, extremism, gangs, food insecurity, poverty, and a whole host of other issues the U.S. has spent decades trying to address. These issues will get around any physical wall we build and will weaken our allies if we don’t act now.

We need a virtual wall that incentivizes development in these countries and discourages the conflicts that so often force people from home. President TrumpDonald TrumpCheney says a lot of GOP lawmakers have privately encouraged her fight against Trump Republicans criticizing Afghan refugees face risks DeVos says 'principles have been overtaken by personalities' in GOP MORE had a contentious but revealing phone call with the President of Mexico last year; according to the transcript, President Peña Nieto said the “best virtual wall is … economic development.”

We need to improve prospects for vulnerable populations. The vast majority of people want to stay home, but they need security and opportunities. We need to focus our efforts on regularizing migration and developing robust economies and societies resilient to shocks.

The U.S. cannot — and should not — lead this effort alone. There needs to be a committed global coalition to “solve” forced migration meaningfully. There are literally dozens of allies who are looking for leadership on this issue.

The U.S. and a coalition of committed partners should use the UN compacts on refugees and migration process to convene everyone with a stake in solving this global crisis. Though the U.S. exited the migration compact process in 2017, it should step back in when leaders meet to sign the compacts in December. That would be the moment to pull together a conference of rich governments, poor governments, “global shock absorber” governments, philanthropy, the private sector, and the faith community to unite behind actionable solutions.

Forced migration can be greatly reduced and can be managed, but it will require leadership. The U.S. should take the lead on convening this coalition of committed parties to address forced and irregular migration once and for all.

Daniel Runde is a Senior Vice President and William A. Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank Group, and in investment banking, with experience in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.