Here’s an unavoidable fact: we are now in a Brexit world. We are seeing the first signs of a major fragmentation of this planet that, until recently, the cognoscenti were convinced was globalizing rapidly and headed for unifications of all sorts. If you want a single figure that catches the grim spirit of our moment, it’s 65 million. That’s the record-setting number of people that the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates were displaced in 2015 by “conflict and persecution,” one of every 113 inhabitants of the planet. That’s more than were generated in the wake of World War II at a time when significant parts of the globe had been devastated. Of the 21 million refugees among them, 51% were children (often separated from their parents and lacking any access to education). Most of the displaced of 2015 were, in fact, internal refugees, still in their own often splintered states. Almost half of those who fled across borders have come from three countries: Syria (4.9 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million), and Somalia (1.1 million).
Despite the headlines about refugees heading for Europe – approximately a million of them made it there last year (with more dying on the way) – most of the uprooted who leave their homelands end up in poor or economically mid-level neighboring lands, with Turkey at 2.5 million refugees leading the way. In this fashion, the disruption of spreading conflicts and chaos, especially across the Greater Middle East and Africa, only brings more conflict and chaos with it wherever those refugees are forced to go.
And keep in mind that, as extreme as that 65 million figure may seem, it undoubtedly represents the beginning, not the end, of a process. For one thing, it doesn’t even include the estimated 19 million people displaced last year by extreme weather events and other natural disasters. Yet in coming decades, the heating of our planet, with attendant weather extremes (like the present heat wave in the American West) and rising sea levels, will undoubtedly produce its own waves of new refugees, only adding to both the conflicts and the fragmentation.
As Patrick Cockburn points out today, we have entered “an age of disintegration.” And he should know. There may be no Western reporter who has covered the grim dawn of that age in the Greater Middle East and North Africa – from Afghanistan to Iraq, Syria to Libya – more fully or movingly than he has over this last decade and a half. His latest book, Chaos & Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the Struggle for the Middle East, gives a vivid taste of his reporting and of a world that is at present cracking under the pressure of the conflicts he has witnessed. And imagine that so much of this began, at the bargain-basement cost of a mere $400,000 to $500,000, with 19 (mainly Saudi) fanatics, and a few hijacked airliners. Osama bin Laden must be smiling in his watery grave.
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