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Creating Refugees: Displacement Caused by the United States’ Post-9/11 Wars

Creating Refugees:

Displacement Caused by the United States’ Post-9/11 Wars

David Vine, Cala Coffman, Katalina Khoury, Madison Lovasz, Helen Bush, Rachael Leduc, and Jennifer Walkup

September 21, 2020


Since President George W. Bush announced a “global war on terror” following Al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the U.S. military has engaged in combat around the world. As in past conflicts, the United States’ post-9/11 wars have resulted in mass population displacements. This report is the first to measure comprehensively how many people these wars have displaced. Using the best available international data, this report conservatively estimates that at least 37 million people have fled their homes in the eight most violent wars the U.S. military has launched or participated in since 2001. The report details a methodology for calculating wartime displacement, provides an overview of displacement in each war-affected country, and points to displacement’s individual and societal impacts. Wartime displacement (alongside war deaths and injuries) must be central to any analysis of the post-9/11 wars and their short- and long-term consequences. Displacement also must be central to any possible consideration of the future use of military force by the United States or others. Ultimately, displacing 37 million—and perhaps as many as 59 million—raises the question of who bears responsibility for repairing the damage inflicted on those displaced.


The U.S. post-9/11 wars have forcibly displaced at least 37 million people in and from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, Libya, and Syria. This exceeds those displaced by every war since 1900, except World War II. § 37 million is a very conservative estimate. The total displaced by the U.S. post-9/11 wars could be closer to 48–59 million. § 25.3 million people have returned after being displaced, although return does not erase the trauma of displacement or mean that those displaced have returned to their original homes or to a secure life. § Any number is limited in what it can convey about displacement’s damage. The people behind the numbers can be difficult to see, and numbers cannot communicate how it might feel to lose one’s home, belongings, community, and much more. Displacement has caused incalculable harm to individuals, families, towns, cities, regions, and entire countries physically, socially, emotionally, and economically. Introduction Since the George W. Bush administration launched a “global war on terror” following Al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the U.S. military has waged war continuously for almost two decades.2 In that time, U.S. forces have fought in wars or participated in other combat operations in at least 24 countries.3 The destruction inflicted by warfare in these countries has been incalculable for civilians and combatants, for U.S. military personnel and their family members, and for entire societies. Deaths and injuries number in the millions. Like other wars throughout history, the U.S. post-9/11 wars have caused millions of people—the vast majority, civilians—to fear for their lives and flee in search of safety. Millions have fled air strikes, bombings, artillery fire, drone attacks, gun battles, and rape. People have fled the destruction of their homes, neighborhoods, hospitals, schools, jobs, and local food and water sources. They have escaped forced evictions, death threats, and large-scale ethnic cleansing set off by the U.S wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in particular. 4

To our knowledge, no one has calculated how many people have been displaced by the United States’ post-9/11 wars. Some scholars, journalists, and international organizations have provided displacement data for some of these wars, such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq. However these statistics tend to be snapshots of the number of refugees and internally displaced people (IDP) at a particular point in time rather than a full accounting of the total number of people displaced over time since the start of the wars.5 This paper calculates the total number of displaced people in the eight post-9/11 wars in which U.S. forces have been most significantly involved. We focus on wars where the U.S. government bears a clear responsibility for initiating armed combat (the overlapping Afghanistan/Pakistan war and the post-2003 war in Iraq); for escalating armed conflict (U.S. and European intervention in the Libyan uprising against Muammar Gaddafi and Libya’s ongoing civil war and U.S. involvement in Syria); or for being a significant participant in combat through drone strikes, battlefield advising, logistical support, arms sales, and other means (U.S. forces’ involvement in wars in Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines).6 In documenting displacement caused by the U.S. post-9/11 wars, we are not suggesting the U.S. government or the United States as a country is solely responsible for the displacement. Causation is never so simple. Causation always involves a multiplicity of combatants and other powerful actors, centuries of history, and large-scale political, economic, and social forces. Even in the simplest of cases, conditions of pre-existing poverty, environmental change, prior wars, and other forms of violence shape who is displaced and who is not. This paper and its accompanying tables document several categories of people displaced by the post-9/11 wars: 1) refugees, 2) asylum seekers pursuing protection as refugees, and 3) internally displaced persons or people (IDPs). We also calculate the number of 4) refugees, asylum seekers, and IDPs who have returned to their country or area of origin. Ultimately, we estimate that at least 37 million people have been displaced in just eight countries since 2001 (Table 1). This includes 8 million people displaced across international borders as refugees and asylum seekers and 29 million people displaced internally to other parts of their countries. To put these figures in perspective, displacing 37 million people is equivalent to removing nearly all the residents of the state of California or all the people in Texas and Virginia combined.7 The figure is almost as large as the population of Canada.8 In historical terms, 37 million displaced is more than those displaced by any other war or disaster since at least the start of the twentieth century with the sole exception of World War II (see Table 2).9 The United States’ post-9/11 wars have contributed significantly to the dramatic increase in recent years in the number of people displaced by war and violent conflict worldwide: Between 2010 and 2019, the total number of refugees and IDPs globally has nearly doubled from 41 million to 79.5 million.10 In the next section, this paper proceeds with an overview of our methodology and approach to calculating wartime displacement. A more detailed discussion is in the Appendix. We next provide an overview of displacement in each war-affected country. We then present the results of our calculations and discuss the limits of quantitative measurement. We conclude by discussing the significance of our findings to assessments of the post-9/11 wars, to debates about the use of military force more broadly, and to questions about who bears responsibility for repairing damage suffered by the displaced.

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