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The US “War on Terror” Has Created at Least 37 Million Refugees

A new study finds that America’s “war on terror” has displaced at least 37 million people around the globe. The US left has a responsibility to push an internationalism that aids the victims of American imperialism — and acts in solidarity with workers no matter their country of origin.

President George W. Bush speaking on the war on terrorism in Washington, DC, 2006. (Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images)

Last week, Brown University’s Costs of War Project released a report that revealed a startling statistic: since George W. Bush’s initiation of the “Global War on Terror,” “at least 37 million people have fled their homes [as the result of] the eight most violent wars the U.S. military has launched or participated in.”

The interventions in Afghanistan have resulted in 5.3 million displaced people; Pakistan, 3.7 million; Iraq, 9.2 million; Libya, 1.2 million; Syria, 7.1 million; Yemen, 4.4 million; Somalia, 4.2 million; and the Philippines, 1.7 million. These numbers are “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.”

The 37 million figure is a conservative estimate — the total number might be as high as 59 million, if not higher, since no estimation has accounted for the number of Africans driven from their homes due to US military interventions on the continent. These numbers also say nothing of the human toll wrought by displacement. Edward Said, the late Palestinian literary theorist who spent most of his life living outside his homeland, spoke for many when he described exile as “terrible to experience.”

It [exile] is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.

While many of those deracinated by the United States will no doubt come together to build new lives in new places, many will also remain in “permanent exile,” to borrow a phrase from the intellectual historian Martin Jay, forever disconnected from, but attached to, their native land.

Unsurprisingly, the United States has done little to aid those it has separated from their homes; since fiscal year 2002, the government has only allowed in about 950,000 refugees. Put another way, in absolute numbers, the United States has welcomed just 2.5 percent of the 37 million people it has displaced through its military misadventures — a pathetic amount, especially for an incredibly wealthy nation that has chosen to govern the world and which is therefore responsible for its state.

What is to be done?

One of the most exciting elements of Bernie Sanders’s run for president was how he centered non-Americans. According to Sanders’s campaign, his administration intended not only to aid people in the United States, but also to “change the terms of the global economy to lift up workers everywhere.”

This humanist message, which recognizes all people as worthy of respect and dignity regardless of where they were born, must remain central to any left-wing project, and must be explicitly connected to the disasters wrought by US imperialism. Americans have a responsibility to those whose lives our government so carelessly destroyed. With the climate crisis escalating, we should also expect a sharp increase in refugees fleeing the Global South. Here, too, we have an enormous responsibility.

In the wake of Sanders’s failed bid for the Democratic Party’s nomination, it looks like the social-democratic left will remain on the sidelines of national governance for the foreseeable future. But this doesn’t mean we can’t take inspiration from previous generations of radicals who used their time outside government to develop, articulate, and promote novel programs and policies ready to be implemented when they finally achieved power. For today’s left, a humane and just refugee policy must be one of those.

What would that look like? Perhaps it would involve offering blanket amnesty to anyone displaced as the result of US behavior, capaciously defined. Perhaps it would involve resettling refugees in the United States, creating jobs programs for the millions of Americans who have lost their employment in the long decades of deindustrialization. Or most ambitiously, perhaps it would mean dismantling the US empire entirely, the cause of so much despair.

Regardless of the details, US-based socialists cannot limit our vision and plans to the United States itself. Since 2001, the United States has launched a series of wars that have shattered the lives of people the world over. We have a responsibility to these people — both because our government caused their suffering and because we, as socialists, must act in solidarity with working people everywhere.