The Global Refugee Crisis Demands Global Action: Bringing an Alternative Narrative to the U.S. Foreign Policy Can Lead the Way


February 13, 2023

By: Neamat Nojumi

For the first time in recorded history, currently over 100 million people live forcefully displaced from their homes, having lost their livelihoods, largely due to war, geopolitical violence, and climate changes.  Recent data reveal that wars and conflicts with direct or indirect U.S. government involvement are the top-producing refugee and internally displaced events in the world. The data also suggest that U.S. government involvement in foreign wars and conflicts after 9/11 has cost thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars, with extremely limited or zero recovery. This obviously illustrates a shift in governing the American democracy wherein Washington’s political elites continue to mobilize military resources in foreign wars and conflicts without a declaration of war by the U.S. Congress.  The United States, as a nation that stands on democratic principles with historical records in international humanitarian assistance, has both moral and strategic obligations to not only support but also lead efforts toward mitigating this fast-growing global refugee crisis. Managing this crisis demands honest accountability and remedial discourse across U.S. civic spaces.

After examining specific examples of U.S. involvement in foreign war and conflicts, this article explains the possibility for course correction – by embodying diplomatic capabilities and investment in sustainable development as the most significant strategic arms of U.S. national security.  A coordinated policy approach also offers an opportunity to reduce geopolitical violence.

The State of the Crisis

In 2012, the forcibly displaced population globally was fewer than 50 million; within the last 10 years, it has doubled. Even though climate change’s droughts, flooding, and famine have been consequential to the destruction of local livelihoods, its mixture with war and geopolitical violence robs local peoples from the very essence of family, community, and even nationhood. Geopolitical violence has occurred in many diverse forms, including naked violence in Ukraine, ethnic cleansing/genocide in Myanmar (Burma), theocratic dictatorship in Iran, gender apartheid in Afghanistan, gang violence in Latin America, and tyrannical rulers in Venezuela, Syria and beyond. Locals are often overwhelmed when destitution due to natural disasters occur; when mixed with political violence, the risk of unchecked physical and psychological crisis multiplies. The only option in this environment:  run to survive. This cruel reality robs forcibly displaced individuals the agency and institution that are essential to achieve human capital development, desperately needed to recover from destitution and conflict.



As the global refugee population surpasses 1% of the world population, the crisis demands remedial policies toward ending wars, reducing raging conflicts, and investing in sustainable development so that refugees can be repatriated to rebuild their shattered homes and communities.

U.S. Relevance

The top four contributing countries to the forcibly displaced global population are Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, and Ukraine.  All have been the subject of U.S. intervention, with the following outcomes:

In Syria: the suppression of the popular protests across the country in 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt, marked a shift in U.S. policy toward the government of Bashar al-Assad. U.S. support of protesters led to the formation of anti-government opposition forces, particularly the Free Syrian Army, comprised of disgruntled army officers.

By 2012, Syria devolved into a civil war, with Washington standing for regime change. Toward this end, Washington provided financial and military support to the armed opposition groups and humanitarian assistance to the growing Syrian refugees in Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey. This action diverted the civil war into a brutal regional rivalry, particularly between Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, and Turkey. The regionalization of the Syrian conflict was advanced by the U.S. providing military support to the armed opposition via Jordan and Turkey. Since the U.S. lacked human intelligence on the ground, Washington relied mainly on clandestine operations centers in Jordan and Turkey. This allowed the host partners to channel the lion’s share of U.S. military and financial aid to their selected Islamist extremist groups, particularly Al-Nusra Front, which was another name for Al-Qaeda in Syria.

Washington’s involvement enticed the Islamic Republic of Iran to deploy armed militia in support of the Assad regime. A poorly funded Free Syrian Army was caught between the Assad regime forces, Iranian-backed militia, and the well-funded Islamist militants. This environment further allowed ISIS to establish its Caliphate headquarters in Syria, forcing the Obama administration to choose an anti-ISIS coalition and put regime change via proxy on the back burner. The U.S. began providing military and financial assistance to the Kurdish forces fighting the Assad military, which also proved very effective against ISIS. With the 2015 Russian military deployment in support of the Syrian government, the war against ISIS became the dominant policy narrative in Washington. A U.S.-backed Kurdish front and a Russian-backed Assad military defeated ISIS in Syria and dismantled its Caliphate in 2019. In the end, the Assad regime survived, but the conflict left 7.7 million internally displaced persons and 6.7 million refugees, as well as 400,000 deaths, 13,000 of which were children.

In Venezuela: Despite boasting the largest oil reserves in the world, a significant portion of the population is suffering due to protracted political turmoil. Once Hugo Chavez became president in the 1980s, he centralized the national economy, giving the government of Venezuela the largest monopoly over oil production and exports. The centralized system proved inefficient right from get-go, lacking transparency and mainly benefiting the ruling political elites at the expense of the populace.

U.S. intervention became obvious after the eruption of popular protests against the central government in 2011. The death of President Hugo Chavez brought Nicholas Maduro, who declared himself the revolutionary successor of Chavez. The 2018 presidential election became the high mark of escalating tensions between Washington and Caracas. Juan Guaido, the opposition candidate challenging President Maduro, rejected the outcome of the elections which showed Maduro as the wining candidate. Washington and later the E.U. (plus Canada and Mexico) recognized Guaido as the acting president and pushed for regime change. The growing tensions between Washington and Caracas and the imposition of growing sanctions resulted in a rapid collapse of the national economy. Over 7 million people left the country, while another 7.2 million people became desperate for humanitarian assistance.

With the emergence of a global energy crisis triggered by Russian’s military invasion of Ukraine, the call for regime change waned and the Maduro government was given the green light to resume oil exports and a promise that U.S. and E.U. sanctions would be lifted. The E.U. further dropped the quest for regime change and retreated from recognizing Guaido as the acting president.

In Afghanistan: The 2001 U.S.-led international military intervention that was aimed at dismantling Al-Qaeda headquarters and removing the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate turned into a protracted foreign war. This intervention suffered from “mission creep,” as coined by Robert Gates, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense, lasting for 20 years due to the absence of strategic direction. Washington followed a short-term objective: support a post-Taliban government to end its military intervention maximum by 2003. This approach grossly neglected the nature of the regional entanglements wherein Pakistan, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Russia, and China were directly or indirectly feeding a proxy warfare for decades.


Evacuees crowd the interior of a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft, carrying some 640 Afghans to Qatar from Kabul, Afghanistan on August 15, 2021. (Photo courtesy: Defense One via Reuters) (via REUTERS)


The collapse of the 1988 Geneva Accord, which conditioned the withdrawal of the Soviets on the formation of a broad-based national government, led to the collapse of the Afghan government, a bloody civil war, and the rise of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Not learning from these crucial lessons of the 1980s, the 2004 re-emergence of the Taliban was the recurrence of a proxy war by Pakistan, this time against the U.S. and NATO-backed government in Kabul. The absence of strategic objectives to define the endgame for the U.S. and NATO-led mission forced Washington to focus on withdrawal as a strategy without any long-term commitments needed to redefining Afghanistan’s regional role that could be acceptable to its neighbors and key regional actors. The militarization of Afghanistan’s stability, as pursued by Washington, held the U.S. and NATO hostage to the unstable and insecure centralized government for 20 years. In the end, the U.S. and NATO created an Afghan national army that could be effective only if financial, logistical, and air support could be provided by the U.S. and NATO militaries. Once these essential support systems were deprived, the 300,000 Afghan security forces lost direction and purpose, thereby enabling the Taliban to take over the country. As a result, over 2.6 million fled the country, 3.7 million became internally displaced and over 15 million people became desperate for humanitarian assistance. The Taliban seized over $83 billion American-made or -procured weapons systems and hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure, communication, and logistics technologies. They mobilized these resources toward imposing an extreme gender apartheid regime that violates the very basic rights of the indigenous populations and all norms of the international conventions of human rights, and reinstated the Islamic Emirate of the Taliban.  Over this period, over 4,000 American and allied forces lives were lost, close to 21,000 service men and women were wounded, and over $2 trillion was spent.

In Ukraine: The Ukrainian civil war, which has been slowly smoldering since 2014 with the Russian annexation of Crimea and a subsequent breakaway region in the east, was greatly escalated by the Russian military invasion in February of 2022.  Quickly, the U.S. and NATO rearranged their strategic alliance to support the Ukrainian government, and blamed the current conflict on Russian military aggression.  Moscow and its allies, meanwhile, proclaim the invasion a response to Washington-led NATO’s eastward expansion. Since 2014, Washington has provided military and financial assistance to Kyiv; in response to this 2022 invasion, Washington and other Western allies imposed the most severe sanctions against Russia, embargoed the purchase of oil and natural gas, and banned all major financial transactions with Moscow.

Regardless of the narratives, the war in Ukraine has devastated the population. The number of Ukrainian casualties, according to E.U. officials, has already passed 100,000 soldiers and 20,000 civilians, while 7.8 million people fled the country, 6.5 million are internally displaced, and over 18 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. Additionally, the conflict is dangerously escalating, forecasting a larger humanitarian crisis in Europe.

U.S. Financial Costs

Waging foreign wars and intervening in foreign conflicts has imposed a tremendous financial burden on U.S. taxpayers over the past 20 years. Since 2001, the cost of wars for the U.S., if the anticipated $2.2 trillion in veterans care over the next 30 years is added, reaches $8 trillion. Twenty years of engagements in foreign wars and conflicts pushed the U.S. federal government to prioritize expenditure in military, increasing the defense budget up to $884 billion above its traditional base. This historically unprecedented increase in military expenditures (equal to 40% of the global military expenditure) has militarized a large aspect of the U.S. foreign policy, significantly depriving both the U.S. Department of State (DoS) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in the process.



In most cases, the civilian agencies such as DoS and USAID’s tireless efforts are in the conflict zones where the presence of U.S. military has overwhelmed human security objectives.  Local people caught between armed militia supported by U.S.-backed governments and insurgent groups are either hesitant to take ownership of rebuilding governance or just lack dynamic, locally based governance leaders that can be accountable to their communities. Many times, as the U.S. military physically freed an area, human security of the locals in terms of access to justice, education, and public health could hardly be achieved. At the end of the day, most military costly gains, in term of loss of American lives and expenditure, were never transformed into political victories. U.S. forces won every single battle, but Washington lost the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

Consequently, the post 9/11 militarization of U.S. foreign policy within the broader system of the federal government has created a powerful lobbying force across both aisles of the U.S. Congress, with ever-increasing influence in Washington. In 2023, for instance, the Biden administration approved $858 billion for the Department of Defense (DoD), an 8% increase from 2022. In comparison, the DoS plus USAID budgets for 2023 are $60.4 billion, and other federal departments, particularly Health and Human Services, Education, and dozens of other institutions and programs are badly underfunded and understaffed. The result is a growing and dangerous disparity across key federal institutions with snowballing effects both on domestic and foreign policy areas.

As of December 2022, the consequence of two decades of a growing role of U.S. military in foreign policy is a $2 trillion war debt, which will quickly accumulate another $2 trillion just in interest if it is not paid by 2030, and $6.5 trillion if it is not paid by 2050. These burdens are on the shoulders of many generations of Americans, if military spending is not balanced with other essential elements of the U.S.’s role as the leading global democracy.

Possible Remedial Steps

Currently, 40 million Americans are foreign-born citizens, many of whom become part of the American dream, contribute significantly to all areas of national life, and emerge as iconic symbols of democracy.  Although the U.S. has the most remarkable refugee settlement history in the world, the refugee resettlement under the Trump and Biden administrations has been dismal and poorly resourced, despite the fact that U.S. direct or indirect involvement are key contributing factors to the global refugee crisis. In comparison, in 2003, the U.S. Congress put a cap of 125,000 refugees per year to be resettled in the U.S., at a time when the global refugee population was far below 15 million people.  As of October 2022, the Biden Administration had only resettled 25,465, far below the cap, while France, Germany, and Spine had resettled more refugees for the same fiscal year.  In May 2022, President Biden promised to accept 100,000 refugees from Ukraine, but as of September 2022, only 1,610 Ukrainians had resettled in the U.S.

Likewise, the airlifting of 120,000 Afghans fleeing from the Taliban only resulted in some 76,000 reaching U.S. soil. The newly arrived Afghan refugees faced significant challenges, such as access to public health, education, language barriers, and job training. In most cases, local communities across the U.S. that received such an influx have been left unprepared with the growing anguish in response to these shortcomings. Even still, over 70,000 Afghan refugees who are eligible for Special Immigration Visas are waiting to obtain one. Given the state of affairs under the Taliban and the absence of any diplomatic channels on the ground, the horizon for these refugees is very bleak, unless an alternative program is put in place.

Unquestionably, refugee resettlement is a very minor response to the growing refugee crisis on a global level, particularly when a very tiny fraction of the forcibly displaced individuals is seeking asylum in Europe, the U.S., and Canada. The majority of the over 100 million forcibly displaced people are currently residing across developing countries – not in the U.S. or the E.U. While local hosts make every effort to accommodate this overwhelming influx, most host countries struggle with shortages of available resources themselves. In most cases, the majority of refugees desire to go back home, if they are given a chance rebuild and settle in their homeland.

Reducing Geopolitical Violence

Increasing the possibilities for refugee resettlement is an important step forward as refugees become part of the solution in assisting their community via remittances and other technical and professional contributions. However, resettlement hasn’t been and won’t be the means to ending the global refugee crisis. There is an urgent need for a coordinated policy approach toward ending the ongoing wars and reducing protracted conflicts. Such a coordinated policy demands:

  1. Balancing expenditures in military affairs while rethinking the constraints of humanitarian assistance and the capabilities of the U.S. civilian agencies in support of global governance and empowering societies. This demands relevant institutions in terms of annual budget and workforce increases that enable them to coordinate with other U.S. allies and partners toward ending wars and reducing the raging geopolitical violence.
  2. Correcting the role of the military in foreign policy, by investing in military-to-military relations in support of long-term partner capacity-building. Organizational lawfulness via an advisory role across different services offers the U.S. armed forces apolitical but service-based potentials. This approach would enable U.S. military-to-miliary relations the required outreach and “deliberate focus on rapport building” needed to counter threats worldwide.
  3. Improving badly needed capabilities to mitigate the growing challenges to war veterans that have rapidly increased over the last 20 years. Numbers of studies show that a growing number of war veterans often suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, depression, and thoughts of suicide. In addition, many face daunting challenges in finding jobs, paying rent and mortgages, stabilizing their families, or reorienting themselves into new careers when they leave military service.
  4. Emboldening measures at the National Security Council level to make U.S. humanitarian efforts and resources’ peacebuilding goals distinct from that of military objectives so as to achieve national security objectives by other means. This means that involvement of military within the broader arena of foreign policy should be guided and led by the objectives of ending wars, and reducing geopolitical violence led by the civilian arms of foreign policy, not the other way around.
  5. Restoring the traditional impartiality of the U.S. foreign policy, wherein Washington could play a conflict-reducing role through soft-power applications. Post-9/11, more than before, Washington elites and their political appointees are “making and breaking” U.S. foreign policy. This shift has continuously undermined the crucial role of the U.S. Congress, and has also rapidly expanded the role of military resources in foreign policy. This development has put U.S. humanitarian organizations, and in particular civilian institutions at risk.
  6. Restoring U.S. contributions and support to United Nations institutions and efforts, which were severely damaged during the Trump administration. The approval of the 2022 extension of the Refugee Protection Act (RPA) by Senator Patrick Leahy was an important step forward domestically. However, the RPA can’t be effectively implemented locally, if UNHCR as the global front for protecting refugees is running out of funding and refugee camps lack the very basic survival needs for millions of people forced out of their homes. Washington needs to restore the traditional U.S. role in supporting the UNHCR and other related agencies to effectively manage the current global refugee crisis.
  7. Prioritizing investment in sustainable development programs as the most strategic U.S. foreign policy objective and demanding effective inter-agency cooperation within the U.S. and national and international institutions. Washington’s entanglements in foreign wars and conflicts have grossly limited the U.S.’s GNI per capital spending in sustainable development programs as the safeguard preventing people from fleeing their homes. In this direction, the UN Global Development Agenda needs to be emboldened so that efforts of humanitarian assistance, conflict management, peace-building and demilitarization of conflict zones can be achieved.
  8. Increasing action by American civil society, activists, human rights organizations, and national security institutions to bring this alarming refugee crisis to the forefront of the national dialogue within the country’s civic space, so that informed citizens can hold their representatives to the U.S. Congress accountable for any intervention in foreign wars and conflicts. American citizens are the ones who choose their leaders and legislators. At a time when 100 million Americans (41% of adults) face healthcare debt, student loan debt totals $1.76 trillion, and local communities are challenged by outsourcing, borrowing money to bankroll engagements in foreign wars and conflicts ought to be central to the Americans’ national dialogue so that an alternative narrative for American foreign policy can be realized.

In conclusion, ending wars and reducing geopolitical violence, as the dominant factors for forcing millions out of their homes, demand effective cooperation across major global powers, particularly between the U.S., E.U., Russia, and China. There is no doubt that obvious rivalries and competition are standing characteristics between major global powers, but this shouldn’t haze areas of shared purpose for cooperation. Ending wars and reducing raging geopolitical violence can’t be possible without investing in the expansion of shared-purposed areas of cooperation. Ending war and conflict, more than at any other time, demands regional frameworks to tip the short-term benefits from proxy warfare in favor of long-term gains from stability, and the emerging possibilities for human capital developments. Sustainable development can’t be achieved without fixing the fragility of local governance within a given regional framework.

Dr. Neamat Nojumi is a Senior Fellow on Transatlantic Relations at the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Services researching diverse issues relevant to international security, global governance, public and foreign policy. He worked as a research professor at George Mason University, a research fellow at Harvard Law School, and a senior advisor within the U.S. government. He is the recipient of awards and recognitions from world leaders and national and international institutions

1 Comment

  1. This is a very informative article. However, as a person that considers himself a foreign policy “realist” I wonder if there is room for anything but a hawkish response on the part of the U.S. government. Especially, in the case with countries in the Middle East as well as with Russia and China.


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