At Least 37 Million People Have Been Displaced by America’s War on Terror

At least 37 million people have been displaced as a direct result of the wars fought by the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, according to a new report from Brown University’s Costs of War project. That figure exceeds those displaced by conflict since 1900, the authors say, with the exception of World War II.

The findings were published on Tuesday, weeks before the United States enters its 20th year of fighting the war on terror, which began with the invasion of Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001; yet, the report says it is the first time the number of people displaced by U.S. military involvement during this period has been calculated. The findings come at a time when the United States and other Western countries have become increasingly opposed to welcoming refugees, as anti-migrant fears bolster favor for closed-border policies.

The report accounts for the number of people, mostly civilians, displaced in and from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, Libya and Syria, where fighting has been the most significant, and says the figure is a conservative estimate — the real number may range from 48 million to 59 million. The calculation does not include the millions of other people who have been displaced in countries with smaller U.S. counterterrorism operations, according to the report, including those in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali and Niger.

“This has been one of the major forms of damage, of course along with the deaths and injuries, that have been caused by these wars,” said David Vine, a professor of anthropology at American University and the lead author of the report. “It tells us that U.S. involvement in these countries has been horrifically catastrophic, horrifically damaging in ways that I don’t think that most people in the United States, in many ways myself included, have grappled with or reckoned with in even the slightest terms.”

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People fled their homes for all of the reasons common in armed conflict, such as aerial bombing and drone strikes, artillery fire and gun battles that destroy housing and neighborhoods, as well as death threats and large-scale ethnic cleansing, according to the report. Fighting, which in some countries has gone on for nearly two decades, has eliminated many jobs, businesses and entire industries, threatening people’s ability to provide for themselves. In many instances, the wars have removed access to food and water sources, hospitals, schools and other local infrastructure, making daily life unsustainable.

In Somalia, 46 percent of the population has been displaced since American forces once again entered combat there in 2002. Hundreds of thousands have sought refuge in neighboring countries in the last 18 years, and for the last decade, U.S. warplanes have routinely dropped bombs and fired missiles on the terror group Shabab. While the Pentagon has been slow to acknowledge killing civilians in those strikes, it recently admitted to having done so for the third time after reporting by Amnesty International.

The report from the Costs of War project also estimated the number of people who have returned to their home countries or regions, 25.3 million, though that number includes children born elsewhere to refugee parents. Some of those returning are victims of involuntary deportation from their host countries, and others return only to encounter more of the same violence that they once fled.

After previous wars, the United States at times accepted large numbers of refugees from the countries in which it fought. Following the Vietnam War, the United States admitted approximately one million Southeast Asian people as war refugees, some of whom lived temporarily in camps on Guam and on the Marine Corps base Camp Pendleton in Southern California.

More recently, refugee admissions have dropped considerably. Data from the State Department show a sharp downturn in the number of refugees admitted to the United States immediately after Donald Trump took office. Since January 2017, the United States has admitted just 2,955 Iraqis, a 95 percent drop, and 2,705 Somalis, a 91 percent decrease, over the same time period at the end of the Obama administration.

To tally the displaced, scholars from American University collected data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, among other groups that track displacement figures.

Reached for comment, the Pentagon referred queries to the State Department. A representative from the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration said that the bureau publishes an annual report on refugees and displaced peoples, but that document “does not distinguish based on cause of displacement.”

Vine says that while having these numbers is helpful, it does not offer any insight into what kinds of lives displaced people are living. “Every day you live in a refugee camp is a day it’s been degraded compared to what it once was,” he said. “It’s another day you’re separated from your home and your home land.”

John Ismay is a staff writer who covers armed conflict for The New York Times Magazine. He is based in Washington and is a former Navy explosive ordnance disposal officer. @johnismay