Sat­ur­day is World Ref­u­gee Day, but it seems like the World Ref­u­gee Dec­ade. Over the last 10 years, the num­ber of those forced to flee be­cause of wars, con­flict and per­se­cu­tion has soared from 37.5 mil­lion to a re­cord 59.5 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to a U.N. re­port re­leased Thurs­day.

Today, one out of 122 peo­ple in the world is a ref­u­gee, an in­ter­nal­ly dis­placed per­son or an a­sy­lum-seek­er. That stag­ger­ing fig­ure equates to the world’s 24th-most pop­u­lous coun­try. Trag­i­cal­ly, half are chil­dren. And few flee di­rect­ly to rich­er shores: 86 percent went to count­ries con­sid­ered “eco­nom­i­cal­ly less de­vel­oped.”

The dis­place­ment rate is also re­cord-set­ting, with last year’s jump the high­est ever. While move­ment is with­in and be­tween count­ries and con­ti­nents, the epicenter is Syr­i­a, whose ref­u­gee cri­sis is the sub­ject of this month’s Minnesota International Center “Great De­ci­sions” dialogue.

But Syr­i­a’s is cer­tain­ly not the only strife-driv­en diaspora. In the last five years alone, at least 15 con­flicts have “erupt­ed or re­ignit­ed,” in­clud­ing eight in Af­ri­ca, three in the Mideast, one in Eu­rope and three in Asia. And this doesn’t count chron­ic con­flict in places like Af­ghan­i­stan and So­ma­li­a that has cre­at­ed long-term refu­gees.

Con­flict is not the only rea­son for mi­gra­tion cri­ses. The U.N. fig­ures don’t even ac­count for scores seek­ing a bet­ter life than their failed or flail­ing states de­liv­er, like the pan-Af­ri­can exo­dus dan­ger­ous­ly leav­ing Lib­y­an ports and swamp­ing an al­read­y be­lea­guered Eu­ro­pe­an Union.

Of­ten, how­ever, it’s a com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors. In the In­di­an Ocean, rick­et­y boats of Ban­gla­de­shis in search of a bet­ter life mix with Myan­mar’s Rohingya Mus­lim mi­nor­i­ty seek­ing to just live a­part from a bru­tal re­gime. A­mong the Central Ameri­cans test­ing Texas and oth­er south­west states’ bor­ders are peo­ple es­cap­ing both pov­er­ty and gang vi­o­lence.

While these cri­ses are chroni­cled in mass me­di­a, the mass move­ment hasn’t pierced glo­bal con­scious­ness as pre­vi­ous up­heav­als have. For in­stance, de­spite less con­nec­tiv­i­ty, de­pic­tions of Dust Bowl mi­grants and World War II refu­gees were still wide­ly seen, evok­ing sym­pa­thy and prompt­ing ac­tion.

But today, even though mod­ern me­di­a dis­semi­nates how dic­ta­tors and kleptocrats cre­ate or ex­ac­er­bate these cri­ses, policymakers seem par­a­lyzed, not act­ing to mit­i­gate the mis­er­y let alone solve the un­der­ly­ing prob­lems.

“We are wit­ness­ing a par­a­digm change, an un­checked slide into an era in which the scale of glo­bal forced dis­place­ment as well as the re­sponse re­quired is now clear­ly dwarf­ing any­thing seen be­fore,” U.N. High Com­mis­sion­er for Refu­gees Antonio Guterres said in a state­ment ac­com­pa­ny­ing the re­port. “It is ter­ri­fy­ing that on one hand there is more and more im­pu­ni­ty for those start­ing con­flicts, and on the oth­er there is seem­ing ut­ter in­a­bil­i­ty of the in­ter­na­tion­al com­muni­ty to work to­gether to stop wars and build and pre­serve peace.”

The im­pu­ni­ty is ap­par­ent in the du­ra­bil­i­ty of the homi­ci­dal Assad re­gime in Da­mas­cus, im­mor­al­ly sup­port­ed by Mos­cow and Tehran. And just this week Su­da­nese Pres­i­dent Omar Has­san al-Ba­shir, in­dict­ed by the International Crim­i­nal Court for war crimes, was al­lowed to jet from South Af­ri­ca, whose lead­ers seem to for­get that in­ter­na­tion­al in­sti­tu­tions helped them end a­part­heid.

Of course, there are those who go to great lengths for those caught up in the glo­bal up­heav­al. In fact, some cit­i­zens may be a­head of their lead­ers, ac­cord­ing to Dan­iel Words­worth, pres­i­dent of the Minneapolis-based American Ref­u­gee Committee. Words­worth, via e-mail from U­gan­da, said that, “As cri­ses in­ten­si­fy and more peo­ple flee, the bur­den can be­come con­sid­er­a­ble for some com­mu­ni­ties. I think this is more ac­cu­rate­ly a re­sult of the in­ter­na­tion­al com­muni­ty not suf­fi­cient­ly sup­port­ing these host com­mu­ni­ties/count­ries, rath­er than an in­nate hos­til­i­ty on the part of cit­i­zens.”

Some spir­it­u­al lead­ers have spok­en up, too, in­clud­ing Pope Francis, who dur­ing his week­ly gen­er­al audi­ence Wednes­day of­fered this off-the-cuff com­ment: “I in­vite all of you to ask for­give­ness for those who close the door on these peo­ple who are look­ing for a life, for a fam­i­ly and to be cared for.” A more secu­lar ap­proach from sev­er­al cele­bri­ties has high­light­ed the or­deals of or­di­nary peo­ple un­der ex­tra­or­di­nar­i­ly dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances.

But so far there hasn’t been a me­di­a mo­ment that’s grabbed glo­bal at­ten­tion or re­framed the de­bate the way that “Mi­grant Mother,” Dor­o­the­a Lange’s icon­ic De­pres­sion-era photo, cap­tured the in­di­vid­u­al hu­man­i­ty behind mass mi­gra­tion. In­stead, this era’s ar­rest­ing image comes not from a photo, but a se­curi­ty scan­ner that showed an 8-year-old Af­ri­can boy curled up in a suit­case, caught in a smug­gling at­tempt to Eu­rope. Un­like the sym­pa­thet­ic vis­age in Lange’s photo­graph, the ghost­ly, even ghast­ly, sil­hou­ette is face­less, as are so many caught up in this glo­bal hu­man dra­ma.

The heroes help­ing them need more sup­port. So some­how some image, or in­di­vid­u­al, or in­sti­tu­tion needs to break through the in­ter­na­tion­al in­dif­fer­ence. Be­cause ul­ti­mate­ly those world lead­ers who aren’t re­press­ing, but re­spond­ing to their cit­i­zens, need to feel com­pelled to act.


John Rash is a Star Tribune ed­i­to­ri­al writ­er and col­um­nist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fri­days on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.


The Star Tribune Ed­i­to­ri­al Board and the Minnesota International Center are part­ners in “Great De­ci­sions,” a month­ly dialogue dis­cuss­ing for­eign-pol­icy top­ics. Want to join the con­ver­sa­tion? Go to