Conflicts with US military involvement have displaced at least 37 million people since the beginning of the “war on terror” nearly two decades ago, a report has estimated.
The invasion of Iraq and the decades of instability that have followed in the country have uprooted at least 9.2 million so far, the costliest of the eight US military operations that were included in the report by Brown University’s Costs of War Project.
The paper focused on conflicts since the September 11 terrorist attacks in which the US initiated armed combat (as in Iraq or Afghanistan), contributed to its escalation (Libya and Syria) or participated through drone strikes, battlefield advisers, arms sales and other means (Yemen, Somalia and the Philippines).
Drawing on data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, among others, the project estimated 7.1 million people had been displaced in Syria, 5.3 million in Afghanistan, 4.4 million in Yemen, 4.2 million in Somalia, 3.7 million in Pakistan, 1.7 million in the Philippines and 1.2 million in Libya.
The framing of the report did not suggest the US was solely responsible for the vast displacement, the authors said. “Causation always involves a multiplicity of combatants and other powerful actors, centuries of history, and large-scale political, economic, and social forces,” they said.
For conflicts such as Syria’s civil war, the study defined American involvement narrowly, tallying only those displaced in five Syrian provinces where US forces have been active since 2014.
“A less conservative approach would include the displaced from all of Syria’s provinces since the beginning of direct US military operations in 2014 or as early as 2013 when the US government began backing Syrian rebel groups,” the paper said. “This could take the total to between 44 million and 51 million, comparable to the scale of displacement in world war two.”
The conclusions of the report have been criticised by some researchers and commentators for not accounting for causes of displacement separate to US intervention, for example in Somalia, where the study notes “displacement has shaped life … for decades”.
Accurately counting displaced people is extremely difficult for international organisations, fraught with physical danger and attempts by governments and other vested interests to influence the statistics for their own purposes. The report acknowledged the limitations and said it opted for the most conservative possible totals.
It said an estimated 25.3 million people had returned since being displaced, but noted: “Return does not erase the trauma of displacement or mean that those displaced have returned to their original homes or to a secure life.”
The project’s other research has estimated that more than 800,000 people have died in conflicts with US involvement due to direct war violence along with at least 335,000 civilians, and that the engagements have cost the US treasury an estimated $6.4tn (£4.9tn).