“Internal wars lead to the displacement of enormous numbers of non- combatants, whose only option is to escape the violence and find refuge,” the Peace Research Institute of Oslo pointed out in its seminal study on food and war. “People flee across immediate borders, sometimes destabilizing entire regions, leading to more conflict and more refugees.” After a lull in the early years of the twenty- first century, the world refugee population began to climb again, reaching 42 million in both 2007 and 2008, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Of these refugees, the UNHCR found, 26 million were fleeing armed conflict.
More graphically perhaps, the number of refugees roaming the Earth in search of peace, security, and sustenance represents a nation of the dispossessed as large as Spain— yet a nation with a difference: four- fifths of its citizens are women and children. The term refugee has a rather specific meaning in international law and bureaucracy. It means a person who, “owing to a well- founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a par tic u lar social group, or po liti cal opinion, is outside the country of their nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him/herself of the protection of that country.” The definition was later expanded to include people fleeing war, violence, and natural disasters, but the term still is not commonly applied to people fleeing hunger. The modern approach to refugees was originally adopted to cope with the 1.5 million who fled from Rus sia during the 1918–26 revolution and civil war, themselves events ignited and propelled by famine. War caused by famine no longer features in the common definition, however, and this has possibly muted awareness of the impact of hunger on global refugee movements and their wider consequences.
Most of today’s refugees emanate from the strife- torn regions of Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South Asia, and the vast majority of them tend simply to flee to neighboring countries or other provinces of their own. Contrary to media depictions of an “invasion” of the wealthy countries, four out of five refugees remain within their own region— although very often this throws an intolerable burden on neighboring countries that have few resources of their own to look after them. Indeed, in many cases, it can lead to low- level conflict and even war between the incoming people and local residents, chiefly over access to land and water. For example, low- level conflict raged for many years between contending groups in the Indian states of Assam and Tripura following the arrival of more than ten million Bangladeshi refugees fleeing hunger in the 1970s and 1980s. NATO’s involvement in the 1990s war in the Balkans was motivated in part by a desire to prevent the conflict from widening and precipitating a refugee flood into the rest of Europe.
Three elements have changed in recent times, however. First, a good half of all refugees, even if they originate in rural areas, now head for cities as their haven— which in turn puts great indirect pressure on the land and water resources that support the city and hence on the local farmers who feed it. Second, the number of emigrants from the moneyed and educated classes of countries facing scarcity of food, land, and water and potential instability has risen sharply since the start of the twenty- first century. Canada has regularly accepted close to a quarter million migrants each year since 2000 and the United States around a million.30 About 200 million people around the world each year foresee trouble brewing in their homelands— including conflicts over food, land, and water— and are moving with their families to avoid it. The refugee wave, in other words, is often preceded by a far more orderly tide of farsighted emigrants.