A baby shoe on a Lesbos beach on the first day of 2016. Thousands of refugees arrived on the Greek island in 2015 after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey. (Santi Palacios / AP)

A few things happened in 2015 that changed lives for the better. But not many in a year that ended with mass murder and the mean, sneering Donald Trump a top contender for the presidency. There wasn’t even much pleasure from watching pharmaceutical villain Martin Shkreli, in hoodie and facial stubble, perp-walked out of his Manhattan apartment to face security fraud charges. The pleasure was mean-spirited, hardly worthy of an essay on the year that was. And his worse transgression—making vital medicines virtually unaffordable—goes unpunished. It was a year filled with the horrors that have come to define 21st-century life. More than two dozen were killed by gunfire and many more injured on campuses in the U.S.; a white man shot nine African-Americans to death in a Charleston, S.C., black church; murderous Islamist terrorists rampaged through Paris and San Bernardino. A mild economic recovery was just that—too mild to alleviate poverty or help a shrinking middle class. Police killed young black men coast to coast under highly questionable circumstances. Homeless encampments grew. Good news was an aberration. However, we should take a brief time out from the misery to celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same sex marriage. So what was the most significant event of 2015? It wasn’t a single event. Rather, it was a worsening of something that started several years before. It was the fast-increasing, huge migration of immigrants — many running for fear of their lives — making their dangerous and often fatal way by land and across the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea and the oceans of Asia. It is the greatest forced mass movement of refugees since World War II, caused by the confluence of civil war, brutal regimes, sectarian and ethnic hatred, and climate change all coming together in a world too weak and preoccupied to deal with such powerful forces. It is not a made-for-television disaster. It doesn’t have the immediacy of a video-cam shot of a police killing or saturation coverage of the aftermath of a white racist or Islamist terror murderous assault — all compelling fare for the cable news channels. With refugees, only something really powerful, like the drowned 3-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi [also known as Aylan], lying at the water’s edge, makes the news. His mother and brother also drowned. Usually, the refugees’ tales are stories of a slow slog, ending up in a refugee camp, a railroad station or a bus. They can be moving stories when a reporter finds her or his way to some of them, but usually they’re lost in a huge panorama of disaster. The disaster involves millions seeking safety in Europe, Asia, Turkey, the United States and other places. The United Nations’ refugee organization, the High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), said in a report released Dec. 18 that “2015 is on track to see worldwide forced displacement exceeding 60 million for the first time — one in every 122 humans is today someone who has been forced to flee their homes.” Katherine Edelen wrote in the U.N. Dispatch, “This is a figure not seen since World War II.” The head of the UNHCR, Antonio Guterres, said, “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.” The war in Syria is the main driver of the increase in forced migration. The U.N. report said every day in 2014 (the last year for which complete figures are available) “on average 42,500 people became refugees, asylum seekers or internally displaced (seeking shelter within their own countries), a fourfold increase in just four years.” Those totals were rising in 2015. Guterres said, “It is terrifying that on one hand there is more and more impunity for those starting conflicts, and on the other hand there is seeming inability of the international community to work together to stop wars and build and preserve peace.” In addition to war in Syria, there were refugee-producing conflicts in Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Myanmar and Pakistan. While war is the biggest single force behind the mass migration, there are other causes, interrelated in complex ways. The best illustration of this is climate change.
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