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The Hall of Shame

For millions, life in a failed state is a daily dose of misery. Here are seven countries that stand out for their wretchedness.

Every failed state, to borrow a formula from Tolstoy, is failed in its own way. For some countries, instability is a chronic condition; for others, a single catastrophe can undo years of hard-earned progress. Teasing apart and quantifying the various factors that have contributed to state failure over the past year is a difficult job, and the Fund for Peace has again met the challenge with its Failed States Index (FSI).

What the index can't do, however, is put into relief the human tragedies behind the statistics. A lack of public services isn't merely a source of national shame -- it's often a cause of unnecessary disease and death. A national government that lacks popular legitimacy isn't just fodder for revolution -- it's an injustice that sometimes expresses itself through cruelty and repression. As an abstraction, ethnic conflict sounds bad, but it only barely suggests the traumas of watching one's family slaughtered without warning.

Here's a glimpse at what it means to actually live in some of the world's most desperate societies.



FSI 2011 rank: 22

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as it's officially known, is distinguished among its fellow failing states for the cruelty of its criminal justice system. According to Amnesty International, more than 200,000 North Koreans are held in a secret network of political labor camps, with little pretense of due process and often for dubious ideological crimes like "disloyalty" -- a charge that includes the singing of a South Korean pop tune in one's own home. Prisoners are kept in a deliberate state of starvation. Escaped inmates report that to stay alive, prisoners inevitably make raw earthworms and rats a staple of their diets. Torture and violence at the hands of prison guards are also routine. Only 40 percent of detainees survive their internment, according to one former detainee.

Gerald Bourke/WFP via Getty Images 


FSI 2011 rank: 4

It is with good reason that the DRC bears its reputation as the "Rape Capital of the World." According to the United Nations, about 200,000 women have been raped there since armed conflict between various militias began in the late 1990s. In the disputed eastern part of the country, it is still commonplace for soldiers to perpetrate sexual violence against innocent villagers. According to a particularly gruesome report by, a number of clinics in eastern Congo exist almost solely for the purpose of "patching up women whose genitals and internal organs have been torn apart."

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FSI 2011 rank: 7

Corruption is endemic throughout Afghan officialdom: In the words of one aid worker writing for the New York Times, it is the very "framework" of social life in the country. In 2010, 59 percent of Afghans polled reported that corruption was the greatest problem facing their country -- even more than security (54 percent) and unemployment (52 percent). According to the United Nations, Afghans paid an estimated $2.5 billion in bribes last year -- about a quarter of the country's GDP. A passenger in a taxi wants to skip security checks on the way to the airport? $20. Need a driver's license, but no time for a driving test? That'll be $180. Want to free your son who's in prison on drug-smuggling charges? The going rate is $60,000.

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FSI 2011 rank: 15

The public education system of this West African state is in catastrophic shape. The average Nigerien child only attends school for 4.3 years, the shortest duration in the world; at any given time, only 27 percent of the country's school-age children are enrolled in school. Unsurprisingly, the literacy rate among adults is only 29 percent, second-lowest in the world and far below the regional average of 71 percent.

Part of the problem is simply that some parts of the country don't have access to any schools at all. And given the poor state of the country's economy, many families need their children to work. But the poor reputation of Niger's government among its own population also plays a role in the lack of school attendance; parents are often reluctant to hand their kids over to authorities, educational or not. In the 1960s, when the government sent the army to rural villages to compel school attendance, villagers reportedly hid their children, fearful of what would happen to them. More recently, parents simply don't register their children's births to avoid later school enrollment.



FSI 2011 rank: 2

Sanitation facilities are a rarity in Chad: According to UNICEF, nearly 90 percent of the country defecates in the open, for lack of functioning toilets. Even buildings administered by the government often lack basic provisions for hygiene: Only 14 percent of schools in Chad have lavatories.

The result of these dire statistics is the country's acute lack of drinkable water. Only 45 percent of Chadians have access to safe water, the lowest rate in the region, and outbreaks of water-borne diseases like hepatitis are common. The situation is especially disastrous among the hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees who live in camps in eastern Chad.

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FSI 2011 rank: 3

Many countries have domestic conflicts, but only Sudan has Darfur. Violence has recently spread to other parts of the country, most notably Abyei and Southern Kordofan, but residents of Sudan's restive western region live perpetually on the edge of slaughter directed by the central Sudanese government. The United Nations estimates that 300,000 Darfuris have been killed and another 2.7 million forced from their homes since fighting began there in 2003, pitting rebels against government forces and militias. The warfare is chaotic and often erupts without warning, and the methods employed are brutal. One Darfuri eyewitness to an attack in 2004 recounted how 100 militiamen mounted on horses surrounded her village and announced their intention to "kill them all."

"They slaughtered 50 members of my family," she said. "Then they burned the bodies."

The fighting is crudely split along ethnic and religious lines (the Muslim government forces against Christian rebels); indeed, it is the only extant conflict that the U.S. government has termed a "genocide."



FSI 2011 rank: 8

Westerners may take their iPhones for granted at this point, but in the Central African Republic they are an unfathomable luxury. Even basic technology is unbelievably scarce throughout the country: As late as 2008, according to UNICEF, only four out of every 100 residents of Central African Republic had a telephone. Zero out of 100 were Internet users. The dire state of the country's communications infrastructure is a reflection of the broader economic problems that plague it, as well as the central government's failure to make any productive investments for the future. The Central African Republic spends only 1.3 percent of GDP on education, putting it among the bottom five of all countries in the world. Meanwhile, government health-care expenditures are 1.5 percent of GDP; there is only one doctor for every 3,000 people, and one nurse for every 1,000. Almost 20 percent of children die before age 5.

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Syria's refugees join millions of others already in limbo.

This week, the world's eyes have turned to the Syria-Turkey border, where more than 7,000 Syrian refugees have fled the Assad regime's crackdown and are now living in camps hastily assembled by the Turkish government. While the growing Syrian refugee crisis is undoubtedly grave and the media attention it has garnered is welcome, this situation joins a long list of unresolved refugee crises around the world, some of which have been festering for years.

There are at least 15.2 million refugees in the world today, according to the NGO Refugees International. While this number is lower than it has been in the past, the group warns that this is simply a reflection of the changing nature of the global refugee crisis. "The old paradigm of refugees in camps with agencies providing services in a self-contained environment is no longer the reality," says Andrea Lari, Refugees International's director of regional programs. Much more common today are internally displaced persons (IDPs) -- refugees living in their own countries who must rely on their governments, rather than international organizations, for aid. There are more than 27.1 million IDPs in the world today.

Here's a look at 10 of the world's most serious ongoing refugee crises:


The numbers: There are up to half a million Colombian refugees overall: 175,000 live in Ecuador, and 120,000 to 200,000 live in Venezuela. There are also more than 4 million internally displaced persons within Colombia.*

The crisis: The Western Hemisphere's most serious refugee crisis is also one of the world's most overlooked because, as Lari puts it, "These people are not living in camps." The majority of those who have fled the fighting between the Colombian government and FARC rebels, along with the ongoing drug violence over the last two decades, have taken refuge in towns and cities over the border or within Colombia itself, making it difficult for relief organizations to get an accurate count. The Panamanian government came under international criticism for attempting to forcibly repatriate thousands of Colombian refugees in the late 1990s.

*Numbers, unless otherwise indicated, were provided by Refugees International.


The numbers: More than 170,000 refugees from the Ivory Coast are living in other countries, the majority in Liberia. More than 300,000 are internally displaced.

The crisis: West Africa's civil wars have made the region one of the world's severest trouble spots for refugees. The most recent crisis this year, sparked by Ivory Coast's post-election violence, sent hundreds of thousands of new refugees streaming across the border into neighboring countries to join earlier waves of displaced people in the region. Although violence has largely abated since the defeat of forces loyal to former President Laurent Gbagbo, many Ivoirians remain in refugee camps in Liberia because there is "still insufficient safety and no confidence for people to return to their country," says Lari.


The numbers: Approximately 2 million people remain internally displaced in Congo, with around 450,000 living in neighboring countries.

The crisis: The 1994 Great Lakes refugee crisis, when up to 2 million Rwandans fleeing the genocide (or retribution from the genocide's victims) crossed into Congo, was one of the most widely covered refugee crises of the modern era. Although media coverage has diminished, the Congo region still has one of the world's highest concentrations of displaced people, as fighting between rebel factions and the government continues to roil. In the first half of 2011 alone, Human Rights Watch estimated that 380,000 Congolese civilians were displaced due to attacks by Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army.


The numbers: There are more than 200,000 asylum-seekers in South Africa, the majority of whom are from Zimbabwe.

The crisis: Economically booming South Africa is the continent's primary destination for asylum-seekers. The country's refugee population exploded after Zimbabwe's 2008 post-election violence. As many of the Zimbabwean political refugees are highly skilled and educated, they are viewed as competition for jobs by many South Africans and have faced difficulties in gaining asylum. An extreme example of this backlash was the xenophobic rioting that killed dozens of Zimbabweans in South African townships, embarrassing the country in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup.


The numbers: There are at least 614,000 Somali registered refugees living worldwide, with many more likely unregistered. There are more than 1.4 million internally displaced persons in the country.

The crisis: The gravity of what Refugees International calls the "world's worst humanitarian disaster" was underscored this week by reports that the world's largest refugee camp, a sprawling desert tent city in Kenya called Daddab, is running out of space. More than 450,000 Somalis -- roughly the population of Kansas City -- are expected to live in Daddab, which is riven by violence and disease, by the end of the year.


The numbers: Sudan has the world's highest population of internally displaced persons: 5 million. There are still 413,000 refugees abroad (275,000 from Darfur and 138,000 from Southern Sudan).

The crisis: More than 2 million refugees and IDPs have returned home to Southern Sudan since 2005, when a peace agreement was signed bringing an end to the country's 21-year civil war. Southern Sudan is due to formally declare its independence, but renewed violence in the disputed Southern Kordofan region threatens to create more displaced persons. Thousands of refugees from Darfur remain abroad. Hostility against the refugees in neighboring Chad is reportedly rampant, and sexual assaults against Darfuri women are widespread.


The numbers: Around 4.8 million Palestinians, including descendants of those who fled during Israel's War of Independence, are registered with the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

The crisis: The Palestinians are generally considered the world's largest and oldest refugee community. About one-third of these refugees live in dozens of UNRWA camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank. The rest live in cities and towns in their host countries. The question of the "right of return" for these refugees, the majority of whom weren't born as of 1948, has become one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the Arab-Israeli peace process.


The numbers: Around 160,000 Iraqi refugees still live in countries throughout the Middle East. There are around half a million internally displaced persons within Iraq.

The crisis: Eight years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, hundreds of thousands still remain displaced by the conflict. The majority of the international refugees live in neighboring Jordan and Syria, though many are now reportedly returning home due to the Assad regime's violent crackdown. The United States as also admitted more than 54,000 Iraqi refugees for resettlement, though this policy faces opposition from some U.S. lawmakers.


The numbers: 1.5 million Afghan refugees live in Pakistan with an additional 800,000 in Iran. There are more than 300,000 internally displaced persons within Afghanistan.

The crisis: The majority of Afghan refugees fled violence from the Taliban, but many have fled counterinsurgency operations by the NATO coalition. The problem is getting worse: A forthcoming study by Refugees International found than more than 80,000 Afghans have been newly displaced since December 2010. Pakistan, the main destination for Afghan refugees, also faces its own growing population of internally displaced people in its restive North Waziristan region.


The numbers: More than 150,000 Burmese refugees live in camps along the Thai border. Up to 1 million more unregistered refugees live in Thailand's urban areas. There are thought to be around half a million displaced people within the country, though the true number is nearly impossible to know, given the ruling junta's restrictions on media and NGO activity.

The crisis: Most Burmese displaced persons and refugees fled due to fighting between the Burmese military and ethnic militias. Many are also still displaced from 2008's catastrophic Cyclone Nargis. Those who have fled to Thailand, largely unregistered and living in cities and rural villages, exemplify the changing nature of the global refugee crisis and the difficulties organizations will face in counting them and providing much-needed services.

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images; ALEJANDRA VEGA/AFP/Getty Images; Simon Rawles/Getty Images; Uriel Sinai/Getty Images ; John Moore/Getty Images; Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images; LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images; ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images; Majid Saeedi/Getty Images; Jonathan Saruk/Getty Images