In 2015, long-simmering crises crossed borders, even continents, in a reminder that it takes very little for regional instability to go global.

This is particularly true when those who are caught in the fray of violence will stop at little to save themselves and their families. Turmoil from Syria to Nigeria spiraled outward last year, leading to unexpected consequences sometimes thousands of miles away from their point of origin.

For 12 years, the Fragile States Index (FSI), created by the Fund for Peace and published by Foreign Policy, has taken stock of the year's events, using 12 social, economic, and political indicators to analyze how wars, peace accords, environmental calamities, and political movements have pushed countries toward stability or closer to the brink of collapse. The index then ranks the countries accordingly, from most fragile to least.

And in terms of the countries that became more fragile this year, there were perhaps few surprises. The Syrian civil war has been roiling the Middle East since 2011. But in 2015, spillover from the chaos finally hit Europe in the form of more than 1 million asylum-seekers who flooded into the continent. Their arrival sent Europe into a panic — and some previously stable countries were sent sliding up the ranks of the index.

Hungary and the other central European countries that line the so-called Balkan route from the Middle East to Europe saw a xenophobic backlash, often stoked by their own politicians, raising growing concerns about the state of human rights in these countries. The migrant crisis also played a role in the United Kingdom’s referendum on whether to leave the European Union. Those advocating that Britain go it alone often cited concerns about migration and the need for Britain to maintain control of its own borders. On June 23, in a stunning turn of events, the country voted to leave the European Union, sending global markets into a nosedive and leading to the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron.

In West Africa, the Boko Haram insurgency has taken its toll across a wide swath of countries. Chad, Cameroon, and Niger last year saw their share of violence, and also of refugees fleeing the violence. Niger and Cameroon each hosted more than 100,000 people displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency by the end of the year — a reminder that, while news about the migration crisis in Europe makes headlines, the countries that bear most of the burden for hosting those displaced by instability are often the ones next door.

One bright spot in the index was long-suffering Sri Lanka: Sri Lankans in 2015 elected a reformist as their new prime minister, who has kicked off his tenure with measures to help soothe the country’s war wounds and speed ethnic reconciliation, making it this year’s most improved state.

From referendums to refugees, here’s how the world changed in 2015.

Fragile States: Rankings and Map

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0 Least
60 Fragile
120 Most
Overall rank: XXX
Score: XXX.X

Indicator Scores

Defining the Indicators

  • Demographic Pressures: Concerns related to population, such as food scarcity, population growth, and mortality rates; Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons: Concerns associated with population displacement and refugees; Group Grievance: Tensions and violence among groups within the state; Human Flight and Brain Drain: Levels of migration out of the country including, but not limited to, the flight of refugees and educated individuals; Uneven Economic Development: Disparities in development among different ethnic and religious groups and among regions within the state; Poverty and Economic Decline: Poverty rates and economic performance; State Legitimacy: Corruption and other measures of democratic capacity, such as government performance and electoral process; Public Services: Provision of education, health care, sanitation, and other services; Human Rights and Rule of Law: The protection and promotion of human rights; Security Apparatus: Internal conflict and the proliferation of nonstate armed groups; Factionalized Elites: Conflict and competition among local and national leaders; External Intervention: Levels of foreign assistance as well as imposed interventions, such as sanctions or military invasion.
Grayed nations are not ranked by the Fund for Peace. No FSI data was available for the following countries until 2007: Antigua and Barbuda, Bahrain, Barbados, Beliza, Brunei, Cape Verde, Comoros, Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Fiji, Grenada, Guyana, Iceland, Lesotho, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Maldives, Malta, Micronesia, Montenegro, Qatar, Samoa, Sao Tome, Seychelles, Solomon Islands, Suriname, Swaziland, East Timor, Trinidad, United Arab Emirates. The nation of South Sudan was not formed until 2011.

Change over time, in overall ranking

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Fragile States 2016: Notable Changes and Scores

THE SYRIAN SPILLOVER

In 2015, the world learned that the Syrian war could not be contained within the country’s borders. A wave of refugees fleeing their war-wracked nation reached Europe en masse, igniting an anti-immigrant backlash that could threaten the political order in the European Union. While Sweden and Germany accepted hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in the past year, the Balkans and Central Europe have seen a resurgence of right-wing forces eager to play on nationalist fears and close the borders of their nations.

Macedonia, Croatia, and Slovenia announced in March that refugees would no longer be able to traverse their territory to northern Europe. Hungary declared a state of emergency to combat the influx of migrants, sending troops to its border with the other Balkan nations and constructing a razor-wire fence to prevent outsiders from entering.

A recent deal between the European Union and Turkey that would exchange EU financial assistance for Turkish agreement to take more refugees seems to have done little to quell Europe’s fears — or prevent some refugees from taking more desperate measures. With the land route to northern Europe closed, migrants have tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea in rickety smugglers’ boats traveling from Libya to Italy. Thousands have drowned over the past year.

A Syrian refugee prays after arriving on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos aboard an inflatable dinghy on Sept. 7, 2015. Photo credit: ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images

The countries on the front lines of the refugee crisis are also under increasing pressure. Turkey is now hosting the largest refugee population in the world, with over 2.5 million refugees at the end of 2015. This has come at a price for Turkey’s domestic stability: Between 2011 and 2015, Turkey’s FSI indicator for refugee pressures rose from 6 to 8.8.

Lebanon and Jordan have also struggled to integrate massive refugee communities, which make up one-quarter and one-tenth of their populations, respectively. The Syrian refugees there are overwhelmingly poor, putting tremendous stress on the economies of both countries. Jordan’s overall score rose from 76.9 to 78 over the past year, while Lebanon’s increased from 88.1 to 89.6, with the decrease in stability driven in both cases by escalating refugee pressures. The refugee crisis has also made the countries dependent on international aid, which is both unsustainable and encouraging the countries to avoid the decisions that will allow them to integrate the refugees into the national fabric.

UNITED KINGDOM: AN UNCERTAIN POST-BREXIT FUTURE

Britons’ longtime ambivalence about their country’s relationship with Europe came to a head this summer, when, in a referendum vote of 52 percent to 48 percent, they decided to leave a four-decade-long partnership.

The Brexit decision comes at a time when many feel that the European project may be on the brink of collapse. While the countries that make up the European Union are, for the most part, hardly fragile, the union itself — faced with crises ranging from a stagnating economy to a sudden influx of refugees — seems to be at a tipping point. Now, many are worried that Britain’s choice to leave could push the union over the edge.

The United Kingdom held steady in the Fragile States Index rankings this year, and even improved slightly relative to other states, falling one place from 161 in last year’s rankings to 162 in this year’s. But it hasn’t been immune from the troubles afflicting the continent. The U.K. has seen its scores jump, in particular, in the area of Group Grievances: In 2011, it scored a 4.4; for the 2016 FSI, that number has climbed to 5.9. That’s due in part to what British Muslims say is the country’s growing Islamophobia. According to a survey conducted by the Islamic Human Rights Commission and released in November 2015, the number of British Muslims who said they either experienced Islamophobia themselves or directed at someone else rose from 50 percent to 82 percent between 2010 and 2014.

The FSI also looks only at events from 2015, meaning it doesn’t account for the fallout from the Brexit vote, which sent the FTSE 100 stock index and the pound sterling plunging, and has introduced tremendous new uncertainties in the country, including about whether the United Kingdom will even stay united.

Britain’s economy has struggled to find its footing since the 2008 global financial crisis, and a vote to leave the EU may, according to some economists, send it, along with the rest of the world, into a new recession. In 2009, the U.K.’s FSI score on economy was 1.7; this year it reached 3.8. Slow economic growth has contributed to tensions with the EU: Many of those who advocated for Brexit argued that, with Europe’s economy also sputtering, Britain had tied itself to a sinking ship. So far, however, the lifeboat hardly looks more promising.

STOKING THE FIRES OF XENOPHOBIA IN CENTRAL EUROPE

In the summer of 2015, Hungary began to draw sharp criticism from the European Union for the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the most vocal opponent among the leaders of central Europe of those seeking asylum. Orban’s weaponization of that anti-migrant animus has been swift and severe. In 2015, the country completed construction on a razor-wire fence running the length of its borders with Serbia and Croatia. Hungary’s FSI score worsened by 3.6 points this year, the biggest shift toward becoming “more fragile” of all the nations surveyed.

This past year, the ongoing migrant crisis has all but consumed Hungary and its neighbors in central Europe — the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland, collectively known as the “Visegrad group.” Their joint opposition to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policies and resistance to taking in refugees from Syria, North Africa, and elsewhere, has raised questions in the EU and among human rights groups about democratic transparency and the abuse of civil liberties.

But beyond the migrant crisis, Hungary’s problems in these areas are likely to worsen. In January, the Economist reported on Orban’s intention to institute anti-terror laws that would only continue to curb civil liberties. His Fidesz party has already limited the powers of the constitutional court and loaded it with loyalists, ostensibly to ease the passage of its own agenda. Groups like the Vienna-based, 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the world’s largest regional security cooperation organization, have also accused the government’s Fidesz-controlled media regulatory agency of stifling liberal voices and steering public advertising money to pro-Fidesz media outlets.

The rest of the Visegrad appears to be following Orban’s lead. Given the Czech Republic’s long-standing discrimination toward the Roma, along with President Milos Zeman’s public embrace of the political group Bloc Against Islam, it’s no surprise that the country’s FSI score worsened by 3.4 this year. Neighboring Slovakia, led by Prime Minister Robert Fico — who has declared that Muslims are “impossible to integrate” in Europe — has gone to court to fight the EU’s plan to institute a mandatory mechanism to relocate asylum-seekers. Its overall score worsened by 2.9 in 2016. And Poland, where ominous authoritarian winds are swirling, has opposed efforts to expand aid and access to refugees. Its overall FSI score worsened by 0.9 in 2016, particularly where group grievance — a measure of the tensions and violence among groups within one state — human rights, and external intervention were concerned.

One thing appears certain: In defiance of the EU, the Visegrad will continue to consolidate around a less-welcoming, intransigent position when it comes to migrants.

SRI LANKA: MOVING AWAY FROM THE SHADOWS OF WAR

For Sri Lankans, 2015 began with a presidential election and hence a choice: to re-elect Mahinda Rajapaksa, the mercurial and nepotistic leader who put a bloody end to the country’s 26-year civil war in 2009, or to vote for Maithripala Sirisena, the self-effacing health minister, who — as J.S. Tissainayagam described in a January 2015 article — promised to “transform Sri Lanka from a near autocracy into a democracy.”

It’s likely that Sirisena’s surprise victory — just several months earlier, he had been a loyal member of Rajapaksa’s government — and his modest but important steps toward healing the nation’s war wounds are in large part why the island nation is this year’s most improved country on the Fragile States 2016 Index, moving nine spots in the rankings, from 34 to 43 in 2016.

Sri Lanka’s success this year is largely due to Sirisena’s victory, coupled with a reduction in natural disasters (devastating floods regularly hit the country; in 2011, incessant rains made homeless 200,000 people, or roughly 1 percent of Sri Lanka’s population). Since taking office, Sirisena has pushed for a new constitution that limits the power of the president’s office and put his country on the path to ethnic reconciliation. He has more successfully integrated the minority Tamils — the losers of the civil war — into the government and worked to create a special court to prosecute human rights abuses committed during the war. In a nutshell, Sirisena’s policies channel the Sri Lankan people’s desire for equality and integration; and his success in meeting the electorate’s needs is reflected in the country’s legitimacy score, which improved by 0.6 points from last year.

Despite its notable shift in this year’s rankings, Sri Lanka still falls in the High Warning category — and its score remains a worrying 87.7. And while the country has improved on most indicators over the past five years, the outlook for the Group Grievance and Human Rights categories, with scores of 9.2 and 8.5 respectively, remains especially concerning.

And while Sirisena has led his country on a path toward a more balanced form of government, the Fund views his administration’s tendency to reject outside support as a cause for concern. Sirisena, for example, has refused to allow international oversight for his human rights court. In response to the U.N.’s call for an investigation by foreign judges into abuses committed during the war, Sirisena responded that he would “never agree to international involvement in this matter.”

Still Sirisena and his people deserve credit for the country’s improvements over 2015. Though as Tissainayagam observed after Sirisena’s election, his country still faced many challenges — ethnic unity, corruption, and government reform, among others. For the time being, he wrote, Sri Lanka still needs to “hold the champagne.”

NIGERIA: A CONFLICT SPILLS ACROSS BORDERS

2015 was the year Nigeria’s security problems went regional. A coalition of troops from Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Benin recaptured much of the territory the Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram previously controlled in northern Nigeria, contributing to a dramatic reduction in violence there in the second half of the year. But with more than 6,000 civilians killed by the Islamic State-affiliated group, last year was still the deadliest since 2009, when the insurgency kicked off, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. Even more worrisome, the insurgency has begun to spill into neighboring countries, especially Cameroon, Niger, and Chad, all of which saw their FSI scores worsen in 2015.

All three countries were hit by cross-border incursions, bombings, and other attacks on civilians. Chad and Niger declared states of emergency in regions affected by the violence in 2015, and Cameroon deployed an additional 2,000 troops to the north of the country following a surge in deadly attacks. Nigeria’s neighbors also saw an influx of refugees, with Niger and Cameroon each hosting more than 100,000 people displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency by the end of the year.

Nigeria, which is at the epicenter of this widening regional security threat, saw its FSI score worsen by 1.1 in 2015. This change reflects not only the long-simmering Boko Haram insurgency, but also the political divisions that were inflamed by last year’s presidential election, an economy crippled by low oil prices, and a spike in protests and strikes. It also reflects the recent surge in militant activity in the oil-rich Niger Delta, which has heightened fears that insurgents who surrendered as part of a 2009 amnesty deal could pick up their weapons once again. Already this year, militants have attacked multiple oil facilities, denting production and forcing the government to deploy soldiers to the region. A future in which Nigeria faces two full-blown domestic insurgencies is not difficult to imagine.

The full results of Fund for Peace 2016 Fragile States Index can be found here.

Animation by Tom McCarten.

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Global Thinkers 2015 Issue Cover