Global refugee crisis entering dangerous new era, warns UN

One in every 122 people globally is now either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum, according to the UN's refugee agency

The UN’s refugee agency has warned of a ‘dangerous new era’ as the number of people forcibly uprooted worldwide reached almost 60 million at end-2014, with humanitarian crises stretching from Syria to Somalia.

One in every 122 people globally is now either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum, the annual UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) global trends report said, the highest figure on record.

“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,” said UNHCR chief António Guterres.

Some 42,500 people were displaced daily in 2014; 10,300 more each day than the previous year. The 2014 global figure for displacement outstrips that for 2013 (51.2 million), which the UN had already decried as an historic high.  More than half the world’s refugees are children.

The top refugee producing countries for last year were Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. Together, these three countries accounted for more than half of all refugees globally. For the first time in three decades, Afghanistan has been displaced as the largest source country of refugees; that title is now held by Syria. The countries hosting most of the displaced were Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran and Ethiopia.

Globally, poorer nations take the strain, with developing countries hosting 86 per cent of the world’s refugees in 2014.

Most worrying for the UN is the pace of displacement, which has picked up since 2011 in large part because of war in Syria, said the refugee agency.

The number of people fleeing their homes has jumped 40 per cent in the last three years to 59.5 million, whereas global displacement in the decade before 2011 ranged between 38 million and 43 million people a year.

UNHCR’s global trends report, World at War, studies changes in displacement in the 12 months to December 2014. By the end of last year, there were 19.5 million refugees, 38.2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 1.8 million asylum seekers globally, according to the study. Together, this roughly equals the population of Italy or the UK.

The increase has mainly been driven by the war in Syria, which is now in its fifth year. One in every five displaced persons worldwide is Syrian, according to UNHCR.

The finding is a staggering reversal of fortunes for the Levantine country. Just six years ago, Syria was the world’s second largest refugee host. Today, it is the biggest producer of IDPs and refugees, with 7.6 million and 3.88 million in 2014, respectively.

Despite pledges from many countries, the UN’s needs far outstrip donations. Its $4bn humanitarian appeal to cover the cost of caring for the refugees in 2015 has received less than a quarter of the necessary funds.

The conflict has had dramatic consequences for the wider Middle East. Turkey, which shares a long border with Syria, is now the region's biggest host of refugees, absorbing 1.59 million Syrians through 2014. Neighbouring Lebanon is host to the largest number of refugees relative to its size, with 232 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants up from 178 in 2013.

Both new and existing conflicts are fuelling the mass movement of people, leaving no region untouched, said the UN. At least 15 conflicts have forced people to flee in the last five years, including three in the Middle East: Syria, Iraq and now Yemen. Fighting between rival factions started last year in Yemen, where 80 per cent of the population need urgent humanitarian aid, according to the UN.

“Today, Yemen’s very existence hangs in the balance,” UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said at the start of UN-backed talks in Geneva on the situation on Monday. “The region simply cannot sustain another open wound like Syria and Libya.”

In a desperate bid to find a better life, more than 1,800 migrants perished while trying to reach Europe’s shores in the first five months of 2015, mainly from Syria and Eritrea.

Europe has come under fire for its reaction to the migrant issue. More than 130,000 Syrians applied for asylum in Europe last year, according to UN data. By March this year, Germany had pledged to take in 30,000 refugees, while the UK housed just 143.

“For an age of unprecedented mass displacement, we need an unprecedented humanitarian response and a renewed global commitment to tolerance and protection for people fleeing conflict and persecution,” said Guterres.

Last year witnessed 13.9 million newly displaced people worldwide, a four-fold increase since 2010, according to the UN report. The increase on the year before was the highest ever seen in a 12-month period, according to the agency.

Photo credit: UNHCR / I. Prickett