Global refugees highest since WWII, pointing to lack of political solutions

If the world's refugees made up a country, it would be the 26th most populous. 

Bilal Hussein/AP
Syrian refugee children stand outside their tent at a Syrian refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese town of Majdal Anjar, Lebanon, June 19, 2014.

The number of refugees, internally displaced people, and asylum-seekers is at the highest level since World War II, a UN agency said today, in a report that highlights the struggles of the international community to support refugees and find solutions to ongoing global conflicts. 

The UN Refugee Agency reports that a staggering 51.2 million people were displaced in 2013 due to “persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or human rights violations,” with a large part of the increase due to the ongoing civil war in Syria. This is up by 6 million from the 45.2 million refugees in 2012. The largest number of refugees are internally displaced people at 33.3 million. 

With new and continuing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Pakistan, Kenya, Myanmar, and others, the numbers of refugees may be even higher in 2014. UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, underscored the lack of political solutions to ongoing conflicts in comments in the report. 

“We are seeing here the immense costs of not ending wars, of failing to resolve or prevent conflict. Peace is today dangerously in deficit. Humanitarians can help as a palliative, but political solutions are vitally needed. Without this, the alarming levels of conflict and the mass suffering that is reflected in these figures will continue.”

Speaking to reporters in Geneva, Mr. Guterres noted that the numbers weren’t just an increasing trend but a “quantum leap.”

Ongoing and new conflicts show the weaknesses of the international system, Mr. Guterres told The New York Times. "What this demonstrates is that the international community today has very limited capacity to prevent conflicts and to find timely solutions. We see the Security Council paralyzed in many crucial crises," he said.

Recent battles at the Security Council have seen Russia and the United States on opposing sides over conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, effectively preventing the Council from taking any action.

Pakistan, Iran, and Lebanon took in the most refugees in 2013. Lebanon hosts the largest number of refugees compared to its own population with 178 refugees per 1,000 Lebanese. The United States hosted 263,600 refugees in 2013. Worldwide, the largest numbers of refugees came from Afghanistan, Syria, and Somalia.

With 86 percent of the world’s refugees living in developing countries, finding the resources to deal with numerous wars and conflicts has become more difficult.

“There is no humanitarian response able to solve the problems of so many people. It’s becoming more and more difficult to find the capacity and resources to deal with so many people in such tragic circumstances,” Guterres said. 

The report also highlighted the swift changes in domestic stability. Within five years, Syria went from being the second largest refugee-hosting country to the second largest refugee-producing one.

One of the most shocking findings from the report was that half of the refugee population was made of up children below 18 – the highest figure in a decade. The number of children separated from family and traveling alone leaves them highly vulnerable.

Solutions to many of the crises highlighted remain far off. The UN report highlighted that the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees calls on signatories to cooperate on finding solutions, including trying to lower the number of refugees and resettle others.

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