As civil wars spread, world's refugee population at post-WWII high, UN says

With almost 60 million people displaced by war and repression, total refugees would rank as the world's 24th-largest country. Half of this number are children, according to a UN report released Thursday. 

Umit Bektas/Reuters
Almost 60 million people worldwide, including this Syrian family that's now in Turkey, were forcibly uprooted by conflict and persecution at the end of last year, the highest number ever recorded number.

The global effect of war, poverty, and repression is painted in sobering terms in a new UN refugee report showing a record of nearly 60 million people displaced from their homes, 14 million of them in 2014 alone – and half of them children.

The head of the UN refugee agency, Antonio Guterres, called the situation a “paradigm change” and an “unchecked slide” from previous years, largely the result of an upsurge in violence and persecution, including 15 new conflicts in the past five years.

Not only is the number of refugees and asylum seekers today the largest since World War II, but the report also shows the fewest number are able to return home under current conditions. 

The largest toll stems from the four-year civil war in Syria: 7.6 million Syrians are internally displaced and 3.9 million are outside the country. For the first time, Syrian refugees exceed those from Afghanistan.

Turkey houses the largest refugee population in the world, with people winding up there from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan, as well as high risk areas in the Middle East and North Africa. 

“Worldwide, one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum,” the report states. Were the number of displaced persons compiled as a single population figure, it would represent the 24th largest country in the world.

“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 Mr. Guterres in a statement that accompanied the report,  “The World at War,” which was released Thursday.

The figure of 59.5 million displaced includes refugees from older conflicts like Darfur in Sudan, and newer crises such as the ethnic Rohingya in Myanmar who have been exploited by human traffickers plying coastal routes of escape. 

“Putting it into context,” writes the Gulf News:

imagine if every man, woman and child living in the … countries of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE were displaced; or every single English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish person that lived on the British Isles were forced to live elsewhere.

The number of those able to return home or be settled in familiar surroundings in 2014 has fallen sharply from runs an average of about 450,000 in each of previous three years, to about 126,000 this year.

Not surprisingly the displaced are mostly from developing countries and the largest new settlements are in countries like Kenya and Ethiopia.

Reuters notes in its coverage today that:

"Even amid such sharp growth in numbers, the global distribution of refugees remains heavily skewed away from wealthier nations and towards the less wealthy," quoting the UNHCR report.

UNHCR said there were 38.2 million displaced by conflict within national borders, almost five million more than a year before, with wars in Ukraine, South Sudan, Nigeria, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo swelling the figures.

The past five years have seen 15 new conflicts, eight of them in Africa, including the Ivory Coast, the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, north eastern Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, and Burundi.

The New York Times today describes the evident worry in Europe over refugee streams from the south and east:

There has been a sharp backlash in European capitals against the waves of people coming across the Mediterranean Sea, including many who are fleeing conflict and repression in countries like Syria and Eritrea.

For now, the European Union has shelved its plans to get approval from the United Nations Security Council to target human smugglers who operate in lawless Libya and to destroy the ships they use to bring migrants across the sea.

Instead, the European Union is scheduled to meet on Monday to discuss whether it will start military operations in the international waters of the Mediterranean Sea, for which it does not need the Council’s blessings.

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