War and other crises drove one person from their home every 4.1 seconds last year, the UN’s refugee agency said on Wednesday, pushing the number of people forcibly displaced to a two-decade high of 45.2 million.
All told, the UNCHR’s annual figures showed 1.1 million people fled across international borders last year, while 6.5 million were displaced within their homelands.
“This means one in each 4.1 seconds. So each time you blink, another person is forced to flee,” Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told reporters.
“These truly are alarming numbers,” he added.
“They reflect individual suffering on a huge scale and they reflect the difficulties of the international community in preventing conflicts and promoting timely solutions for them.”
The total figure of 45.2 million included 28.8 million internally displaced people, 15.4 million border-crossing refugees, and 937,000 asylum seekers.
“War is the main reason for this very high number of refugees and people internally displaced. Fifty-five per cent of them correspond to the well-known situations of Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Sudan, and Syria,” Guterres said.
The largest number of refugees still comes from Afghanistan, a situation unchanged for 32 years. Worldwide, one refugee in four is Afghan.
Guterres highlighted the conflicts in Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic.
Due to the raft of crises, he said, the total number of refugees and internally displaced has risen to a level unseen since 1994, a year marked by the Rwandan genocide and bloodshed in former Yugoslavia.
Last year did see 2.1 million internally displaced people and 526,000 refugees return home, as well as the resettlement of 88,6000 in rich nations. But fresh crises drove the global total higher.
“New refugees, new internally displaced, unfortunately represent much more than those able to find an answer to their plight,” said Guterres.
“We witness a multiplication of new conflicts, and it seems that old conflicts never die,” he said.
Guterres pointed out that the number of people who had fled the spiralling violence in Syria had soared from 650,000 at the end of last year to around 1.6 million now, surpassing last year’s total from all conflicts.
The UNHCR has warned that Syrian refugee numbers could hit 3.5 million by the end of this year; and there are also fears that the number currently displaced within the country, 4.25 million, will also climb.
Syrian refugees have flooded into neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, stretching those nations’ ability to cope.
Guterres urged the international community to help shoulder the load, although he said UNHCR-brokered resettlement programmes for Syrians in rich countries were not yet on the cards.
With the economic crisis sharpening the asylum debate in developed nations, Guterres said it was important to keep some perspective.
“Who is supporting refugees in the world?” he asked. “Essentially, developing countries.”
He stressed that 87 per cent of the world’s refugees were protected by developing countries, up from 70 per cent a decade ago.
“So when we see discussion sometimes that exist about refugees in many developed countries, I think it’s good to remind public opinion in those countries that refugees are not people fleeing from poor countries into rich countries in search of a better life,” he added.
Pakistan remained the world’s top host nation last year, with 1.6 million refugees, mostly from Afghanistan. It was followed by Iran, with 868,200, and Germany, with 589,700.
Some 46 per cent of the globe’s refugees are under 18.
Guterres pointed to the “highly worrying” trend of rising numbers of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum: 21,300 last year. They were at particular risk from smuggling gangs, he said.