War and other crises drove one person from their home every 4.1 seconds last year, the UN’s refugee agency said yesterday, pushing the number of people forcibly displaced to a two-decade high of 45.2 million.
All told, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) 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,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told reporters.
“These truly are alarming numbers,” he said. “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 percent 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 the Congo and the 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,” Guterres said. “We witness a multiplication of new conflicts, and it seems that old conflicts never die.”
Guterres said the number of people who had fled the spiraling violence in Syria had soared from 650,000 at the end of last year to about 1.6 million now, surpassing last year’s total from all conflicts.
The UNHCR has said 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 neighboring 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 programs 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 said 87 percent of the world’s refugees were protected by developing countries, up from 70 percent 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.