20 Jun 2014

Global refugee figure hits 50m – highest since WWII

More than 50 million people were forced to leave their homes last year due to war or persecution, the highest number since the second world war, says the UN refugee agency.

The rising number of people forcibly uprooted from their homes is a reflection of ongoing conflicts in Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR).

Half of the 50 million are children, many of them caught up in conflicts or persecution that global powers have been unable to prevent or end, said the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, in its annual Global Trends report.

“We are really facing a quantum leap, an enormous increase of forced displacement in our world,” Antonio Guterres, UN high commissioner for refugees, told a news briefing.

The overall figure of 51.2 million displaced people soared by six million from a year earlier. It includes 16.7 million refugees and 33.3 million who have been displaced within their home country and 1.2 million asylum seekers whose applications were pending.

‘We are seeing here the immense costs of not ending war’

Syrians fleeing the escalating conflict accounted for most of the world’s 2.5 million new refugees last year, UNHCR said. In all, nearly 3 million Syrians have crossed into the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan, while another 6.5 million remain displaced within Syria’s borders.

The UNHCR said that politicians had failed refugees, by failing to bring an end to many ongoing conflicts. “We are seeing here the immense costs of not ending war, of failing to resolve or prevent conflict,” Mr Guterres said. “We see the security council paralysed in many crucial crises around the world.”

Conflicts that erupted this year in CAR, Ukraine and Iraq are driving more families from their homes, he said, raising fears of a mass exodus of Iraqi refugees.

“A multiplication of new crises, and at the same time old crises that seem never to die,” he added.

Travelling by sea

The UNHCR report noted that refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa have drowned after taking rickety boats in North Africa to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe, mainly via Italy.

Italy’s recent Mare Nostrum or “Our Sea” mission has rescued about 50,000 migrants already this year. And Italy will ask the European Union next week to take over responsibility for rescuing migrants, a task that is costing its navy 9m euros ($12.25m) a month.

“It is important to have a European commitment there and to make sure that such an operation can be sustainable,” said Mr Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal.

The EU bloc has harmonised its asylum system, but the 27 member states still differ in how they process refugees and in their approval rates for asylum applications, he said.