UN report reveals refugees top 50million for the first time since WWII

Julian Gavaghan
25 years of displacement: This infographic shows the number of refugees since 1989. (UNHCR)

The number of people forced to flee their homes has topped 50million worldwide for the first time since World War II, an alarming UN report released to mark World Refugee Day has revealed.

The population of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons increased by six million in the last year alone, with the surge largely blamed on the war in Syria.

A shocking 2.2million people fled the Middle Eastern state in 2013 in the biggest exodus since the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.

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In total, 2.47million have left the country and 6.5million others have fled their homes since a 2011 uprising against dictator Bashar Assad triggered an increasingly brutal civil war.

There were also 2.57million Afghans and 1.12million Somalis among the global total of 51.2million forcibly displaced people. Together with Syria, these three countries now account for half of all new exiles.

Across the world there are now 16.7million refugees, 33.3million internally displaced persons and 1.2million asylum seekers.

Afghanistan is revealed to be the largest source of refugees. (UNHCR)

The proportion of children has risen from 41% five years ago to 50% in 2013 – and reaches 60% in Africa, where flaring conflicts have caused a major new problem.

‘Peace is today dangerously in deficit,’ declared the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres as his report, which was published on World Refugee Day, warned that the humanitarian crisis is likely to deepen.

War, after six decades of falling, has now been on the rise again for the past seven years, according to a separate study released this week by the Institute of Economics and Peace.

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The UNHCR said conflict – rather than natural disasters or repression - was to blame for eight of the top ten sources of last year’s 914,000 new asylum claims - including a record 25,300 children arriving without any parents.

Britain, which has dropped from sixth to eighth place as an asylum destination, nevertheless last year recorded a 7% rise in applications – with 29,395 requests compared to 27,500 in 2012.

The main destination for refugees was revealed to be Germany. (UNHCR)

But this figure is dwarfed by 109,600 arrivals in Germany, which overtook the US as the number one host after the number of asylum applications rose 70% in a year.

Incredibly, much of this increase has been driven by a fourfold rise in applicants from Russia, who made 14,900 asylum claims in Germany in 2013, according to the report.

‘People have long been escaping the conflict in the North Caucasus, but increasing numbers are also leaving due to rising political persecution and human rights abuse elsewhere,’ said Tanya Lokshina, a Moscow-based analyst for the charity Human Rights Watch.

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She said the fear of ‘trumped-up trials’ and rising ‘gay bashing’ – especially after new homophobic laws were passed by the Kremlin – has triggered a surge in exiles.

Vladimir Putin’s state, a member of the G8 club of rich nations, is now the sixth highest source of asylum seekers with 39,800 claimants in 44 different countries.

It only lies behind Syria (64,300), DR Congo (60,400), Myanmar (57,400), Afghanistan (49,100) and Iraq (45,700).

Of these countries, however, Syria is the most concerning to aid agencies and the UNHCR, which counted claims made in 161 countries.

Justin Forsyth, CEO of Save the Children said: ‘Nearly three million people are languishing in camps in countries surrounding Syria, in overcrowded tents, no place for sick and traumatised children to be living.

‘Children fleeing the increasingly brutal civil war in Syria face huge risks when they leave, with thousands undertaking perilous journeys across the Mediterranean in a desperate attempt to reach safety.’

Those who have fled, most of whom have been granted temporary protection in neighbouring Middle Eastern states, are this year predicted to surpass Afghanistan’s exiles as the biggest refugee population for the first time in three decades.

Just two years ago, the Syrian refugee population ranked just 36th in the world, according to the UNHCR.

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Driving the exodus is the increasingly fractious state of the rebellion in which the original secular insurgents are now also fighting appallingly brutal jihadists.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terror group, which now occupies swathes of Iraqi territory, has even been disavowed by Al Qaeda.

Its recruits, many of whom are Sunni Muslim volunteers from Britain and other EU countries, revel in beheading those they capture and filming the gory executions.

Last week, ISIS members tweeted pictures of themselves massacring hundreds of predominantly Shia soldiers in Iraq, from where 500,000 people are expected to flee this year.

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The failure by world leaders to tackle the Syrian civil war, which has now spread into a second Middle Eastern state, was alluded to in a condemnation by Mr Guterres.

‘We are seeing here the immense costs of not ending wars, of failing to resolve or prevent conflict,’ he said.

A host of stars, including UNHCR ambassador Angelina Jolie, who is campaigning for rape to be recognised as a war crime, have increasingly called for action in Syria.

The rising number of traumatised refugees is also having an impact on already overstretched mental health services in Britain, according to one psychotherapist who treats them.

Divine Charura, who helps the charity Solace and lectures at Leeds Metropolitan University, said: ‘I have noticed a rise in referrals in the last seven years.

‘But sadly the increase in refugees – and the associated post-traumatic stress disorder cases – has come at a time when mental health spending is being cut.’

Mr Charura says his colleagues are increasingly suffering from a ‘high burnout rate’ as psychotherapists ‘often become enmeshed in their patients’ trauma’.

‘I have worked with refugees who have witnessed murders, been ordered to kill people, suffered torture, beatings mutilations and rape.’ Older conflicts - such as the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and those in Afghanistan and Iraq – also still contribute to the massive number people forced from their homes.

Of the world’s 16.7million refugees – not counting asylum seekers or internally displaced persons – five million are Palestinian.

Pakistan, which hosts the largest number of Afghan exiles, continues to have the biggest refugee population with 1.6million people.

Iran is second with 857,400, mostly escaped Iraqis, followed by Lebanon (856,500) and Jordan (641,900) – which both have big Palestinian populations - and Turkey (609,900), which has more recently seen an influx of Syrian refugees.