Global forced displacement tops 50 million people, says UN refugee agency

Record number of refugees putting massive strain on host countries struggling to cope with the influx

The number of people forced to flee their homes has topped 50 million for the first time in the post-World War II era, according to the UN’s refugee agency. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also recorded more new refugees in the last 12 months, than at any time since 1994.

The study, released on World Refugee Day, reported that 51.2 million people had fled their home nation or were displaced within their country by the end of 2013 – six million more than the previous year. This is putting massive strain on host countries struggling to cope with the influx, the report warned.

The worsening situation in Syria is one of the main causes of the record increase, according to the UNHCR. By the end of 2013, 2.5 million Syrians had sought refuge abroad and 6.5 million more were internally displaced.

“Non-traditional donors need to step up alongside traditional donors,” said UN high commissioner for refugees, Antonio Guterres. “As many people are forcibly displaced today as the entire populations of medium-to-large countries.”

If the 51.2 million persons were a nation, they would make up the 26th largest country in the world, according to UNHCR.

The figures reveal the vast majority of the more than 50 million are internally displaced persons (IDPs) – those forced to flee their homes but who remain in their own country – who make up some 33.3 million of the total. IDPs accounted for the largest increase in those forcibly displaced last year.

Refugees who have escaped persecution, conflict, generalised violence, or human rights violations rose to 16.7 million worldwide in 2013. An estimated 2.5 million were new refugees, the highest number of new arrivals since 1994, which witnessed massive displacement from the Rwandan genocide.

The Middle East, North Africa and South Asia (MENASA) region is both the top source of refugees and their host countries, the UNHCR study revealed. The top host countries are Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. More than half of all refugees worldwide came from Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia.

Recent conflict in Iraq, too, has heightened humanitarian agencies’ fears of being unable to cope. This month saw 300,000 more Iraqis displaced internally because of fighting, bringing the total to some 800,000 refugees in Iraq.

Tiny Lebanon hosts the largest number of refugees relative to its population, with 178 registered refugees per 1,000 inhabitants, stretching scant resources.

More than 5.4 million refugees helped by UNHCR lived in countries where the GDP per capita was below $5,000, said the agency.

Syria has moved from being the world’s second largest refugee-hosting country to being its second largest refugee-producing country within just five years, according to the report. The Syrian crisis prompted the UN to launch a record appeal for $6.5bn for Syria and its neighbours at the end of 2013, the largest ever appeal for a single crisis.

As of April this year, only $1.2bn had been pledged, with UN agencies saying the appeal had gone “largely unanswered”.