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Refugees arrive in Greece. (Photo: Fotomovimiento/flickr/cc)

Refugee Planet: There Have Never Been This Many Displaced People on Earth

Half of refugees worldwide are children, new United Nations report finds

Nadia Prupis

An unprecedented 65.3 million people have been displaced around the world due to war and persecution, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reported on Monday.

The new figure is not only a 21st century record, it is also the first time that the numbers have surpassed 60 million—which means one in every 113 people worldwide is now either an asylum-seeker, internally displaced, or a refugee, the UN said. Half of them are children.

Over the past five years, forced displacement has increased quicker than ever due to long-standing conflicts in regions like Somalia and Afghanistan; "dramatic" escalations in newly destabilized countries like Syria, Yemen, and Ukraine; and a growing resistance from other nations to providing asylum for refugees, the UN reported.

"More people are being displaced by war and persecution and that's worrying in itself, but the factors that endanger refugees are multiplying too," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.

Grandi also warned on Sunday that a "climate of xenophobia" was spreading due to political rhetoric painting refugees as terrorists or beggars. "Refugees... don't bring danger" but "flee from dangerous places," he told Agence France-Presse.

The UN's report, Global Trends (pdf), was released to mark World Refugee Day on June 20 and in conjunction with the agency's #WithRefugees campaign, which calls on governments to ensure asylum seekers are given education, safe shelter, and opportunities to work.

"At sea, a frightening number of refugees and migrants are dying each year; on land, people fleeing war are finding their way blocked by closed borders," Grandi said Monday. "Politics is gravitating against asylum in some countries. The willingness of nations to work together not just for refugees but for the collective human interest is what's being tested today, and it's this spirit of unity that badly needs to prevail."

Syria at 4.9 million, Afghanistan at 2.7 million, and Somalia at 1.1 million together accounted for more than half the refugees under the UNHCR mandate. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, in total, saw the highest numbers of displaced people in 2015. Intervention in Syria—led in part by the U.S.—has seen at least 4.9 million people driven out of the country and at least 6.6 million displaced internally, totaling around half of the nation's pre-war population.

Hikmat, a Syrian farmer now living in a tent in Lebanon with his family, told the UN, "We're stuck here. We can't go on and we can't go back. My children need to go to school, they need a future."

Elsewhere in the world, people fleeing drug gangs in Central America contributed to a 17 percent rise in displacement in the region, while refugees from Asia and the Pacific accounted for almost a sixth of global refugees and internally displaced people in 2015. Meanwhile, as Europe and the U.S. have largely turned their backs on asylum seekers, Pakistan and Iran held onto their position as two of the world's leading refugee host countries. In fact, 86 percent of refugees are currently living in low- and middle-income countries in close proximity to areas of conflict, such as Ethiopia, Jordan, and Turkey.

The report excluded people who were displaced by natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes, which separately uprooted at least 19 million people in 2015, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, which released its own report in May.

UNHCR said the 2016 report must act as a "watershed moment" for the cause.

"World leaders can no longer watch passively as so many lives are needlessly lost," the report states. "We must be smart about finding solutions to help refugees. We must find humane and dignified means to ensure refugees don’t risk their lives and those of their families by resorting to ruthless traffickers or by boarding flimsy boats in a bid to reach safety."


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