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World Confronts Largest Humanitarian Crisis since WWII

World Confronts Largest Humanitarian Crisis since WWII

Cover Top10 1Refugees UNHCR

Refugees from Central African Republic in southern Chad, May 2014. (Photo: UNHCR/C. Fohlen)

The number of people forcibly displaced by conflict or persecution reached 51.2 million—the highest total recorded since World War II, the UN refugee agency reported on World Refugee Day in 2014. And the numbers continued to increase throughout the year. More than half of all refugees worldwide came from just three countries: Afghanistan, Syria, and Somalia. In Syria and Iraq alone, an estimated 13.6 million people have been displaced by the conflicts, constituting what UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres dubbed a “mega-crisis.”

“We are witnessing a quantum leap in forced displacement in the world,” said Guterres, who blamed the flows on the failure to resolve or prevent conflict. While humanitarian assistance helps mitigate suffering in the short term, he warned that without political solutions, “the alarming levels of conflict, and the mass suffering that is reflected in these figures will continue."

Issue No. 1 of Top Ten of 2014

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Internal Displacement Reaches Unprecedented Level

Refugee flows, while striking on their own at an estimated 16.7 million, are dwarfed by the staggering number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world today, who accounted for more than half of total displacement last year. The number of IDPs worldwide stood at 33.3 million people at the end of 2013, the highest ever recorded, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).

Many have been displaced for years, particularly in countries like Colombia that are the sites of long-standing civil conflicts. But new large-scale internal displacement accounted for the largest increase of any category of the displaced, UNHCR reported in 2014. Countries with more than 1 million IDPs currently include Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria. This year, new waves of violence in countries including the Central African Republic, Iraq, Nigeria, and Ukraine forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.

Syria’s Neighbors Approaching “Host-Country Fatigue”

The war in Syria, now in its fourth year, continues to force large numbers of people from their homes. Around 3.3 million people have fled the country and 7.6 million others are internally displaced—totaling more than 40 percent of the population—according to UNHCR and IDMC estimates as of late November. Some 2.2 million people fled in 2013 alone, making this the largest annual exodus by any group since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

The massive Syrian outflows continue to greatly stretch resources in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, which together host almost 90 percent of Syrian refugees. At a Berlin conference in late October to raise money to aid Syrian refugees, attended by delegates from 40 countries, host-country representatives signaled they were approaching the limits of their ability to admit Syrians. Lebanon’s prime minister, whose country of 4.5 million has taken in more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees, warned of the destabilizing effects of this influx. Turkey’s deputy foreign minister bemoaned the low level of financial support from the international community; as of early December, his country hosted more than 1.6 million Syrian refugees.

Despite the continuing violence in Syria, the pace of new refugee registration slowed in recent months as neighboring countries took steps to restrict the flows crossing their borders. Common policies include barring refugees who returned to Syria from re-entering, as well as deporting and denying entry to those without documentation. As a result of such measures, the number of refugees registered by UNHCR in October was 18,453, down 88 percent from the 2013 monthly average of 78,000, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Instability Continues to Fuel Massive Displacement across Middle East

While the Syria crisis has attracted the most public attention, other countries are more quietly experiencing significant refugee crises of their own. The still-fragile security situation in Afghanistan kept it at the top of the list of refugee-origin countries for the 33rd consecutive year in 2013, with 2.6 million Afghan refugees in 86 countries. The largest numbers can be found in Pakistan and Iran, while Germany serves as the largest host outside the region. As 2014 draws to a close, the number of refugees from Syria has surpassed that of Afghanistan, where there is a slower rate of displacement.

In Iraq, the rise of the jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and ensuing sectarian violence forced many Iraqis to flee over the course of the year. (For more on Westerners joining ISIS, see Issue #6: Governments Fear Return and Intentions of Radicalized Citizens Fighting Abroad.) In August, ISIS fighters seized control of the town of Sinjar, leaving thousands of Yazidis—ethnic Kurds who practice a distinctive religion—trapped for days on a mountainside without food or water. As many as 200,000 people, most from the Yazidi community, fled within the country, while thousands more left for Turkey, according to UNHCR. As of late November, more than 3 million Iraqis were internally displaced, including 1.9 million newly displaced in 2014, half of whom are seeking refuge in the country’s Kurdish region.

No End to Violence, Displacement in Africa

Heavy fighting between Christian and Muslim militias in the Central African Republic (CAR) prompted new refugee outflows during 2014, with nearly 420,000 seeking refuge in neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The number of internally displaced persons, which hit a peak of 922,000 in January, had declined to 437,400 by mid-December.

Across Africa, new displacement rose in 2014. Insecurity and famine in Somalia, long a refugee-origin country, pushed the number of IDPs past 1.1 million. In Nigeria, Boko Haram’s reign of terror continued to displace hundreds of thousands of people, bringing the number of IDPs to at least 3.3 million, the third-highest in the world behind Syria and Colombia. In total, more than 11.4 million people have been displaced in 12 East African countries, including the DRC, Sudan, South Sudan, and Somalia.

International Response

While the neighbors of conflict-ridden countries have primarily shouldered the burden of accepting refugee flows, other, particularly wealthier, countries outside the affected regions have been reluctant to increase refugee resettlement places. At the Berlin conference, High Commissioner Guterres bluntly told delegates that the international community response has fallen far short of what is needed—indeed, the UN’s appeal for Syrian humanitarian aid has met only 47 percent of its funding goal for this year. As of December, when UNHCR held its most recent pledging conference, the refugee agency had received pledges from 28 countries to admit or resettle more than 66,000 Syrian refugees, though the pledges fall well short of the agency’s target of 130,000 places in 2015-16, and even further from the estimate of 300,000 most in need of resettlement. European countries have provided the majority of pledges, but the actual numbers of resettled refugees remain low. Sweden tops the list with more than 30,000 Syrians granted permanent resident status since the war began. Over the same period, Germany resettled 6,000 refugees, took in another 11,800 Syrian asylum seekers, and pledged to accept an additional 20,000 Syrians on humanitarian grounds. All in all, the spaces promised by non-neighboring countries amount to only a small fraction of Syria’s resettlement needs.

While traditional resettlement countries like Canada and the United States have declined to establish large-scale programs for Syrian refugees, new avenues have opened within the international community. Several Latin American countries have created programs to accept Syrian refugees. With only 6,000 refugees resettled in the region thus far, the trend is largely symbolic but has the potential to grow substantially over time. Brazil issued 5,700 humanitarian visas for Syrians as of December, allowing recipients to apply for refugee status once in the country; as of August, refugee status has been granted to 1,245 applicants. Argentina has resettled some 300 Syrian families over the past two years. This year, Uruguay received its first 42 Syrian refugees of the 120 it has offered to admit, and is the first Latin American country to cover all resettlement costs. And Colombia, itself torn apart by displacement, has accepted all 19 Syrians who applied for asylum since 2011.

With strains on resources in refugee-accepting countries and slow growth in refugee resettlement abroad, 2014 was a dismal year for the millions forced to flee their homes. Funding shortages among humanitarian organizations will likely make this winter a difficult one for refugees in the Middle East and Africa. As violence in many countries, particularly Syria, continues unabated, high levels of displacement are likely to remain a sobering reality facing the international community in 2015.


MPI Research



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