NEW YORK/WASHINGTON - Conflicts from Syria to Iraq and Ukraine last year drove the largest annual surge in displaced people since 1945, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The agency was created to find solutions for a million displaced Europeans within three years of the end of World War II. Today, it is working to assist almost 60 times as many people worldwide - about the equivalent of the population of Italy.
Last year, there were 59.5 million people who had been forced to flee their homes as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations - 40 per cent more than in 2011 - the agency said in its annual report released yesterday.
The 8.3 million annual increase was the largest seen in its history. Combined, the almost 60 million refugees would make up the 24th-largest country in the world, according to the report.
"We are witnessing a paradigm change - an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required are now clearly dwarfing anything seen before," agency chief Antonio Guterres said in an e-mailed statement.
The report found that the refugee problem in Syria had for the first time become greater than that in Afghanistan.
Syrian refugees currently make up almost a quarter of Lebanon's population, and their inflow allowed Turkey to surpass Pakistan as the world's largest refugee-hosting country, according to the report. Turkey now hosts 1.59 million refugees and Pakistan 1.51 million.
People who crossed borders to seek safety accounted for roughly 33 per cent of total global displacements last year. About 64 per cent had been displaced within their own countries, including the 823,000 who fled the fighting in eastern Ukraine, the agency said in the report. At least 2.6 million Iraqis were newly displaced last year as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized more territory.
Asylum seekers made up the remaining 3 per cent, or 1.8 million, the agency said.
While the exodus from Syria has become the world's greatest refugee crisis, the United States is being criticised by relief organisations and some within President Barack Obama's Democratic Party for allowing only a limited flow into America.
Since October last year, fewer than 800 Syrian refugees have been admitted into the US - only a fraction of the nearly four million people displaced from the war-ravaged Middle Eastern country - according to US State Department data.
A department official said the total admitted in the past eight months had been dramatically higher than in earlier years since the Syrian crisis began in 2011.
Over the whole of last year, only 249 Syrian refugees were let in. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said protracted and thorough security checks were in place, which meant an average wait of between 18 months and two years.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the leading Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, joined 14 other senators who signed a letter to Mr Obama in May calling for more refugees to be allowed in.