Record numbers forced to flee war and violence in 2015, says UN

A man holding a baby while waiting to cross the Greek-Macedonian border on Nov 24.
A man holding a baby while waiting to cross the Greek-Macedonian border on Nov 24.PHOTO: AFP

GENEVA • The number of people who have been forced to flee war, violence and persecution looks set to soar this year, past last year's record of nearly 60 million, according to the United Nations.

The UN refugee agency released a report yesterday showing rocketing numbers of people living as refugees, asylum seekers or displaced within their countries during the first half of the year, and indicated that the full-year figures would be devastating.

"With almost a million people having crossed the Mediterranean as refugees and migrants so far this year, and conflicts in Syria and elsewhere continuing to generate staggering levels of human suffering, 2015 is likely to exceed all previous records for global forced displacement," UNHCR said.

Last year, the number of displaced soared to a record 59.5 million worldwide, and yesterday's report indicated that this year, the figure "has far surpassed 60 million".

That basically means that one in every 122 people on the planet is today someone who has been forced to flee their home, the agency said.

"Forced displacement is now profoundly affecting our times," UN refugee chief Antonio Guterres said in a statement. "Never has there been a greater need for tolerance, compassion and solidarity with people who have lost everything."

On Wednesday, Mr Guterres had said that humanitarian organisations were at "a breaking point" in attempting to help the soaring numbers of people fleeing conflicts and natural disasters around the world.

During the first six months of the year, at least five million people were newly displaced, with 4.2 million of them remaining inside their country and 839,000 crossing borders - the equivalent of 4,600 people becoming refugees every single day, the report said.

By the end of June, 20.2 million people were living as refugees worldwide, marking a 45 per cent jump since 2011.

The main contributor is the ruthless conflict in Syria, which by June this year had created 4.2 million refugees, UNHCR said. Without this factor, the global increase in refugee numbers from 2011 to the middle of the year would have been just 5 per cent, the agency said.

Meanwhile, UNHCR pointed out that Europe's migration crisis - its worst since World War II - is only partially reflected in the new numbers because arrivals have escalated dramatically in the second half of the year, a period not covered by the report.

Global asylum applications shot up 78 per cent compared to the first half of the year to nearly a million, the report showed.

Germany was the world's biggest recipient of asylum claims, clocking 159,000 of them during the six months leading to June - close to the total for all of last year.

The situation has escalated dramatically since then, with Germany now expected to take in one million asylum seekers by the end of the year. Russia came in second in terms of asylum applications, receiving 100,000 in the first half of the year, mainly from people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine.

The overall number of internally displaced people (IDP), subtracting those who have returned home, swelled by two million over the six-month period to about 34 million, the report said. War-ravaged Yemen alone saw 933,500 new IDPs in the first half of the year, while the war in Ukraine displaced 559,000 internally, and the Democratic Republic of Congo counted 558,000 new internally displaced.

The agency said the global IDP numbers were likely higher because the report only covers internally displaced people under UNHCR protection, and not those cared for at a national level.

Voluntary returns - a measure of how many refugees can safely go back home - are at their lowest levels in more than three decades, according to UNHCR.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2015, with the headline 'Record numbers forced to flee war and violence in 2015, says UN'. Print Edition | Subscribe