GENEVA (AFP) - The number of people driven from their homes by conflict and crisis has topped 50 million for the first time since World War II, with Syria hardest hit, the UN refugee agency said on Friday.
The UNHCR said there were 51.2 million forcibly displaced people at the end of 2013, a full six million higher than the previous year. The protracted Syria conflict was largely to blame for the increase, it said in its annual report released on World Refugee Day.
Since the war began in March 2011, a total of 2.5 million people have fled Syria, with 6.5 million more displaced inside the country. The Central African Republic and South Sudan crises also sparked new waves of displacement.
"We are seeing here the immense costs of not ending wars, of failing to resolve or prevent conflict," said UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres. "Peace is today dangerously in deficit. Humanitarians can help as a palliative, but political solutions are vitally needed. Without this, alarming levels of conflict and the mass suffering that is reflected in these figures will continue," he warned.
The spiralling numbers have huge implications for aid budgets, and place massive strains on nations on the frontlines of refugee crises, the UNHCR said.
Its data covers three groups: refugees, asylum-seekers, and the internally displaced. Refugee numbers reached 16.7 million people worldwide, the highest since 2001. A total of 6.3 million have been exiled for over five years, the agency said, noting that that did not include five million Palestinians aided by the UN Relief and Works Agency, a separate body.
Overall, the biggest refugee populations under UNHCR care came from Afghanistan, Syrian and Somalia, who together form over half the global refugee total. The world's top refugee hosts were Pakistan, Iran and Lebanon. The regions with the largest refugee populations were Asia and the Pacific, with a total of 3.5 million people. Sub-Saharan Africa totalled 2.9 million, and the Middle East and North Africa, 2.6 million.
With most refugees hosted by poorer countries, human rights campaigners Amnesty International said rich nations must do far more to shoulder the load. "The globe's self-styled leaders are lagging far behind the developing world when it comes to bearing the burden of the global refugee crisis," said Mr Sherif Elsayed-Ali, head of Amnesty's refugees and migrants programme.
"Given the economic advantages rich countries have over poor, it's doubly shocking to see them shirking their responsibility," he said.
Amnesty noted that just three countries - Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey - registered a total of 1,524,979 refugees from Syria alone last year. In contrast, it said, the 28 countries of the European Union have pledged to resettle less than 30,500 Syrians - with Germany taking the vast majority at 25,500.
Amnesty slammed China and Russia for taking in no refugees at all in 2013, despite being the two powers it said had done the most to block UN efforts to end Syria's war. In addition to refugees, 1.1 million people submitted asylum applications, the majority in developed countries, with Germany the largest single recipient.
Syrians lodged 64,300 claims, more than any other nationality, while 60,400 came from conflict-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo. They were followed by 57,400 people from Myanmar, where minority Muslim Rohingya have fled state-backed persecution and sectarian violence.
Underlining the stark nature of the globe's conflicts, a record 25,300 applications were from children separated from or unaccompanied by parents. The UNHCR said the world's 33.3 million internally displaced people were particularly hard hit, since many are in hard-to-reach conflict zones. They also lack the protection afforded to refugees under international treaties.