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Refugee figures now higher than at the end of the Second World War

Updated Monday, 1st September 2014
As the refuge crisis in Syria reaches 3 million we need to find a global response to record world refugee numbers, writes Dick Skellington.

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An illustration of a crying refugee portrait in front of a globe. We live in a world where the number of people surviving as refugees from war and persecution has now risen to over 50 million, the highest number since the end of the Second World War.

Figures published by the UN in June this year reveal there were 51.2 million refugees in 2013, a rise of 6 million on 2012.

With Syria imploding, Gaza bearing the wrath of a vengeful Israel, and conflicts emerging in several African countries, it is estimated that by the end of this year, over 60 million people will be dispossessed, a damning indictment on humanity’s capacity for violence.

After the Second World War, millions of people were displaced in Europe and the Middle East – at least 50 million refugees sought new safer borders. The total displaced was more than the entire population of the UK at the time.

In response international law and international agencies were created. UNRWA (The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine) was formed to deal with the 700,000 Palestinians expelled from their homeland after the creation of Israel.  The second, the following year, was the UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency) which still looks after refugees worldwide.

Today, as Syria and other conflict zones reveal, the refugee crisis is worsening. According to the UN the world now is home to more refugees since the Second World War ended. 51 million people are now displaced across the planet. This includes Syrians, Palestinians, Iraqis, Somalis, Kurds, South Sudanese, and those fleeing war in the Central African Republic, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

UNHCR's annual Global Trends report showed a massive increase driven mainly by the war in Syria, which at the end of 2013 had forced 2.5 million people into becoming refugees and made 6.5 million internally displaced. Major new displacement was also seen in Africa – notably in Central African Republic and South Sudan.

"We are seeing here the immense costs of not ending wars, of failing to resolve or prevent conflict," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres.

"Peace is today dangerously in deficit. Humanitarians can help as a palliative, but political solutions are vitally needed. Without this, the alarming levels of conflict and the mass suffering that is reflected in these figures will continue. The international community has to overcome its differences and find solutions to the conflicts of today in South Sudan, Syria, Central African Republic and elsewhere. Non-traditional donors need to step up alongside traditional donors. As many people are forcibly displaced today as the entire populations of medium-to-large countries such as Colombia or Spain, South Africa or South Korea," said Guterres.

2013 also brought a 1.1 million increase in asylum seekers. The majority of asylum seekers are found in developed countries (Germany is the largest single recipient of new asylum claims), a record 25,300 asylum applications were from children. Syrians lodged 64,300 claims, more than any other nationality, followed by asylum seekers from Democratic Republic of the Congo (60,400) and Myanmar (57,400).

There was also a rise internally displaced people. 33.3 million people were refugees in their own countries, according to the UNHCR.

The dilemma for refugees in the world today is that most can not return to their country of origin, and if internally displaced, as the escalating situation in Iraq confirms, they simply can not return to their owns under threat of genocide and persecution. In the Middle East many countries are overburdened with refugees from neighbouring states and conflicts, so increasingly the camps are full to the brink and any further shift in population across borders is growing more difficult year on year as resources become more stretched and strained.

The continuing conflicts in Syria, Palestine, and Iraq are destabilising the region beyond their borders. We need a new way of resolving the world refugee crisis. There are no easy answers.

The UNHCR believes the world requires a generic structured approach. Its future lies in the tolerance of other nations, but as conflicts grow and multiply the West may already be closing borders more than opening them. The climate needs to change and the consequences of war fully challenged.


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