UN: Refugee numbers reached record in 2016

Conflicts, persecution and human rights abuses forced 65.6 million people from their homes in 2016 – most of them from Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan.

Syrian children play in a refugee camp in Lebanon in April. There were more than 11 million refugee children last year. Hassan Ammar / AP Photo
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A record 65.6 million people were forced from their homes in troubled areas of the world by the end of last year, the United Nations said on Monday.

Global Trends, the annual report from the UN refugee agency, said "forced displacements" took place every three seconds.

It said 22.5 million people – more than half of them children – were classed as refugees, having fled conflict, persecution, violence or breaches of human rights.

The report marks World Refugee Day on Tuesday.

Most of those under the agency’s mandate came from Syria (5.5 million), Afghanistan (2.5 million) and South Sudan (1.4 million).

The global community of refugees includes 5.3 million Palestinians, who are registered with the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

In South Sudan, officials warned about an escalating crisis, where civil war has killed many people and caused ethnic genocide.

They said the “disastrous breakdown of peace efforts” last summer significantly worsened the situation since the report was compiled.

The number of South Sudanese refugees has risen to about 1.9 million this year, with a similar number internally displaced, said the UN refugee agency.

South Sudan “is a huge, international-scale crisis since the refugees are dispersed among a number of countries that are in many cases poorer”, it said.

Contrary to public belief, most refugees did not move to Europe, with a third of them ending up in the world’s least developed countries, said the agency.

The number of displaced people rose by 300,000 in 2015 to 65.6 million at the end of December. But the yearly rate of increase is slowing after rising by millions a year over the previous three years.

Although 6.5 million refugees returned to their countries last year, they often did so in what the refugee agency called less than ideal circumstances.

Slightly fewer than 190,000 refugees were accepted for resettlement in 37 countries.

By the end of last year, Syria had 12 million forcibly displaced people, and was the source of the largest number of refugees.

“With 650 out of every 1,000 people [uprooted], Syria is the only country in which the experience of forced displacement now affects the majority of the population,” said the report.

The crisis in Syria had caused other emergencies, such as South Sudan’s civil war, to be overshadowed, said the report.

“These continued to cause significant humanitarian needs, especially in the countries least able to respond to them,” said the UN.

Conflict and violence led to more displacements of people in countries such as Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ukraine. They also stopped those fleeing from returning home.

The UN report also highlighted attempts by refugees and migrants to seek safety by crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe.

In Germany and Sweden, the population of refugees and asylum seekers grew to 1.3 million and 313,000 respectively last year. Figures from Germany showed the number of refugees in the country rose from 316,000 to 669,000 last year, with a clear majority from Syria (375,000), Iraq (86,000) and Afghanistan (46,000).

For the third year in a row, Turkey bore the burden of hosting the most number of refugees, with 2.9 million. There were 1.4 million refugees in Pakistan and 1 million in Lebanon.

The worldwide number of asylum seekers – which the UN refugee agency defines as “people who are seeking international protection but whose refugee status is yet to be determined” – reached 2.8 million at the end of last year.

The UN report said its findings added up to “an immense human cost of war and persecution globally”. The total “means that on average, one in every 113 people worldwide is today someone who is displaced”, said Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees.

“By any measure this is an unacceptable number and it speaks louder than ever to the need for solidarity and common purpose in preventing and resolving

crises,” he said. “And ensuring together that the world’s refugees – internally displaced and asylum seekers – are properly protected and cared for while solutions are pursued.

“We have to do better for these people. For a world in conflict, what is needed is determination and courage, not fear.”

Mr Grandi marked the release of the report with a visit to South Sudan. He travelled to the country’s second-largest camp for internally displaced people, in the town of Bentiu.

Conditions at the camp are dire but the 120,000 people living in “rows of tented squalor” were too scared to leave.

The UN cited the example of Angelina Wicyote, 39, a mother of eight who said she had been chased by gunmen even though she had only left the camp to gather firewood.

“The international neglect that you see here is matched nowhere else in the world,” said Mr Grandi. “Wherever you look there are dead ends.”

The only solution, he said, was peace. “I was hoping South Sudan wouldn’t need UNHCR any more. Unfortunately, our services are still required.”


* Additional reporting by Associated Press​