Over 60 million refugees worldwide

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Refugees arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos. Photo © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell
Refugees arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos. Photo © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

‘INDICATIONS from the first half of the year suggest 2015 is on track to see worldwide forced displacement exceeding 60 million for the first time,’ says the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.

UNHCR’s Mid-Year Trends 2015 report, covering the period from January to the end of June, and looking at worldwide displacement resulting from conflict and persecution, shows markers firmly in the red in each of the three major categories of displacement – refugees, asylum-seekers, and people forced to flee inside their own countries.

The global refugee total, which a year ago was 19.5 million, had as of mid-2015 passed the 20 million threshold (20.2 million) for the first time since 1992. Asylum applications meanwhile were up 78 per cent (993,600) over the same period in 2014. And the numbers of internally displaced people jumped by around 2 million to an estimated 34 million.

Indications from the first half of the year suggest 2015 is on track to see worldwide forced displacement exceeding 60 million for the first time. In a global context, that means that one person in every 122 has been forced to flee their home. ”Forced displacement is now profoundly affecting our times. It touches the lives of millions of our fellow human beings – both those forced to flee and those who provide them with shelter and protection,’ High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said. ‘Never has there been a greater need for tolerance, compassion and solidarity with people who have lost everything,’ he added.

Beyond the headline numbers, the report shows worsening indicators in several key areas. Voluntary return rates – a measure of how many refugees can safely go back home and a barometer of the global state of conflict – are at their lowest levels in over three decades (an estimated 84,000 people compared to 107,000 in the same period a year ago).

In effect, if you become a refugee today your chances of going home are lower than at any time in more than 30 years. New refugee numbers are also up sharply. Some 839,000 people in just six months, equivalent to an average rate of almost 4,600 being forced to flee their countries every day.

Syria’s war remains the single biggest generator worldwide of both new refugees and continuing mass internal and external displacement.

However, the report notes that even with Syria’s war excluded from the measurements, the underlying trend remains one of rising displacement globally. A consequence of more refugees being stuck in exile is that pressures on countries hosting them are growing too – something which unmanaged can increase resentment and abet politicisation of refugees.

On an absolute basis, and counting refugees who fall under UNHCR’s mandate, Turkey is the world’s biggest hosting country with 1.84 million refugees on its territory as of 30 June. Lebanon meanwhile hosts more refugees compared to its population size than any other country, with 209 refugees per 1000 inhabitants.

And Ethiopia pays most in relation to the size of its economy with 469 refugees for every dollar of GDP (per capita, at PPP). Overall, the lion’s share of the global responsibility for hosting refugees continues to be carried by countries immediately bordering zones of conflict, many of them in the developing world.

Europe’s influx of people arriving by boat via the Mediterranean is only partly reflected in the report, mainly as arrivals there have escalated in the second half of 2015 and outside the period covered by the report. Nonetheless, in the first six months of 2015 Germany was the world’s biggest recipient of new asylum claims – 159,000, close to the entire total for all of 2014.

The second largest recipient was the Russian Federation with 100,000 claims, mainly people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine. The report says: ‘The total number of refugees has increased significantly and consistently over the past four years. Starting from 10.4 million at the end of 2011, the number increased to 10.5 million in 2012, to 11.7 million in 2013, and finally to 14.4 million by the end of 2014.

‘By mid-2015, it had reached an estimated 15.1 million, its highest level in 20 years. Within three and a half years, then, the global refugee population grew by 4.7 million persons – some 45 per cent. The main contributing factor to this trend has been the war in the Syrian Arab Republic. Excluding that country, the increase from the end of 2011 to mid-2015 would have been only half a million refugees (+5%). Clearly, the devastating effect of the Syrian conflict is being felt far beyond its neighbouring countries.

‘In addition to the Syrian crisis, the outbreak of armed conflicts or deterioration of ongoing ones in Afghanistan, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, and Ukraine, among others, have contributed to prevailing trends. Meanwhile, the number of refugees able to return to their country of origin has trended downward, indicating that many refugees will continue to reside in exile for years to come.

‘As a result of observed trends, sub-Saharan Africa is host to the largest number of refugees (4.1 million), followed by Asia and Pacific (3.8 million), Europe (3.5 million), and the Middle East and North Africa (3.0 million). The Americas hosted 753,000 refugees at mid-2015.

‘The top 10 source countries of refugees recorded at mid-2015 remained unchanged compared to the beginning of the year. However, individual rankings within these top 10 did change during the reporting period. The Syrian Arab Republic remained the largest source country of refugees, with a refugee population of 4.2 million by mid-2015. This figure has increased dramatically, rising from below 20,000 at the end of 2010.

‘As such, starting in mid-2014, the Syrian Arab Republic replaced Afghanistan as the main source country of refugees worldwide, a rank Afghanistan had previously held for more than three decades.

‘The Syrian refugee population grew by more than 300,000 people during the reporting period. Surrounding countries continue to be impacted heavily by the crisis, with the number of registered Syrians in Turkey (1.8 million), Lebanon (1.2 million), Jordan (628,800), Iraq (251,300), and Egypt (131,900) remaining high.

‘Outside the immediate region, Germany was hosting 66,000 Syrian refugees at mid-2015, up from 41,000 six months earlier. The Afghan refugee population remained relatively stable at about 2.6 million. The process to renew Proof of Registration cards for Afghans in Pakistan ended in March 2015. This exercise led to a net increase in the number of Afghan refugees recorded of about 80,000 persons, including some 10,000 new-borns, though this was partly offset by the voluntary return of some 46,000 Afghan refugees from Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

‘Both countries continued to host the majority of Afghan refugees, with 1.5 million and 951,000 persons, respectively. As such, Afghanistan remained the second-largest source country for refugees. Somalia was the third-largest source country of refugees worldwide and the largest in sub-Saharan Africa, with the number of Somali refugees remaining stable at 1.1 million.

‘Kenya (418,900), Yemen (249,000), and Ethiopia (247,300) were the main host countries of these refugees.

‘The ongoing conflict in South Sudan forced tens of thousands of individuals to flee to neighbouring countries during the first half of the year. As a result, the estimated number of South Sudanese refugees grew from 616,200 at the beginning of 2015 to 744,100 at the end of June 2015. This made South Sudan the fourth-largest source country of refugees worldwide. Ethiopia (275,400), Sudan (190,700), and Uganda (179,600) were hosting the largest populations of South Sudanese refugees.

The report added: ‘More than 839,000 persons were newly displaced across international borders during the first half of 2015, the overwhelming majority of whom found refuge in neighbouring countries or elsewhere in the immediate region. This figure refers to refugees who have been recognised on a prima facie basis as well as those who have been newly registered and granted temporary protection. An additional 221,000 persons were granted refugee status or a complementary form of protection following refugee status determination during the reporting period.

‘Armed conflict in both the Syrian Arab Republic and Ukraine predominantly accounted for this new displacement, as half of the 839,000 persons originated from one of these two countries. While more than 318,000 Syrians were newly registered during the first half of 2015, mostly in neighbouring countries, more than 97,000 Ukrainians were granted temporary protection in the Russian Federation.’