'Things will get worse': UNHCR as refugees approach 60m worldwide

Syrian refugees, Turkey, UNHCR,
Syrian refugees wait behind a fence prior to go back to Syria. More than half the world's refugees are children, a report from UNHCR says. Source: Getty Images

The numbers of refugees and people seeking asylum worldwide is the highest since the era following World War II, new figures from the UNHCR show, while Australia’s offshore detention policies have made Nauru the third largest host of refugees per capita.

  • UNHCR report: Global Trends Forced Displacement in 2014
  • In 2014 there were 59.5 million refugees, ayslum-seekers and IDP in the world
  • One out of every 5 displaced persons is Syrian
  • Half of all refugees are children
  • Turkey is the largest refugee host nation, overtaking Pakistan
  • 86 per cent of refugees are hosted in developing nations
  • Lebanon hosts the most refugees per capita
  • Nauru is the third largest host of refugees per capita

The number of people who fled their homes or lived in exile in 2014 was greater than any previous year since the era following World War II, the UNHCR says.

There were 59.5 million forcibly displaced people (refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people) in 2014, up from 51.2 million in 2013.

The increase of 8.3 million (twice the population of Melbourne) was the largest in any single year, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said.

"I believe things will get worse before they eventually start to get better," UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said at a news conference in Istanbul.

Today (June 18) the UNHCR released its Global Trends Forced Displacement in 2014 report, highlighting the worsening situation of forcibly displaced people around the globe.

The number of forcibly displaced people worldwide grew faster than the world's population between 2011 and 2014.

Australia’s offshore detention policies made the tiny nation of Nauru, with 10,000 people, the third largest host of refugees per capita in the world in 2014.

The number of people last year was "unprecedented", Mr Guterres said in the report.

"We are witnessing a paradigm change, an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before," Mr Guterres said.

In 2014, the UNHCR assisted about 80 per cent of all forcibly displaced people in the world.

War, conflict and persecution are the main drivers of this accelerating displacement of human lives, UNHCR spokesperson Vivian Tan says.

“The number of people forcibly displaced around the world has risen dramatically since 2011,” she said.

“In recent years we’ve seen a proliferation of conflicts in countries like Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Nigeria’s north-east, Mali and Ukraine.”

Ms Tan said in a few cases peace had returned and some refugees and displaced people had been able to return to their homes.

“But in most cases, conflict continues to rage and even escalate,” Ms Tan said.

“At the same time, decades of instability in countries like Afghanistan and Somalia have prevented many refugees from finding long-term solutions like voluntary repatriation.”

At the end of last year, the world had more than 6.4 million refugees who had been in exile for five or more years, the UNHCR report said.

"Globally, one in every five displaced persons worldwide was Syrian"

The conflict in Syria was behind a significant proportion of forcibly displaced people worldwide in 2014, UNHCR said.

"Globally, one in every five displaced persons worldwide was Syrian," the report said.

That has meant Syria is now the most common country of origin for refugees, overtaking Afghanistan, which had been the most common country of origin for 30 years.

The conflict in Syria has made neighbouring Turkey the largest refugee-hosting nation in the world, overtaking Pakistan.

The United Nations says a refugee is someone who flees their home country from fear of persecution or harm and whose claim for asylum has been verified. An asylum seeker is someone seeking refugee status.

The UNHCR report revealed a worrisome fact: half of all refugees are children.

" a figure that has increased consistently," the report says.

"Provisional data indicate that the number of unaccompanied or separated children seeking asylum on an individual basis has reached levels unprecedented since at least 2006."

Renewed conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) displaced 1 million people in 2014. Including people who were displaced in previous years, the DRC had 2.8 million internally displaced people in 2014.

When people leave their lives behind them, they commonly go to neighbouring developing countries.

By the end of 2014, this proportion had risen to 86 per cent – at 12.4 million persons, the highest figure in more than two decades.

"Despite the perceived crises of people travelling to Europe, Australia and the US to seek asylum, the majority of people seek refuge in poorer and developing nations."

The burden on developing nations had worsened, the UNHCR said.

"Two decades ago, developing regions were hosting about 70 per cent of the world’s refugees," the UNHCR report said.

"By the end of 2014, this proportion had risen to 86 per cent – at 12.4 million persons, the highest figure in more than two decades."

Some smaller countries host proportionally large numbers of refugees.

Lebanon in 2014 had 237 refugees per 1000. While Lebanon had a population of just 4.4 million in 2013, there were 1.15 million refugees in Lebanon in 2014.

"It’s a scale just completely unimaginable to Australians"

recent report from Amnesty International says 20 per cent of refugees in Lebanon were from Syria.

Australia's offshore detention policy has made Nauru the third largest host of refugees per capita, with 37 refugees per 1000 people.

The numbers of refugees in smaller countries, some of them with relatively small populations, were hard for Australians to grasp, Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) CEO Paul Power said.

“It’s a scale just completely unimaginable to Australians,” Mr Power said.

The growth in refugee numbers around the globe was due to the failure of developed countries to address the causes that cause people to flee their homes, Mr Power said.

“It’s really the combination of a series of current crises for which the international community has not taken strong and effective action,” Mr Power said.

The Australian government's policy of turning back boats to Indonesia might reduce the numbers of asylum seekers reaching Australia, but was not going to address the reasons why people flee their countries, Mr Power said.

The recent Amnesty International report, The global refugee crisis: a conspiracy of neglect, is damning of Australia's offshore detention policy for what Australia calls "unlawful maritime arrivals", or "boat people" more commonly.

"In particular Australia’s offshore processing policy – whereby it takes asylum-seekers who attempt to reach Australia by sea to detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island (Papua New Guinea) – is particularly egregious," the report said.

SBS contacted the Minister for Immigration and Border Security for comment on the report.

The response from a government spokesperson said Australia's policies had saved the lives of people who may have died at sea otherwise.

The Amnesty International report said Australia's offshore detention policies had not addressed the situations that caused people to flee their homes.

"The policies pursued by Australia, Thailand and other countries in the region are largely attempts to push the issue of refugees and migrants out of their jurisdiction and out of sight of the public," the Amnesty International report said.

A government spokesperson said preventing boats arriving in Australia had allowed the country to increase its humanitarian programme intake.

"In total, only about one per cent of the world’s 10.5 million refugees are submitted for resettlement by the UNHCR"

"Australia is among the top three UNHCR resettlement countries in the world," the spokesperson said.

However, most refugees are not part of the UNHCR resettlement program.

"In total, only about one per cent of the world’s 10.5 million refugees are submitted for resettlement by the UNHCR," a document on the Australian Parliament House website says.

Recently, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott likened the UNHCR program to a “front door” when asked about increasing numbers of refugees seeking asylum on boats.

"I'm sorry. If you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door," Mr Abbott said in response to resettling refugees from Asia this year.

Mr Abbott has previously used the term "jump the queue" to describe asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat.

But the UNHCR program is not like a queue, or a front door, the RCOA says.

"Refugees are prioritised for resettlement according to need, not according to how long they have been waiting," the RCOA says.

"These needs fluctuate and are continuously reassessed."

Not all people who the UNHCR refers to Australia are accepted as refugees.

Mr Power said the failure to address the reasons why people flee their homes in rapidly growing numbers is a global problem.

“The UN Security Council has not been able to agree on any combined international response to the Syrian civil war over several years," he said.

“The situation has just gotten worse and worse."

The UNHCR report suggested Western nations could do more, as the very poorest countries in the world host 30 per cent of refugees.

Source: SBS