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A world of refugees

Claudia Witte /tkwJune 20, 2014

Not since World War II have there been so many refugees around the globe as there are now. A United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) report says the majority of those displaced seek sanctuary in developing countries.

Two rows of blue tents in a desert Photo: Romina Peñate
For millions of people, a tent has become homeImage: Romina Peñate

The figures in the UNHCR "Global Trends" report paint a desperate picture. Published to coincide with World Refugee Day, the document reveals that more than 51 million people worldwide had been forced from their homes as a result of conflict, persecution, violence or human rights violations since the end of 2013.

More than 33 million of them are displaced within their own countries while almost 17 million have crossed into foreign terrain. In addition, just over 1 million people applied for asylum around the globe in 2013.

"We are not facing an increasing trend, we are really facing a quantum leap, an enormous increase of forced displacement in our world," Antonio Guterres, High Commissioner for Refugees, said on publication of the report Friday (20.06.2014).

The numbers had been stable for several years, and largely comprised refugees from countries such as Somalia, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. But the Syrian conflict has changed everything and pushed the numbers up to levels not seen since the Second World War.

"This acceleration comes from the fact that we live in a world where conflicts are multiplying in an unpredictable way and at the same time old conflicts seem never to die,” Guterres told reporters, adding that the international community is limited in its capacity to prevent and solve conflict in a timely fashion.

Two small children alone in the desert Photo: REUTERS/Stringer
The UNHCR has expressed concern about the high number of children traveling aloneImage: Reuters

Things set to get worse before they get better

In 2013 alone, almost 11 million people fled their homes, which is equal to 30,000 people per day, and as such just over twice as many as two years previously. And the upward trend shows no sign of slowing down.

Besides the ongoing hostilities in Syria, the situations in southern Sudan and the Central African Republic, as well as the latest developments in Iraq have already led to hundreds of thousands of people fleeing their homes.

"We are presenting the statistics of 2013," he said. "But if you look at what has happened since then, things are only getting worse. The acceleration of the emergence of crises is there, and it shows that things will tend to get worse before eventually they get better."

Humanitarian assistance is not enough

The current crises make this one of the toughest times for the refugee agency since its inception more than 60 years ago. UNHCR staff members are inundated with registrations, and do what they can to provide emergency shelter, blankets, food and medicine.

They also work with other countries to try and negotiate the safe passage of the most vulnerable to places of safety. But UNHCR Director of International Protection Volker Türk said this kind of humanitarian assistance and protection only treats the surface wound.

A Nigerian woman stares into the distance Photo: Adrian Kriesch
Living as a refugee means leaving everything but memories behindImage: DW/A. Kriesch

"What we urgently need are political initiatives that solve these conflicts, both from the key players in the countries themselves but also from the international community," Türk said.

More help needed from affluent countries

As long as these solutions remain absent from negotiations, millions of refugees have no choice but to wait in the dire conditions they have been forced to regard as home for a change in their destiny.

One such change could come in the form of an olive branch from the world's affluent states. As things stand, countries that border a conflict zone are all too often the ones expected to open their doors to the influx of people searching for a safe place to live. At the moment, Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey accommodate huge numbers of refugees.

But the UNHCR is appealing to industrialized nations to do its bit and show greater solidarity and responsibility. There is also hope that in accepting another 10,000 Syrian refugees, Germany will motivate other countries to do the same. Guterres wants to see more opportunities made available for more of the war displaced.

Refugees walking Photo: Romina Peñate
The UN refugee agency wants industrialized nations to take in more refugeesImage: Romina Peñate

"I have the experience to meet many resettled people around the world and you can’t imagine what it is to go to Germany or to Sweden or to the United States or to Canada and see a family that once lived in Dadaab, in a refugee camp, and that now have their children in university, have a normal life, have jobs in a developed country," he said. "It’s such a wonderful thing."