Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach

Global refugee figure passes 50 million for first time since the Second World War

August 15, 2014

  Scott Wright

One of the major commitments of Columbans across the world is our commitment to migrants. From the Hope Workers’ Center in Taiwan to the Columban Mission Center on the U.S.-Mexico border, migrants are at the heart of Columban ministry to the poor. Increasingly, migration is a “sign of the times,” what the Second Vatican Council defines as that which characterizes an entire generation and points to the presence of God in our times.

In a June 20, 2014 article in The Guardian, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that the number of refugees in the world surpassed 50 million for the first time since the Second World War:

“This is an exponential rise that is stretching host countries and aid organizations to breaking point, according to figures released on Friday. Half the world’s refugees are children, many travelling alone or in groups in a desperate quest for sanctuary, and often falling into the clutches of people traffickers, the annual UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) global trends report said. More than 25,000 unaccompanied children lodged asylum applications in 77 countries last year, a fraction of the number of displaced minors across the globe.

“‘We are witnessing a quantum leap in forced displacement in the world,’ Antonio Guterres, head of the UN’s refugee agency, said as figures for 2013 showed a total of 51.2 million refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people. If displaced people had their own country it would be the 24th most populous in the world.

“The increase of 6 million over the 2012 figures has mainly been driven by the war in Syria. By the end of last year, 2.5 million Syrians had fled across the country’s borders and 6.5 million were internally displaced – more than 40% of the population. Conflicts in the Central African Republic and South Sudan also contributed to rising numbers.

‘The data represented ‘a world where peace is dangerously in deficit,’ said Guterres. ‘And that peace deficit represents the incapacity of the international community firstly to prevent conflicts and secondly, to find solutions to those conflicts.’ Humanitarian organizations could only mitigate the impact of conflict on ordinary people. ‘There is no huma0nitarian solution … The solution is political and the solution is to solve the conflicts that generate these dramatic levels of displacement.’

“Factors that forced people to leave their homes included climate change, population growth, urbanization, food insecurity and water scarcity – many of which interacted with and enhanced each other. ‘It’s sometimes difficult to identify the main motivation,’ said Guterres, adding that movement could be due to several factors. ‘The classic idea that you have economic migrants who want a better life, and refugees who flee conflict and persecution – it is true, but now you have a number of people who are forced to move by a combination of reasons, which are not always obvious.’”

The UNHCR defined three groups:

• Refugees – 16.7 million people worldwide. Apart from 5 million Palestinians, the biggest refugee populations by source country are Afghans, Syrians and Somalis, which together account for half the total. The main host countries were Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Eighty-six per cent of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries – up from 70% a decade ago.

• Asylum seekers – close to 1.2 million people submitted asylum claims, mostly in developed countries. In terms of country of origin, the highest number was from Syria (64,300), followed by the Democratic Republic of Congo (60,400) and Burma (57,400). Germany was the largest recipient.

• Internally displaced people – a record 33.3 million were forced to flee their homes but remained within their country’s borders.