GENEVA — Wars and conflicts displaced a record 70.8 million people worldwide in 2018, up 3 percent from a year earlier, the U.N. refugee agency reported on Wednesday.
The number of refugees, internally displaced people and asylum-seekers — an increase of 2.3 million from 2017, when there were 68.5 million displaced — is even bigger than the populations of Britain, France or Thailand.
It rose by 65 percent over the past decade and doubled in the past two decades, according to the “Global Trends Report,” the annual flagship publication from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR.
Half of the refugees are children, UNHCR’s chief Filippo Grandi noted at a press briefing, and “children don’t flee to seek better opportunities. Children flee because there is a risk and a danger.”
“Most of the refugees are in fact in the countries next to where the war is. And unfortunately that means mostly in poor countries or in middle-income countries,” he said. “That’s where the crisis is. That’s where we need to focus essentially.”
A small proportion of the displaced people counted in the report came from new conflicts and wars. A fifth were displaced for longer than 20 years. The other four-fifths have been uprooted more than five years. The largest single population, 13 million, comes from Syria’s war, now in its eighth year.
“The global trends, once again unfortunately, go in what I would say is the wrong direction. There are new conflicts, new situations, producing refugees, adding themselves to the old ones,” said Grandi. “The old ones never get resolved.”
Tens of millions of people have been forced to flee their homes. This is where they come from. pic.twitter.com/2WNUbYGvd3
— UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency (@Refugees) June 19, 2019
BREAKING: Ethiopia records most new people displaced people in 2018 as global figure hits all-time high. On average 37,000 people are forced to flee every single day. #WorldRefugeeDay https://t.co/77rAp10IHx
— Jan Egeland (@NRC_Egeland) June 19, 2019
More support from rich nations needed
But on a more positive note, Grandi recalled that the United Nations General Assembly adopted a new global treaty last December that spreads responsibility for those helping refugees flee from war and persecution.
The Global Compact on Refugees passed by a vote of 181-2, with the Dominican Republic, Eritrea and Libya abstaining. Only the United States and Hungary were opposed. Its chief aim is to beef up the resources of neighboring countries and regions that provide shelter and help for people fleeing war-torn nations.
A similar pact for migration also won General Assembly approval in December. Both grew out of the U.N.’s New York Declaration for refugees and migrants in 2016. That declaration came from a U.N. summit at which world leaders vowed to better protect rights and share responsibility for people uprooted worldwide.
“You may say, is this going to change everything? No, it’s not going to change everything. But it is an important blueprint, an important model on how to respond — at least respond to the refugee crises while they’re happening,” Grandi said.
Released ahead of World Refugee Day on Thursday, the report’s total figure is “conservative” in that it does not count all of the 4 million people that have fled Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis, the U.N. agency said. Instead, it counts the 340,000 Venezuelans that sought asylum, a fifth of all asylum seekers globally.
Ethiopia had the highest number of new displacements globally with an average of 37,000 people forced to flee their homes every day.
“No one chooses to be displaced. No one chooses to be uprooted from their homes or forced to flee with nothing but the clothes on their back,” said Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said while visiting Ethiopia. “Refugees find themselves caught up in a vicious cycle that they did not create but cannot escape. The suffering I witnessed in Ethiopia is heartbreaking.”
He emphasized that the international community must provide safety and protection for fleeing families, not build fortified walls to lock refugees out.
“Rich countries now host a meager 16 percent of global refugees, as international peace diplomacy is failing and new horrific wars come on top of too many unresolved conflicts,” Egeland said in a statement. “We need a 180 degree shift in attitudes. Wealthier nations must share the heavy lifting, dig deep and support generous countries like Ethiopia to ease the human suffering of millions fleeing from conflict worldwide.”