GENEVA (AN) — Wars and conflicts displaced a record 70.8 million people worldwide in 2018, up 3% from a year earlier, the U.N. refugee agency reported on Wednesday.
The number of refugees, internally displaced people and asylum-seekers — larger than the populations of Britain, France or Thailand — rose by 2.3 million from 2017, when there were 68.5 million displaced.
Over the past two decades the number has doubled, 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 told a press briefing, and he noted that "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 people counted in the report were from new conflicts and wars. As many as a fifth of them have been displaced longer than 20 years. The other four-fifths have been uprooted for 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.”
More support from rich nations needed
Grandi, however, said it was encouraging 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 resources of neighboring countries and regions that provide shelter and help for people fleeing war-torn nations.
A similar migration pact 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 share responsibility for and protect the rights of people uprooted worldwide.
"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," 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," he said. "The suffering I witnessed in Ethiopia is heartbreaking." It is up the international community to offer safety and protection for fleeing families, he emphasized, and not to build fortified walls against refugees.
"Rich countries now host a meager 16% 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."