The number of people forced to flee their homes last year rose by nearly three million to 68.5 million, Filippo Grandi, head of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said warning the world’s displacement hotspots “are becoming hotter”.
Citing ongoing, protracted violence around the globe and a lack of solutions to conflicts as reasons for the increase, he said “continuous pressure on civilians” caught up in fighting pushed them to leave their homes.
More than two thirds of all refugees worldwide originated from only a handful of countries, the High Commissioner said in Geneva.
Top of the list is Syria, where seven years of brutal fighting forced more than six million people to seek shelter abroad, followed by Afghanistan (2.6 million) and South Sudan (2.4 million).
Responding to a question about ongoing concerns over 1.5 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries, including Lebanon, the High Commissioner said “it’s not a question of ‘if’, but ‘when'” they will return to Syria — once conditions allow.
New disputes in 2017 were also significant contributors to global displacement.
These include the exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar to Bangladesh last year. He said it is still not safe for them to return, as well as for the 1.5 million Venezuelans who sought shelter in neighbouring countries in Latin America.
The High Commissioner expressed concern about the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where violence has spread to formerly peaceful areas and caused displacement figures to double to 4.4 million last year.
He said 85% of the 68.5 million displaced last year came from poor or middle-income countries.
Grandi added, “this should be an element dispelling the notion” the so-called crisis is only in the rich world, “which it is not”.
“It continues to be a crisis mostly of the poor world — so people from poor countries moving to poor countries or staying within their country, as displaced.”
In addition, 70% of the world’s displaced are nationals of just 10 countries, according to a UNHCR report.
This is significant Grandi said because “it means if there were solutions to conflicts in these countries — or some of them at least — this number could start to come down. But we haven’t seen any significant progress in peacemaking or peacebuilding in any of these 10 countries.”
Despite the rise in displacement driven by persecution, violence and the lack of conflict resolution, the High Commissioner struck a positive note, saying UNHCR is helping find solutions to the pressures caused by mass displacement.
To date, 14 countries, including some in Latin America and Africa, have implemented positive measures to cope with an influx of refugees, the UNHCR chief said, noting his agency continues to co-ordinate international efforts to create a fairer protection system for people forced to flee their countries.
The upcoming Global Compact on Refugees follows the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, which saw all 193 UN Member States agree the responsibility for helping all those in need of international protection must be borne more equitably and predictably.
UNHCR has been engaged in consultations with governments and other stakeholders to develop a draft compact which Grandi will present to the General Assembly later this year.