World Refugee Day: U.N. Announces Worst Crisis in Nearly Two Decades

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An internally displaced Syrian man in the Maiber al-Salam refugee camp along the Turkish border in the northern province of Aleppo, on April 17, 2013.

A U.N. report released ahead of World Refugee Day on June 20 finds that we’re experiencing the worst refugee crisis in nearly two decades. More than 45.2 million people have been displaced from their homes because of conflict or violence, up from 42.5 million a year earlier, making it the highest number since 1994, when millions of people fled ethnic violence in former Yugoslavia and genocide in Rwanda.

The overall number breaks down into three categories: 15.4 million people fled as refugees across borders, 28.8 million were internally displaced within their own countries, while 937,000 others sought asylum elsewhere. That last figure matches a report in April by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

And each day, another 23,000 people begin to search for safety from harm or persecution — the world has a new refugee or internally displaced person every 4.1 seconds. “Each time you blink, another person is forced to flee,” said Antonio Guterres, chief of the U.N.’s refugee agency, in Geneva. Earlier, he called the numbers “truly alarming.”

More than half of today’s refugees originated from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and Syria, according to the report, and 7.6 million of them were uprooted last year alone. Worldwide, the countries that have most opened their borders to refugees haven’t changed much: Pakistan, wracked by its own domestic crises, tops the list, followed by Iran, Germany and Kenya. Turkey rounds out the top-10 list after accommodating an influx of Syrians fleeing the country’s brutal civil war.

The U.N. estimates that the war between opposition groups and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, now in its third year, has left more than 93,000 dead and forced 1.6 million Syrians into neighboring Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. That number is expected to hit 3 million later this year.

Jana Mason, a senior adviser with the U.N.’s refugee agency, testified before the Helsinki Commission last week that the U.S. and other nations must provide greater financial aid to host countries that have opened their borders to Syrians. At the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland earlier this week, leaders pledged to disburse $1.5 billion of humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees and those who are internally displaced.

At the hearing, the State Department signaled that the U.S. is ready to begin resettling Syrians in the country but doesn’t expect a huge influx. “We have brought only a handful so far, and I don’t think it’s going to happen quickly,” said Anne C. Richard, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration. And it won’t happen until they “really feel they can’t go home again.”

The International Organization for Migration, which works with the U.S. government to relocate refugees throughout the country, estimates that in their fiscal year ending September 2013, about 69,000 new refugees will have arrived at one of their five ports in Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, New York City and Newark, N.J. So far, more than 12,000 of them have come from Iraq, nearly 11,000 from Burma and 6,000 from Bhutan. About 4,900 from Somalia and 2,600 from Cuba have also been resettled.