According to a new report from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) 65.3 million people were displaced from their homes in 2015. That's the highest number recorded in the organization's 66-year history.
Troublingly, 51% of the world's refugees were children, the UN said.
In a statement, the agency explained that the figure is also record-breaking in a number of other bleak ways:
The tally… is made up of 3.2 million people in industrialized countries who, at the end of 2015, were awaiting decisions on asylum – the largest total UNHCR has ever recorded. Also in the tally are a record 40.8 million people who had been forced to flee their homes but were within the confines of their own countries, another record for the UN Refugee Agency. And there are 21.3 million refugees.
The UNHCR's report, released on World Refugee Day, uses data from government sources, partner agencies and the UNHCR's own investigation and shows an alarming spike in refugees since 2014. That year, the agency found that 59.5 million people had been displaced worldwide.
The agency contends that the world's refugee population has grown so quickly because ongoing state conflicts that push people out of their homes are lasting longer, while wars and shorter conflicts are flaring up more frequently. On top of that, we're doing a worse job of figuring out solutions—like voluntary repatriation, asylum or integration into a new country—to the problem of displaced persons.
European countries have been struggling to cope with the wave of refugees flooding in on foot and by sea. On Saturday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon praised Greece for opening its arms to refugees, and took others to task for shying away. "Greece should not be left alone to address this challenge," the UN chief said after a meeting with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, adding, "We must work together to protect people and address the causes of displacement. I continue to call for a greatest sharing of this responsibility across Europe and indeed across the world."
The UNHCR found the world's richest countries are falling far behind developing nations when it comes to taking refugees in. From the annual report:
The developing regions continue to receive refugees disproportionately, with most hosted by low- and middle-income countries. For three years in a row, countries in these regions have hosted an average of 86 per cent of all refugees under UNHCR’s mandate… By the end of 2015, countries in developing regions hosted 13.9 million of the world’s total refugee population, compared with the 2.2 million hosted by countries in developed regions. In particular, the Least Developed Countries – those least able to meet the development needs of their own citizens, let alone the humanitarian needs often associated with refugee crises – provided asylum to over 4 million refugees.
This week, the United Kingdom will vote on whether to exit the European Union. Immigration has been a key issue in the debate, with many of those supporting the exit citing the refugees who have come to the EU from Syria and other war-torn countries as a threat to Britain. The overtly xenophobic tone of the Brexit campaign has been sharply questioned following the death of MP Jo Cox, a pro-immigration lawmaker who was killed last week by a man who repeatedly shouted "Britain first!" during the attack.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.