Half are children, many of them caught up in conflicts or
persecution that world powers have been unable to prevent or end,
UNHCR said in its annual Global Trends report.
"We are really facing a quantum leap, an enormous increase of forced
displacement in our world," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees
Antonio Guterres told a news briefing.
The overall figure of 51.2 million displaced people soared by six
million from a year earlier. They included 16.7 million refugees and
33.3 million displaced within their homelands, and 1.2 million
asylum seekers whose applications were pending.
Syrians fleeing the escalating conflict accounted for most of the
world's 2.5 million new refugees last year, UNHCR said.
In all, nearly 3 million Syrians have crossed into neighbouring
Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan, while another 6.5 million remain
displaced within Syria's borders.
"We are seeing here the immense costs of not ending war, of failing
to resolve or prevent conflict," Guterres said. "We see the Security
Council paralysed in many crucial crises around the world."
NEW AND OLD CRISES
Conflicts that erupted this year in Central African Republic,
Ukraine and Iraq are driving more families from their homes, he
said, raising fears of a mass exodus of Iraqi refugees.
"A multiplication of new crises, and at the same time old crises
that seem never to die," he added.
Afghan, Syrian and Somali nationals accounted for 53 percent of the
11.7 million refugees under UNHCR's responsibility. Five million
Palestinians are looked after by a sister agency UNRWA.
Most refugees have found shelter in developing countries, contrary
to the myth fuelled by some populist politicians in the West that
their states were being flooded, Guterres said.
"Usually in the debate in the developed world, there is this idea
that refugees are all fleeing north and that the objective is not
exactly to find protection but to find a better life.
"The truth is that 86 percent of the world's refugees live in the
developing world," he said.
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Desperate refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa have
drowned after taking rickety boats in North Africa to cross the
Mediterranean to reach Europe, mainly via Italy.
Italy has a mission, known as Mare Nostrum or "Our Sea", which has
rescued about 50,000 migrants already this year. Italy will ask the
European Union next week to take over responsibility for rescuing
migrants, a task that is costing its navy 9 million euros ($12.25
million) a month.
"It is important to have a European commitment there and to make
sure that such an operation can be sustainable," said Guterres, a
former prime minister of Portugal.
The EU bloc has harmonised its asylum system, but the 27 member
states still differ in how they process refugees and in their
approval rates for asylum applications, he said.
A record 25,300 unaccompanied children lodged asylum applications in
77 countries last year, according to UNHCR.
"We see a growing number of unaccompanied minors on all routes. We
see them in the Mediterranean routes, we see them in the Caribbean
route, through Mexico to the United States, we see them in the
Afghan route into Iran, into Turkey, into Europe," Guterres said.
"We see them everywhere."
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Tom Heneghan)
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