A Record Year in Misery: the World Has Never Seen a Refugee Crisis This Bad

Some 60 million people worldwide have been forced to leave their homes.


Any way you look at it, the post-World War II era has never seen a refugee crisis on the scale of 2014. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency’s annual report, last year saw the total number of forcibly displaced persons rise to 59.5 million, an all-time high. That figure includes 38.2 million that were displaced internally due to conflict, general violence, and human rights violations also a record figure since such data began to be recorded in 1989. In 2014 alone, 13.9 million people were displaced due to conflict or persecution alone. More than half of refugees worldwide are children.

The primary driver of this nearly unprecedented level of human suffering was the civil war in Syria, now in its fifth year. For more than 30 years, Afghanistan had been the world’s largest source of refugees, but in 2014 Syria overtook it to claim the top spot. By year’s end, 7.6 million Syrians had been displaced within the country’s borders. In 2014 alone, 1.55 million Syrians fled the country, bringing the total number of Syrian refugees to 3.9 million. Today, one out of every four refugees is Syrian.

The Syrian crisis contributed to another milestone: Turkey is now home to the world’s single largest refugee population of 1.59 million. Pakistan had previously held that distinction but slipped to second place in 2014, with 1.51 refugees. The Syrian civil war has placed an enormous strain on surrounding countries, which have absorbed 95 percent of those who have fled. The war has also contributed to Europe’s foremost refugee crisis: Of the 219,000 who attempted to cross the Mediterranean, nearly half were Syrians.

Moreover, as fighting in Syria has continued and the Islamic State militant group has established a foothold there and expanded east, Iraq has seen its own refugee numbers worsen. In 2014, another 2.6 million Iraqis were displaced, bringing the total to 3.6 million.

Elsewhere in the world, the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and government forces saw just short of 230,000 Ukrainians take refuge in Russia. Renewed fighting in South Sudan displaced 1.5 million within that country. Half a million South Sudanese fled the country in 2014. Fighting in Congo displaced another million people there. With the government of Pakistan carrying out an offensive in the tribal areas against Islamist militants, some 283,500 people fled into Afghanistan.

And even as the government in Colombia carried out peace talks with the FARC rebel group to end a half-century civil war, another 137,000 Colombians were displaced, bringing the country’s total of internally displaced persons to 6 million.

Resolving the persistent civil wars of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa would go a long way toward improving the global refugee crisis. Taken together, the top three sources of refugees — Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia — constitute 53 percent of refugees worldwide.

But 2014 saw another record broken that indicates the world’s refugee population is unlikely to soon markedly decrease. A mere 126,800 refugees were able to return home in 2014, the lowest number of returnees in 30 years.

Between the civil war in Syria, the spread of the Islamic State into Iraq, continued fighting in eastern Ukraine, and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, 2014 was a year of dire warnings about the state of the world order. Even as these crises grabbed headlines, trend lines for violence and prosperity are mostly positive. Fewer people than ever are dying in armed conflict. Interstate warfare has nearly become a thing of the past. Crime levels worldwide are dropping.

But in the face of these positive developments, the plight of the world’s refugee populations stands out as an enduring cause of human misery. Take all the world’s refugees, gather them together, and they’d constitute its 24th largest country. It’s a country that has no formal recognition in the international system — no seat at the U.N., no army to defend it, no shared territory. It only has a common history of suffering and neglect.

The primary cause of all this misery is not difficult to locate: the persistence of civil war, most devastatingly in Syria and Afghanistan. According to the figures released Thursday, 42,500 are displaced by war every day. Considering those two conflicts, the global refugee crisis is likely to get worse before it gets better. The Syrian civil war shows no sign of burning out. Should the regime of President Bashar al-Assad fall, Syria’s population of regime loyalists will represent the next segment to begin their exodus from the country. And if the more likely outcome holds — that Assad doesn’t fall and the war grinds on for several more years — the stream of refugees will only continue to flow from the Syrian killing fields.

In Afghanistan, we can also expect the refugee crisis to worsen in the near future. With the United States set to withdraw its troops and decisively turn over security responsibility to the Afghan government, the Taliban is likely to step up its operations against Kabul, with predictably gloomy results for the civilian population. If Syria doesn’t implode, Afghanistan may well retake its distinction as the world’s top source of refugees.

To be sure, armed conflict is not the only reason why people are forced to leave their homes. Oppression, famine, and disease are also among the factors. Eritrea, a country governed by a deeply repressive regime, for example, is the world’s 10th largest source of refugees, with 363,100 people having fled the country.

Nonetheless, it is the Syrian civil war, followed closely by the Afghan conflict, that stands out for the scale misery it has contributed to the world. The Afghan war is the world’s most significant protracted refugee situation, and developments in Syria only point toward it following suit. These are conflicts that show no signs of dissipating.

 Photo credit: Handout/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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