GENEVA, Switzerland - Escalating crises in Syria and parts of Africa have pushed the number of forcibly displaced people to the highest level since the World War-II, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
The refugee agency said that it was dealing with multiple refugee crises, making 2013 one of the most challenging years in its history. The level of human displacement is the highest on record with 51.2 million people counted as refugees, asylum-seekers or internally displaced people by the end of last year - six million more than what was reported the year before. Alex Taban Donato is a UNHCR staff member originally from South Sudan, whose own family were once refugees.
They fled the violence there and went to Uganda in 1991 where they lived as urban refugees in Kampala. His father was an Anglican minister and as a result the family was eventually sponsored by the Anglican Church in Wagga. His family - mum, dad, and eight siblings - came to Australia in 2000, and Alex joined them three years later after studying in Tanzania. Mr Donato has worked for UNHCR for seven years.
In that time he spent a year working in the field, based in Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp - once the largest refugee camp in the world. "What really struck me was the way the refugees themselves accepted me. They saw me us one of theirs," he told 666 ABC Canberra. "They would narrate all of their stories to me in the hope that maybe I would be able to help them, because I had a similar affiliation to their situation.
Taban said that it can be very difficult to offer real hope to people in a place like Dadaab. "But of course we can do that with the contribution of a lot of countries that are very helpful like Australia," he said. "It is just one person at a time I think. When you go to a place like Dadaab refugee camp... the best thing is once you get to place like that, is just being able to do what you can for even one individual.
Half of those displaced 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. "During 2013, UNHCR also identified close to 3.5 million stateless persons in 75 countries, and estimated the total number of stateless persons worldwide at more than 10 million," the report said.
"Afghanistan, the Syrian Arab Republic, and Somalia were the top three source countries of refugees at the end of 2013, together accounting for more than half (53 per cent) of all refugees under UNHCR's responsibility." The UN body says if the displaced people were a nation, they would make up the 26th largest country in the world. The UNHCR says the primary cause of the increase is the escalating crises in Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.
"We are really facing a quantum leap, an enormous increase of forced displacement in our world," UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told a news briefing. Nearly 17 million people are refugees and a record 33.3 million people are internally displaced. "The war in the Syrian Arab Republic, entering into its third year in 2013, was the primary cause of these outflows," the report said.
"The Syrian Arab Republic had moved from being the world's second largest refugee-hosting country to being its second largest refugee-producing country – within a span of just five years." With Syria alone, the UNHCR says 2.5 million refugees have crossed into neighbouring Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan and 6.5 million people are internally displaced. The UN body is calling on the international community to overcome its differences and help resolve the world's conflicts.
"We are seeing here the immense costs of not ending war, of failing to resolve or prevent conflict," Mr Guterres said. "We see the Security Council paralysed in many crucial crises around the world." 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, Mr 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," he said. "The truth is that 86 per cent of the world's refugees live in the developing world." 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 ($13 million) a month. "It is important to have a European commitment there and to make sure that such an operation can be sustainable," said Mr 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," Mr Guterres said.
"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. We see them everywhere."