Syrian refugees walk on the railway tracks between Bicske and Szar in Budapest, Hungary. Photo by: Freedom House

Global displacement hit record high numbers for a second year in a row in 2016, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency’s annual Global Trends report, out Monday. Some 65.6 million people are displaced worldwide, including 22.5 million refugees and 40.3 million internally displaced persons. Asylum seekers have surged to 2.8 million.

The statistics appear to shatter hopes that greater international engagement, political will and solidarity could aid millions on the run. The rate of displacement is now equivalent to 20 people fleeing their homes every minute of every day.

These headline takeaways will continue to shock — though they likely won’t surprise anyone in the humanitarian community, which has been on overdrive in recent years to respond to the global crisis. For our expert community, Devex took a look beyond the statistics in the report to look at a few trends that you might have missed.

Most refugees are now resettled in a third country outside the auspices of UNHCR’s referrals. The United States is an exception.

One of the UNHCR’s roles is to identify the most vulnerable members of a refugee community and help them seek third country resettlement. The agency has expanded its referrals dramatically as displaced populations have ballooned. In 2016, the agency referred 162,600 people to states for resettlement, a boost of 21 percent from 2015.

Yet even as UNHCR has increased its referrals, the pace of displacement has moved faster. Refugees are often going directly to third countries to seek asylum, rather than waiting for the U.N.

In 2016, approximately 1.5 million decisions were taken about the validity of asylum cases in third countries. UNHCR determined just 6 percent of those. States in 2016 accepted asylum applications for 899,600 people, with 598,400 claims rejected. Germany alone received some 722,400 asylum applications in 2016.

Yet one exception to this growing trend is the United States, which admitted 96,900 refugees referred by UNHCR — roughly half the total of all UNHCR referrals worldwide. The U.S. relies on the U.N. to refer most cases of refugee admissions, in part because the vetting restrictions are more rigorous and in part because the U.S. is physically further afield for many fleeing conflict in the Middle East and Africa.

Sixty-five percent of Syria’s population is displaced. Where, when and how they’ve fled tells us many families’ coping mechanisms are exhausted.

Syria, this year, becomes the only country with the dubious distinction of having the majority of its citizens displaced, with 12 million out of their homes. Only South Sudan comes even somewhat close to matching that proportion, with just under 30 percent of the population displaced.

The breakdown of displacement over time tells us a few interesting things about the conflict: Namely, that many Syrians have exhausted their coping mechanisms and support networks. Fleeing isn’t free; particularly in the country’s difficult security environment, it can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars today for Syrians to pay smugglers and check points. After five years of conflict, many of those who could flee have done so. So while there is still fresh displacement, the rate has slowed.

Where displaced Syrians head to is also telling. Although resources aren’t the only factor in displacement, they can be a determining one. Many of the families with the most resources sought asylum in Europe early on, often arriving by plane. Less well off families have paid smugglers to send members across the perilous seas. Those who are poorer still have fled by land to neighboring countries. It is often the most destitute who remain in Syria as internally displaced people.

The slowing rate of all those categories tells us something about the resources that Syrian families have left after half a decade of war: Almost none. In 2016, UNHCR registered 410,800 new Syrians as refugees, far fewer than in previous years. Meanwhile, the numbers of IDPs actually fell by about 300,000 overall. Asylum claims were also lower in 2016, at 347,600, down from 409,900 in 2015.

More IDPs are returning home, but often in precarious circumstances.

For the first time since 2011, more IDPs returned home than were displaced last year. But the news is not all good: Many of the returnees left their host communities not because they felt it was safe to return, but because their living conditions as IDPs were precarious or insecure.

The three countries with the highest numbers of returnees, Iraq (1.4 million), Yemen (974,100) and South Sudan (752,300), are also in the midst of ongoing civil conflict. Particularly in the latter two countries, conditions in displaced camps were often not better — and at times worse — than the environments people fled.  

In Yemen, some two-thirds of the country’s population is in need of aid. Health, education and sanitation infrastructure have been devastated by two years of conflict and airstrikes. The country is on the brink of famine, with a cholera epidemic recently seeing tens of thousands of cases.

Meanwhile, South Sudan is in fact the world’s fastest growing displacement crisis, producing 739,000 refugees and asylum seekers last year. New internal displacements also rose, despite the high number of returns. Across the country, both home communities and IDPs face insecurity, sporadic access to humanitarian aid and the risk of forced recruitment into armed groups.

In the U.S., soaring asylum applications from under-documented conflicts

Globally, conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have seen asylum claims escalate in recent years. But the U.S. is contending with steep growth in asylum claims due to an astounding rise in violence across Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Venezuela.

After Germany, the U.S. received the second-most number of asylum applications last year — 262,000, a 52 percent increase from last year. More than half those claims came from Mexico and Central America. Not since the 1980s has the U.N. seen such high levels of “people fleeing violence in the North of Central America.”

Gang violence, kidnappings, extortion and murder of civilians have risen precipitously in Central America’s “northern triangle,” exacerbated by local police and governments unable or unwilling to crack down. As the death toll has skyrocketed, the area has become the deadliest outside a war zone.

The violence has sent hundreds of thousands fleeing to Mexico in recent years, a figure that includes tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors. While some seek asylum there, many more have pushed on toward the U.S. — which, in turn, has pressured Mexico to strengthen its southern border. A hardline policy of detaining and deporting has drawn steep criticism. But the latest U.N. figures suggest that in spite of such crackdowns and difficulties, those seeking refuge face such dangers at home as to make staying untenable.

Additional reporting by Abby Seiff.

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About the author

  • Elizabeth Dickinson

    Elizabeth Dickinson is a former associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.

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