A staggering 59.5 million people were forcibly displaced around the world in 2014, according to the latest report from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, setting a record. That’s 8.3 million more than last year, for the largest one-year jump since the UNHCR began recording. This means that one out of every 122 people in the world is displaced. If that population were a country, would be the 24th-largest in the world. That number includes refugees, internally displaced people, and those seeking asylum.
The staggering numbers are caused by conflicts in a relatively small number of countries. Just three countries—Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia—account for 53 percent of those displaced. The top 10—also including Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, the Central African Republic, Iraq, and Eritrea—account for 77 percent.
While the intractable conflicts in Afghanistan and Somalia, as well as more recent outbreaks of ethnic violence in Myanmar and the Central African Republic, shouldn’t be overlooked, Syria is the main driver of the problem. With more than 3.9 million refugees living in 107 countries, Syria overtook Afghanistan as the world’s largest source of refugees last year, a spot Afghanistan had held since the early 1980s. Including the 7.6 million displaced internally, about half of Syrians have now been uprooted.
The unprecedented scale of the global refugee crisis has sparked political controversy in developed countries, with Europe reluctantly working to address the influx from the Middle East and South Africa, the United States seeing large numbers of children fleeing violence in Central America, and Australia fending off international criticism for turning back migrants from South Asia, many of them Rohingya fleeing ethnic persecution in Myanmar.
But the burden for hosting refugees is still being overwhelmingly shouldered by developing countries in the Middle East and Africa, often straining their humanitarian budgets to the breaking point. Five countries—Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, and Ethiopia—host 30 percent of the refugee population. Lebanon, a country of about 4.5 million people, is hosting more than 1 million refugees thanks to the conflicts in neighboring Iraq and Syria.
The new UNHCR numbers come after the release earlier this week of the Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Peace Index, which measures the level of armed conflict in the world. According to the GPI, the world has become, on average, more violent over the last eight years, bucking a long-term trend of increasing peacefulness over the last century. The overall picture was unchanged last year with the deterioration in the Middle East offset by improvements elsewhere. But a major theme of the report is the increasing “inequality in peace” worldwide, with conditions drastically deteriorating in a relatively small number of conflict countries as most places in the world become more peaceful. (This is also true of terrorist violence, the vast majority of which happens in the context of civil wars despite the overwhelming attention paid to 9/11-style attacks on developed countries.)
Nevertheless, the staggering number of refugees from conflicts in just a small number of countries, a crisis that is straining the world’s humanitarian resources to the breaking point, is a reminder that even if this violence is localized, it’s fast becoming everyone’s problem.
Also in Slate, see the latest photographs from the European refugee crisis.