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More People Are Forcibly Displaced Than Ever Before

New UN report paints a grim picture of the world’s refugees and migrants

South Sudanese refugees arrive at Suluba Transit Centre, where they will be registered, health checked and given medical treatment. (UNHCR/Alessandro Penso)
smithsonian.com

At any given moment, millions of people are on the move—not because they feel like a change in scenery, but because living at home is no longer possible. In war-ravaged and impoverished areas, people can flee in massive numbers. But just how many people are displaced in any given year? As The New York Times’ Rick Gladstone reports, that number just hit an all-time high.

The United Nations refugee agency just released its annual report on the state of displacement, Gladstone reports—and it shows a staggering number of people whose lives have been disrupted by war. In 2016, the agency reports, 65.6 million people were forcibly displaced due to conflict, persecution, violence and other factors, up 300,000 people from the previous year. That number includes 22.5 million refugees and others who have been internally displaced or who are currently seeking asylum. Ten million of them are currently or at risk of statelessness, the UN estimates, and 10.3 million were newly displaced in 2016.

War and violence are to blame for most of the displacements. The conflict in Syria produced the most refugees, with more than 50 percent of Syria’s population estimated to be displaced within or outside of the country. The breakdown of a power-sharing agreement between ethnic groups in South Sudan produced the second highest number of refugees. As NPR reports, that civil war has forced a full quarter of South Sudan’s population to be on the move.

The nature of displacement makes it difficult to estimate just how many people are on the move. Fifty-one percent of refugees worldwide are children, according to the report, but the agency says that its estimate of 75,000 newly unaccompanied or separated children is likely lower than the actual number. Earlier this year, Unicef estimated that more than 300,000 children migrated alone during 2015 and 2016.

In a release, the UN calls the number of displaced people “unprecedented” and says that it represents the “immense human cost of war and persecution.” On average, says the United Nations, one in every 113 people worldwide has been forcibly displaced—that’s more people than the population of the United Kingdom.

“By any measure this is an unacceptable number,” Filippo Grandi, the UN’s high commissioner for refugees, tells Gladstone. 

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