A refugee from Afghanistan carries a baby upon arrival on the shores of Lesbos near Skala Skamnias, Greece, on June 2. (Soeren Bidstrup/AFP/Getty Images)

The number of people uprooted from their homes by war and persecution in 2014 was larger than in any year since detailed record-keeping began, according to a comprehensive report released early Thursday by the U.N. refugee agency that will add to the evidence of a global exodus unlike any in modern times.

Just a year after the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and people forced to flee within their own countries surpassed 50 million for the first time since World War II, it surged to nearly 60 million in 2014 — “a nation of the displaced” that is roughly equal to the population of the United Kingdom.

The rapidly escalating figures reflect a world of renewed conflict, with wars in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe driving families and individuals from their homes in desperate flights for safety. But the systems for managing those flows are breaking down, with countries and aid agencies unable to handle the strain as an average of nearly 45,000 people a day join the ranks of those either on the move or stranded far from home.

“We are witnessing a paradigm change, an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said in a statement. “It is terrifying that on the one hand there is more and more impunity for those starting conflicts, and on the other there is seeming utter inability of the international community to work together to stop wars and build and preserve peace.”


The annual report on global trends in displacement, issued by the Office of the U.N. High ­Commissioner for Refugees, or ­UNHCR, offers perhaps the most authoritative look at who is being uprooted by conflict, where they come from and where they go. The agency, created in 1950 to support Europeans displaced by World War II, said the figures for 2014 were higher than it has ever recorded.

The overall number, which does not include those displaced by natural disasters or economic migrants in search of a better life, had been relatively stable, at around 40 million, since the start of the 21st century.

But it abruptly shot up in 2013, and the pace accelerated last year. Although the report does not cover 2015, there is no indication that the trajectory has changed.

The four-year-old war in Syria has been the single biggest driver of the surging numbers. Last year, 1 in 5 displaced persons worldwide was Syrian. The country in 2014 became the planet’s largest source of refugees, displacing ­Afghanistan, which had held that dubious distinction for three decades.

The impact of a Syrian population on the move has been felt across the Middle East. Neighboring Turkey now hosts more refugees than any other nation, knocking Pakistan to No. 2. Lebanon has the world’s highest concentration, at nearly a quarter of those living in the tiny Mediterranean nation.

The vast majority of refugees last year were hosted by poor countries that can least afford the added strain. Nearly 9 out of 10 refugees were living in the developing world — a figure that hit a two-decade high.

Khaled Smaisem and his family are among approximately four million refugees to have fled Syria because of the country's civil war. They were also some of the first Syrian refugees to be resettled in America. After more than four years of war, and with no end in sight, the international community continues to grapple with where Syrian refugees will go and how many more will be admitted to the United States. (Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, with nations across the developing world ­either at war or in crisis, some of the world’s wealthiest nations have focused on how to beat back the rising tide of those seeking escape.

France and Austria have stepped up police checks at crossings with Italy, leaving migrants to camp out at train stations in Rome and Milan. Hungary on Wednesday announced plans to build a 12-foot fence along its border with Serbia. Nations across Europe have balked at proposals to more equitably share the burden of asylum-
seekers while rushing to approve plans to blow up smuggler ships in the Mediterranean.

The tough response has been largely due to political pressure among populations hostile to the influx of migrants. But it prompted Pope Francis on Wednesday to suggest that those “who close the door” to migrants seeking protection should ask forgiveness from God.

The UNHCR and other aid groups have pleaded for more assistance to keep pace with the ever-growing numbers, but to ­little avail.

“There’s a real risk that we’re seeing the unraveling of the refugee regime that was created in the aftermath of the Second World War on the basis of cooperation and reciprocity,” said Alexander Betts, director of the Refugee Studies Center at Oxford University.

Betts said that unlike during other conflicts, including those in Southeast Asia, the Balkans and Central America, governments are not stepping up to offer assistance commensurate with the scale of a problem that now touches virtually every corner of the globe.

“This isn’t a regional problem,” he said. “It’s a global challenge.”

The UNHCR’s report identifies at least 15 wars across three continents that have either erupted or reignited in the past five years, and that together have forced millions to abandon their homes. A total of 13.9 million people were displaced in 2014 alone.

About a third of those were in sub-Saharan Africa, where wars in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Congo all flared. Somalia alone is the source of more than a million refugees, the world’s third-highest total.

Europe experienced the biggest proportional increase in displaced persons last year, with a staggering 51 percent increase over 2013.

While much of that was due to Syrian refugees streaming into Turkey, it also reflected the 219,000 people who entered the continent via the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. And as Russian-backed rebels brought war back to European soil, more than 800,000 people were left internally displaced in Ukraine. About 200,000 Ukrainians applied for asylum in Russia.

Worldwide, the number of internally displaced people vastly outstripped the number of refugees. Once people fled their home countries, they had little hope of returning. Just 126,800 refugees went back to their home countries in 2014 out of a global refugee population of 14.4 million. That marked the lowest level of return since 1983.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world