Feature story

UNHCR: unprecedented levels of forced displacement worldwide

19 June 2015

The number of people and families forced to flee their homes has reached an all-time high, with nearly 60 million people worldwide now displaced by conflict and persecution, says a new report published by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for World Refugee Day on 20 June. 

According to UNHCR Global trends 2014, this number is accelerating rapidly. At the end of 2014, some 59.5 million were forcibly displaced, compared to 51.2 million in 2013. Every day last year, an average of 42 500 people became refugees, asylum seekers or internally displaced. This fourfold increase in four years has largely been driven by the war in the Syrian Arab Republic, though numbers are rising across the globe as new conflicts break out or reignite.

In highlighting the unprecedented level of forced displacement and people crossing borders, UNHCR acknowledges that anxiety and intolerance towards them is also growing.  

To address this, the theme of World Refugee Day 2015 is to give a human face to the crisis and show who refugees are and why they need help. By reinforcing the fact that they are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, UNHCR hopes to galvanize governments and the public into doing more to improve conditions, empathy and opportunities for people who are forced to move.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres stressed, "With huge shortages of funding and wide gaps in the global regime for protecting victims of war, people in need of compassion, aid and refuge are being abandoned.” He added, “For an age of unprecedented mass displacement, we need an unprecedented humanitarian response and a renewed global commitment to tolerance and protection for people fleeing conflict and persecution."

A critical part of the UNHCR campaign is to tell the stories of a range of refugees and internally displaced people who are attempting to forge new lives. Several such stories revolve around people living with, or affected by HIV. People who are forcibly displaced may become more vulnerable to HIV as health services become harder to access. They might be more likely to engage in transactional sex if basic needs are not met, and rape is also often used as a weapon of war.

This was the case for Maria Kamwendo, featured by UNHCR, who was raped by rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She managed to escape and found her way to South Africa. After the shock of being diagnosed as HIV-positive, she has built a new life there and is now an HIV counsellor. “I enjoy what I do,” she says. “HIV is not a death sentence but one can be instrumental in empowering people about the disease.”

By encouraging people to get to know the stories of individual refugees, UNHCR aims to make a link between people lucky enough to have living settled lives and those who are struggling to cope with the trauma of having, through no fault of their own, to flee from their homes.