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Poor nations shoulder bulk of record refugee numbers: UNHCR

Syrians walk next to a row of tents at a refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon, Friday, Nov. 29, 2013. The U.N. refugee agency, marking World Refugee Day on Monday, says persecution and conflict in places like Syria and Afghanistan have raised the number of world refugees to 65.3 million in 2015.

Hussein Malla/AP

The world's refugee population has soared to an all-time record of 65.3 million, and the burden of sheltering them is overwhelmingly shouldered by poorer nations, despite the political furor in wealthier countries, new data shows.

The number of people left homeless by war and conflict jumped by nearly six million last year, crossing the 60-million threshold for the first time, according to the latest report from UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

One of every 113 people in the world is now a refugee, asylum seeker or internally displaced person, the report said. But much of the world is increasingly responding with xenophobia, divisive rhetoric, closed borders and political paralysis, UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi said in a statement to mark World Refugee Day.

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Mr. Grandi did not give examples, but the political temperature this year has been dominated by populists such as Donald Trump and European nationalists who want to tighten borders and restrict the flow of migrants – including refugees – from poorer countries, especially Muslim nations. Thursday's referendum on Brexit has helped fuel tensions over migration in Britain.

Yet while the attention of politicians and media is fixated on refugees reaching Europe and North America, 86 per cent of refugees are still hosted by poor and developing countries near war zones or conflict sites, the UNHCR said on Monday. More than half of refugees are children, it said.

The biggest hosts of refugees are Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran and Ethiopia. Five of the 10 biggest hosts were sub-Saharan African countries. Measured by dollar of GDP on a per-capita basis, the heaviest burden is shouldered by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Uganda and Kenya. In one country, Lebanon, an extraordinary 183 of every 1,000 people are refugees.

The UNHCR report cited Canada as one of the most generous countries on refugee settlement. Canada accepted 20,000 refugees for resettlement last year – the second-largest number in the world, behind only the United States, which accepted 66,500.

Canada also naturalized 25,900 refugees as citizens – more than any other country in the world. More than 80 per cent of the world's refugee naturalizations were in Canada last year, the report said.

In total, there were a record two million new asylum seekers in industrialized nations last year, with Germany receiving the largest single number of asylum applications (441,900).

Globally, more than half of all refugees are from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. The biggest sources of internal displacement are Colombia, Syria and Iraq.

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A decade ago, the UNHCR recorded an average of six people displaced every minute. "Today that number is 24 a minute – almost double the typical frequency at which adults breathe," the UN agency said.

Jacquelyn Wright, vice-president of international programs at relief agency CARE Canada, said the global refugee crisis documented in the UNHCR report should push Canada to take a stronger role on the world stage.

"The numbers highlighted in this report are staggering, but we should remember we're talking about individuals, each with a personal story of how their lives have been upended by violence or disaster," she said in a statement.

While forced displacement has been rising since the mid-1990s, the trend has accelerated over the past five years, the UNHCR said. It cited three main reasons: the longer persistence of refugee numbers in conflict zones such as Somalia and Afghanistan; a declining rate of offering asylum or other solutions; and the emergence of dramatic new refugee crises in countries such as Syria, South Sudan, Ukraine, Burundi, Yemen, Central African Republic and many others.

"Each year UNHCR seeks to find a glimmer of hope in the global statistics," Mr. Grandi said. "But this year the hopeful signs are hard to find …. Instead of burden sharing, we see borders closing. Instead of political will, there is political paralysis."

He said 2016 should be a watershed year for helping refugees and ending wars. "World leaders can no longer watch passively as so many lives are needlessly lost. We must find humane and dignified means to ensure refugees don't risk their lives and those of their families by resorting to ruthless traffickers or by boarding flimsy boats in a bid to reach safety."

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