Record 71 million people displaced as "major powers" fail to halt crises, UN Refugee Agency says

By Pamela Falk

/ CBS News

Venezuelan migrants arrive to get a refugee application at the Peruvian border post at the binational border attention centre (CEBAF) in Tumbes, Peru, June 14, 2019. Getty

United Nations — More than 70 million people have been forced to flee their homes due to conflict and violence, the United Nations Refugee Agency said in a report released Wednesday. The staggering figure represents a huge and mounting problem for the world; it shows an increase in displaced people during 2018 of more than 2 million.

"These appalling figures are the result of major powers' failure to stop a series of crises — including those in Syria, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Venezuela — running out of control," Richard Gowan, U.N. Director at the International Crisis Group, told CBS News as the Global Trends report was published.

The refugee agency said that it had not seen so many people fleeing and displaced from their homes in its 70-year history. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said "the increased global figure gives further confirmation of a longer-term rising trend in the number of people around the world needing safety from war, conflict and persecution."

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The report says there are 26 million refugees, 41 million internally displaced people and 3.5 million asylum seekers in the world today. "The number of new displacements was equivalent to an average of 37,000 people being forced to flee their homes every day in 2018," it notes.

The state of the Syrian refugee crisis

U.N. Humanitarian Affairs chief Mark Lowcock told the Security Council this week that "an estimated 330,000 people have been forced to flee their homes" in Syria alone since May 1, moving north toward the border with Turkey as dictator Bashar Assad's forces advance on rebels in the Idlib province.

On the eve of a two-day trip to Venezuela by the U.N. human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, the report said that four million Venezuelans have left their country amid political and economic unrest sparked by a leadership crisis and rampant inflation. For the first time, more asylum seekers had come from Venezuela than any other nation.

Changing attitudes

The U.N. will mark World Refugee Day on Thursday, and diplomats have been expressing concerns about public sentiment turning against migrants and refugees because of rhetoric from political leaders. The U.N. refugee chief said that to heighten anger at refugees, painting them as a threat to domestic workers, was "damaging."

On Tuesday, the U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who previously served as head of the refugee agency, condemned hate speech, citing what he called a "groundswell" of "xenophobia, racism and intolerance, violent misogyny, and also anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred" in countries around the world.

Trump vows mass crackdown on undocumented immigrants

President Trump vowed earlier this week to deport "millions" of undocumented immigrants after saying on twitter that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would conduct a massive operation next week to round "millions" of people up and remove them from the country.

The Department of Health and Human Services confirmed to CBS News last week that it is not offering the majority of children in government holding centers, the vast majority of them picked up along the southern border, education, legal services and recreation as required by law.

"Humanitarian agencies are left managing refugees and IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) because of the failure of diplomats and mediators, and the basic answer to the displacement crisis is political," the Crisis Group's Gowan told CBS News. "The U.S. and other powers need to find compromises to the conflicts that are driving people to flee."

First published on June 19, 2019 / 11:52 AM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Pamela Falk

Pamela Falk is CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst and an international lawyer, based at the United Nations.

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