Conflicts and violence in places like Syria and Ukraine have displaced a record 38 million people inside their own countries, equivalent to the total populations of New York, London and Beijing, a watchdog group said Wednesday.
Nearly one third of them—a full 11 million people—were displaced last year alone, with an average of 30,000 people fleeing their homes every day, the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) said in a report.
“These are the worst figures for forced displacement in a generation, signaling our complete failure to protect innocent civilians,” said Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which is behind the IDMC.
Internally displaced people (IDPs) is a label given to people who remain in their homeland, as opposed to refugees, who flee across borders. Today there are nearly twice as many IDPs in the world as refugees, the IDMC report said, without providing an exact figure for refugees.
According to U.N. statistics, some 16.7 million people were living as refugees worldwide at the end of 2013. The numbers of people internally displaced last year meanwhile marked a 14-percent rise over the year before and dwarfed figures seen at the peak of the Darfur crisis in 2004, the spiraling violence in Iraq in the mid-2000s, or in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, the IDMC said.
“This report should be a tremendous wake-up call,” Egeland said. “We must break this trend where millions of men, women and children are becoming trapped in conflict zones around the world,” he added.
A full 60 percent of newly displaced people last year were in just five countries: Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria. Iraq was the hardest hit, with 2.2 million people forced to flee inside the country from areas seized by the brutal Islamic State group.
The jihadists also added to the horrors forcing people to leave their homes in neighboring civil war-ravaged Syria. Around one million more people were internally displaced in Syria last year, bringing the total number of IDPs there to 7.6 million, or 40 percent of the population.
Ukraine meanwhile appeared in IDMC’s report for the first time, with 646,500 people internally displaced there in 2014 as the country was engulfed by fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Kiev forces.
Heavy fighting in South Sudan displaced 1.3 million people inside the world’s youngest country, meaning 11 percent of its population became internally displaced in 2014.
Boko Haram’s ruthless campaign to create an independent Islamic state in north-eastern Nigeria also drove hundreds of thousands from their homes, accounting for at least three quarters of the nearly one million people internally displaced in the country last year, the report said.
The report also highlighted the issue of long-lasting displacement, pointing out that in 2014, there were people who had been displaced for a decade or more in nearly 90 percent of the 60 countries monitored by IDMC.
“As new and renewed crises emerge in countries such as Ukraine or Iraq, new caseloads of internally displaced people join an already massive global displaced population who seem blocked from finding ways of ending their displacement,” IDMC head Alfredo Zamudio said.
The U.N. refugee agency meanwhile warned that the staggering number of internally displaced people signaled hikes in refugee numbers too. “The longer a conflict lasts, the more insecure [displaced people] feel and when hopelessness sets in, many will cross borders and become refugees,” said Volker Turk, UNHCR’s assistance head of protection.
This despair has helped create the deluge of people risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. More than 1,750 people have perished so far this year alone trying to reach Italy from lawless Libya.
Libya, which has become a transit country for migrants and refugees from several conflicts, saw its own internal displacement balloon six-fold last year to at least 400,000, IDMC said. “Despair drives people to take their chances and even risk dangerous boat journeys,” Turk said, calling for “an all-out effort to bring about peace in war-ravaged countries.”