Last year was a record year for forced displacement across borders, with more people becoming refugees than at any time since 2000, a new report by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) shows.
UNHCR's "Global Trends 2011" report shows that in 2011, some 4.3 million people were newly displaced, with 800,000 of these fleeing their countries and becoming refugees.
"2011 saw suffering on an epic scale. For so many lives to have been thrown into turmoil over so short a space of time means enormous personal cost for all who were affected," said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres. "We can be grateful only that the international system for protecting such people held firm for the most part and that borders stayed open. These are testing times."
Worldwide, 42.5 million people ended 2011 either as refugees (15.2 million), internally displaced (26.4 million) or in the process of seeking asylum (895,000).
Despite the high number of new refugees, the overall figure was lower than the 2010 total of 43.7 million people, due mainly to the offsetting effect of large numbers of internally displaced people (IDPs) returning home: 3.2 million, the highest rate of returns of IDPs in more than a decade.
Among refugees, and notwithstanding an increase in voluntary repatriation over 2010 levels, 2011 was the third lowest year for returns (532,000) in a decade.
The report shows that forced displacement is affecting larger numbers of people globally, with the annual level exceeding 42 million people for each of the last five years.
It also shows that a person who becomes a refugee is likely to remain as one for many years – often stuck in a camp or living precariously in an urban location.
Of the 10.4 million refugees under UNHCR's mandate, almost three quarters (7.1 million) have been in exile for at least five years awaiting a solution.
Overall, Afghanistan remains the biggest producer of refugees (2.7 million) followed by Iraq (1.4 million), Somalia (1.1 million), Sudan (500,000) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (491,000).
Around four-fifths of the world's refugees flee to their neighbouring countries, reflected in the large refugee populations seen, for example, in Pakistan (1.7 million people), Iran (886,500), Kenya (566,500) and Chad (366,500).
South Africa was the largest recipient of individual asylum applications (107,000), a status it has held for the past four years.
Among industrialized countries, Germany ranks as the largest hosting country with 571,700 refugees.