In late September, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported a proliferation in the number of individuals lodging asylum claims in industrialized countries. An estimated 330,700 applications submitted during the first six months of 2014 signals a 24 percent increase compared with the corresponding period in 2013. Historically, the second half of each year has yielded higher rates of asylum-seekers; should this trend continue, the UNHCR anticipates that 2014 could produce 700,000 claims–the highest recorded figure in the past two decades.
As the number of dispossessed people seeking refuge escalates, the countries in which asylum claims are being lodged face challenging policy responses. Germany, the United States, France, Sweden, Turkey, and Italy are increasingly the target destinations for asylum-seekers. Yet crossing international borders for protection places uprooted individuals and families at the mercy of foreign states–applications for refuge face potential rejection and apprehension from overwhelmed polities. In 2013, France had 66,000 requests for asylum, but granted protection to only 11,500. In Italy, the 24,500 claims registered during the first half of 2014 almost parity the total number of applications received during the entire previous year. Such an overwhelming immigration influx has prompted Italian officials to repeatedly and fruitlessly seek assistance from the European Union to meet the rising need. It is unclear whether the necessary resources will be available or accessible to help displaced individuals find the refuge and care they need.
The report’s alarming statistics serve as a barometer and reminder of the level of human rights concerns, political instability, and violence prevalent throughout the world. Indeed, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres stated that a rise in forcibly displaced individuals and families indicates ongoing or intensifying conflict. Syria’s devastating and prolonged civil war, which has now produced more refugees than any other conflict in the past two decades, is among the principal causes for the upsurge in asylum-seekers. In Iraq, internal sectarian tensions and the recent rise of ISIS–an extremist group–have triggered anew the displacement of thousands. Afghanistan’s war-torn and fragmented society has produced the world’s largest refugee population. Despite the newly elected unity government, Afghans continue to flee the country, lodging 19,300 asylum claims during the first half of 2014–a 15 percent increase compared with the corresponding period in 2013. Across Africa, the persistently volatile political and security situations in Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia, and Mali displaced a combined 43,400 people. In multiple regions, sustained and intensifying conflicts have left millions of individuals and families in need of assistance, and created entire populations of generational refugees.
Increasing asylum claims is only one element in the picture of forced displacement from wars and conflict. The UNHCR estimates there were 51.2 million uprooted people worldwide at the end of 2013, comprising those who are stateless, internally displaced, refugees, returning refugees, and asylum-seekers. Unfortunately, as Mr. Guterres asserted, “The global humanitarian system is…in great difficulty.” With an ill-equipped humanitarian response and in the absence of conflict resolution, the escalating numbers of forcibly displaced people requires a proportionately cooperative international response. Mr. Guterres declared, “The international community needs to prepare their populations for the reality that in the absence of solutions to conflict more and more people are going to need refuge and care in the coming months and years.”