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Who Takes Care of Refugees Now?

The world's poorest nations. And Germany.
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For over 30 years, several tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees have been living in the region of Tindouf, Algeria, in the heart of the desert. (PHOTO: EUROPEAN COMMISSION DG ECHO/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

For over 30 years, several tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees have been living in the region of Tindouf, Algeria, in the heart of the desert. (PHOTO: EUROPEAN COMMISSION DG ECHO/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The U.N.'s refugee assistance agency, the High Commission on Refugees, has released its annual count of humanity's displaced. It's not an uplifting piece of research. The global agency found that the number of people who live as refugees or "internally displaced persons" (IDP)—that's someone who has fled from home, but not yet crossed a national border—has hit its highest level since 1999.

More than half of the displaced under U.N. care last year were located in countries with average earnings below $5,000 per year, according to UNHCR stats. Eighty percent of the world's refugees, four out of five, were under the care of a developing nation. At least 2.4 million people had relocated to countries poor enough to be included on the U.N.'s ranking of the world's most hardscrabble places, the "Forty-Nine Least Developed Nations."

The war in Syria was a contributor. But it wasn't the largest source of refugees. That title still goes to Afghanistan. The top four countries hosting refugees are Pakistan (1.6 million), Iran (868,200), Germany (589,700), and Kenya (565,000). The total number of human beings living as refugees, IDPs, or in the process of seeking asylum in a new nation was 35.8 million last year. That includes 7.6 million newly displaced to a country outside their own, plus 6.5 million displaced within their own country of origin. UNHCR claims 23,000 people were displaced each day of 2012 because of political unrest and wars.

The statistics go on, and don't get easier, unfortunately. At least 21,300 applications for asylum were filed with national governments on behalf of unaccompanied children. That means orphans or children who don't know where their parents are and are deemed to have become hopelessly separated from them. Most were Afghan or Somali. The number was the highest since the U.N. started keeping track of such cases in 2006.

The agency tried to express how many refugees a country was hosting as a ratio of that country's economic might. One of the world's largest economies, Germany (589,700 refugees in 2012), absorbed a similar number of displaced as developing Kenya (564,900). Expressed as a ratio of refugees per one dollar of a country's GDP, the list of burdens on host states looks very different than the straight population numbers:

• Pakistan (552 refugees per dollar of GDP)
• Ethiopia (303)
• Kenya (301)
• South Sudan (209)
• Chad (200)
• Dem. Rep. of Congo (153)
• Uganda (130)
• Bangladesh (112)
• Yemen (98)
• Syrian Arab Rep. (90)

Afghans were twice as numerous in displaced persons rolls (nearly 2.6 million) as the second most-common national group, Somalis (1.1 million). The rest of the common nations of origin for displaced people last year were Iraq, Syria, Sudan, DR Congo, Myanmar (Burma), Colombia, Vietnam, and Eritrea.

The 650,000 Syrians who fled home last year were part of the largest national exodus since 1999, when 867,000 people were sent running from conflict in Kosovo. In that case, most Kosovars returned quickly after the conflict ended. However, more than a decade later nearly 15,000 were deported from host nations and forcibly repatriated, sparking a fierce debate in Europe and, to a lesser degree, Australia, which had accepted some Kosovar families.

The Syrian crisis has been so dramatic, neighboring Jordan now has 49 Syrian refugees living in its borders for every 1,000 Jordanian citizens.

The majority of the refugee populations are located in neighboring nations—Congolese in Uganda, Vietnamese in China. The exceptions are Afghan, Iraqi, and Somali refugees, whose nations of origin have suffered more than a decade of conflict each, resulting in broader diaspora among those populations. Afghan refugees are now hosted, many long-term, in 82 countries around the world, the U.N. believes.