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FactCheck: is this the greatest period of humanitarian need since WWII?

Shadow Immigration Minister Richard Marles said the world is experiencing its greatest period of human need since WWII. AAP/Mick Tsikas

“We acknowledge that right now the world is going through its greatest period of humanitarian need seen since the second world war. There are more people seeking refuge, more people displaced than at any other point in time … ” – Shadow Immigration and Border Protection Minister Richard Marles, interview with Fran Kelly on RN Breakfast, June 29, 2015.

In the lead-up to the ALP National Conference this month, reports have emerged suggesting the opposition may throw its support behind the policy of turning back asylum seeker boats.

When questioned on the topic, Shadow Immigration Minister Richard Marles mentioned that the world is now going through its greatest period of humanitarian need since the second world war.

Is that correct?

Rapid acceleration

It is likely Marles’ comment was a reference to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) annual Global Trends Report, released in June. The agency estimated that at the end of 2014 there was an estimated 59.5 million people forcibly displaced worldwide. There has been a rapid acceleration of displacement, increasing 40% over just three years from 42.5 million in 2011.

From the end of 2013 to the end of 2014, there was an increase of 8.3 million displaced people from the year. That 12-month period also saw the highest annual increase in a single year.

The data in the report is based on figures provided by governments, non-government organisations and the UNHCR. The figures include refugees (19.5 million), asylum seekers (1.8 million), and certain groups of internally displaced persons (38.2 million), collectively referred to as “persons of concern”.

The UNHCR has stated that is the highest level of displacement in the post-WWII era. Situations of conflict, persecution, generalised violence, and human rights violations have formed a “nation of the displaced” roughly equivalent of the population of the UK. UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has said:

We are witnessing a paradigm change, an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before.

More than half of Syria’s population is displaced. It is one of the biggest refugee crises in history with around four million people leaving the country. At least 7.6 million Syrians are also estimated to be displaced within their country at the end of 2014. Children constituted 51% of the refugee population in 2014, the highest figure in more than a decade.

The refugee crisis in Syria was certainly not the only one. Little-publicised conflicts in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Nigeria and Burundi, have added hundreds of thousands to the long-standing refugee populations from Somalia, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Asia grew by 31% in 2014 to nine million people. Continuing displacement was also seen in and from Myanmar in 2014, including of Rohingya from Rakhine state and in the Kachin and Northern Shan regions.

Compounding the ongoing displacement of people, the number of refugee returns is at its lowest point since 1983. During 2014, only 126,800 refugees returned to their country of origin. Ongoing conflict and general political insecurity have contributed to the prevailing trends.

In an effort to escape desperate situations, refugees and migrants risk their lives – the starkest examples are those who have embarked on dangerous boat journeys in the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe and in South East Asia. At the end of 2014, the UNHCR estimated that at least 348,000 people had attempted to reach safety by boat throughout the year.

Response from the international community

In response to this crisis, many destination countries (including Australia) were criticised by the UNHCR for resorting to tougher deterrence measures in an attempt to stem the rise in asylum and refugee flows. Amnesty International described the international community’s response to the Syrian refugee emergency as “dismal”, saying that only 23% of the UN humanitarian appeal for that crisis funded as of June 3, 2015.

The UNHCR’s Guterres did not mince words, saying:

[E]ven as this tragedy unfolds, some of the countries most able to help are shutting their gates to people seeking asylum. Borders are closing, pushbacks are increasing, and hostility is rising. Avenues for legitimate escape are fading away. And humanitarian organisations like mine run on shoestring budgets, unable to meet the spiralling needs of such a massive population of victims. We have reached a moment of truth. World stability is falling apart leaving a wake of displacement on an unprecedented scale.

In the aftermath of WWII, the international community established the United Nations and the Refugee Convention to provide a framework for protection of those who were displaced due to conflict and who could not longer rely upon their own country for safety.

The Refugee Convention also established the principle of responsibility and burden-sharing – the idea that the international community must work together to address refugee crises so that no one country, or a small number of countries, has to cope by themselves.

There is a clearly disproportionate burden on a small number of countries. Around 86% of the world’s refugees are in developing countries. Turkey, Lebanon and Pakistan each host more than one million refugees.

Amnesty International is one of many human rights organisations who have said that the principle of international burden sharing is being ignored “with devastating consequences: the international refugee protection system is broken”. The loss of life and human misery is far higher than many armed conflicts.

The global refugee crisis will not be solved unless the international community recognises that it is a global problem and deals with it as such.


Marles’ statement is consistent with the recent report on global displacement by the UNHCR. Those displaced by conflict and persecution are at the highest levels the UNHCR has recorded, and sadly they are continuing to grow.


This is a good analysis, as the recently released UNHCR report rightly draws our attention to the increasing number of refugees and displaced people around the world.

As the author notes, it is the “frontline” countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan that are providing temporary refuge for the massive flow of refugees from Syria. Pakistan continues to be the first place for Afghans fleeing their prolonged conflict, but even Pakistan is now a source country for refugees.

However, other conflicts in Africa receive less attention particularly in the English language media, apart from commentary on boat people in the Mediterranean. It rightly is a global issue calling for global attention. The focus on “turn backs”, which was the main topic of the interview, does not address the need for a global approach to increased movement of people. – Kerry Murphy

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