A record number of people around the world — 65.3 million, or one in 113 people — were displaced from their homes last year because of conflict, persecution, or political and economic insecurity, according to the UN Refugee Agency. The sobering statistic gives new meaning to World Refugee Day, which the United Nations has commemorated on June 20 since 2000.
This global issue is playing out in stark terms in Europe. The second half of 2015 saw a sharp increase in the number of refugees from war-torn countries desperately trying to reach Europe, often by traveling across the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. Thousands of people died or went missing during these treacherous journeys.
The arrival of so many refugees has tested European political leaders and sparked xenophobic responses from citizens who overwhelmingly disapprove of the way that the European Union has handled the refugee issue. Some have angrily called for the removal of these displaced individuals, or have even committed violence against refugees, while law enforcement authorities looked on.
In countries that are being overwhelmed with an influx of migrants, some people say they should simply go back where they came from. But return is impossible for many of these individuals — particularly those traveling from dangerous parts of Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. There’s no home to go back to for people from these countries.
Half of all the people who crossed the Mediterranean to get to Europe last year came from Syria, mostly still fleeing from the instability caused by five years of civil war.
More than 400,000 people have already died in the country, with intense fighting increasing between government military and rebels in southern Aleppo in recent days. In the past month, more than 460 people, including 74 civilians, were killed in three weeks of military operations that included aerial bombardment, landmines, and shootings, according to Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a United Kingdoms-based information office that documents human rights abuses in Syria. But even before then, a Syrian-Russian joint military operation in the city of Aleppo in February caused at least 20,000 people to flee towards the Turkish border, Human Rights Watch reported.
About a quarter of the people who crossed the Mediterranean to get to Europe came from Afghanistan, leaving behind a place at war for decades that was reignited after the United States entered the country in 2001. Another estimated 2.7 million Afghan refugees now primarily live in Pakistan and Iran. Tens of thousands of Afghans also have taken up refuge in the European Union.
U.S. military presence in the country has wound down from years of war, but the Taliban and other anti-government forces were responsible for roughly 70 percent of civilian casualties last year, according to a United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) report. More than 11,000 civilians were killed in 2015 through increased ground fighting, suicide attacks, and other conflict-related means of attack.
Pro-government and international military forces are also contributing to deaths. In one instance last October, a U.S. airstrike took out a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan that killed 42 people. And the first six months of last year saw the highest number of deaths among women and children since the UN started counting in 2009.
Iraq was the third most common country of origin among the people who fled across the Mediterranean, with about 9 percent of people leaving behind armed conflict — particularly in the city of Fallujah, which has been held by Islamic State fighters since 2014.
Within Iraq, there were about 4.4 million total number of internally displaced people in the country because of armed conflicts and ISIS militants, according to the UN. Many have moved across central Iraq and the country’s Kurdistan region because they have nothing to return to after ISIS militants took over and destroyed or damaged thousands of homes. And constant bombings have all but flattened towns into concrete dust and rubble, CNN reported.
Somalians make up only 2 percent of the people coming to Europe from across the Mediterranean Sea. But they made up 1.12 million refugees worldwide by the end of 2015, mainly living in refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia after the security situation deteriorated throughout last year. According to the UNHCR, the security level changed from medium to high last year, with the country experiencing increased attacks by the terrorist group al-Shabaab. In some cases, al-Shabaab has been ambushing civilians, leaving no safe zones for people to return without fear of persecution or death. Earlier this month, suspected al-Shabaab gunmen detonated a car at the gates of the Ambassador Hotel in Mogadishu, taking a number of hostages.
Last month, Kenyan Interior Minister Joseph Nkaisserry said that two of the world’s largest refugee camps — set up in 1991 for refugees fleeing a civil war in Somalia — would shut down. The Kenyan government cited economic and terrorism concerns.