TAZA KHORMATO, Iraq – In a battered car loaded with blankets and clothes, Hassan Abbas and his mother left a dusty town in northern Iraq, fleeing this week’s violence and joining what the United Nations says is the largest worldwide population of displaced people since World War II.
The U.N. refugee agency’s latest annual report, released Friday, found more than 50 million people worldwide were displaced at the end of last year, reflecting an ever-expanding web of international conflicts.
Last year’s increase in displaced people was the largest in at least two decades, driven mainly by the civil war in Syria, which has claimed an estimated 160,000 lives and forced 9 million people to flee their homes. Now Iraq is adding to that tide.
“I am going to sell this phone so we have money,” Abbas said at a checkpoint outside the town of Taza Khormato, near the city of Kirkuk, where he will move in with relatives, and where 20 people will share a single home.
He and his 50-year-old mother, Shukriya, decided to leave the town after fighters from the al-Qaida breakaway group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant shelled and burned down the neighbouring village of Basheer.
“My heart is sick. It’s sick. From the fear, the shelling, the explosions,” Shukriya said, sobbing. “They say they killed children in Basheer. By God all we want is peace.”
The jihadi group swept across northern Iraq last week, seizing the city of Mosul and carrying Syria’s brutal civil war across the border. Their swift advance set the stage for a conflict that has already displaced hundreds of thousands and could widen.
Iraqis who have fled over the past week were not included in the U.N. High Commission for Refugees’ annual global trends report. The Kurdish regional government says at least 300,000 people have fled the latest violence.
The agency found that at the end of last year, 51.2 million people had been forced from their homes worldwide, including refugees, the internally displaced and asylum-seekers. That was the highest figure since the U.N. began collecting numbers in the early 1950s.
It’s also 6 million more people than at the end of the previous year, reflecting a failure to resolve longstanding conflicts or prevent the eruption of new ones, the head of the U.N. refugee agency said in announcing the report.
“The world has shown a limited capacity to prevent conflicts and to find a timely solution for them,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said.
“Today, we not only have an absence of a global governance system, but we have sort of an unclear sense of power in the world,” Guterres told reporters in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, where the report was released.
By the end of last year, 2.5 million Syrians had become refugees in neighbouring countries and more than 6.5 million had been displaced within Syria, the U.N. refugee agency said.
Also contributing to the figures are conflicts and persecution in other countries, including the Central African Republic and South Sudan.
“These numbers represent a quantum leap in forced displacement around the world,” Guterres said.
Aid agencies have struggled to keep pace. On Friday, the World Food Program, another U.N. agency, said it was forced to cut rations to refugees in several countries.
“We are being squeezed. Other U.N. agencies are increasingly squeezed,” along with humanitarian aid groups, spokesman Peter Smerdon told The Associated Press.
“This means that ultimately the poor, the most vulnerable, the innocent civilians who have escaped conflicts with their lives and reached refuge in a country which is at peace, they will suffer because their assistance cannot be delivered.”
The data were compiled using records from governments, non-government partner organizations and the UNHCR.
Of 51.2 million displaced people worldwide last year, 16.7 million were refugees outside their countries’ borders. More than half of the refugees under UNHCR’s care — 6.3 million — had been in exile for more than five years, the agency said.
By country, the biggest refugee populations were Afghan, Syrian and Somali, the report said.
The countries hosting the largest number of refugees were Pakistan, Iran and Lebanon, which is bitterly divided over the war in neighbouring Syria and has seen several deadly attacks linked to the conflict.
More than a million Syrians have registered in Lebanon as refugees since the conflict in their country started in March 2011. The refugees now make up nearly one fourth of Lebanon’s population of 4.5 million.
Many of the displaced people have left behind ghost towns where fighters haunt empty streets. Inside Taza Khormato, shops were shuttered and houses closed up. In one home, a group of men aged 15 to 50 gathered assault rifles and rocket launchers.
“There are no families here anymore, only the men,” said Adel Fadel, a 60-year-old farmer with broken teeth. “We sent them away, because we were afraid” the Islamic State would attack.
Krauss reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Barbara Surk in Beirut and John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.