GENEVA – The Syrian civil war contributed to pushing the numbers of refugees and those displaced by conflict within their own nation to an 18-year high of 45.2 million worldwide by the end of 2012, the U.N. refugee agency said Wednesday.
Those are the highest numbers since 1994, when people fled genocide in Rwanda and bloodshed in former Yugoslavia.
By the end of last year, the world had 15.4 million refugees, 937,000 asylum seekers and 28.8 million people who had been forced to flee within the borders of their own countries, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in a report.
Of those, 17 percent were new to their situations in 2012: 1.1 million new refugees and 6.5 million internally displaced people — many from conflicts in Mali, Congo and Sudan.
That translates into someone becoming a new refugee or internally displaced person somewhere in the world every 4.1 seconds during the last year, said Antonio Guterres, head of the Geneva-based agency, also known as UNHCR.
"Which means each time you blink, another person is forced to flee," he told reporters in Geneva.
The overall numbers rose by 6 percent from the 42.5 million refugees and internally displaced people at the end of 2011.
Children below the age of 18 accounted for 46 percent of refugees worldwide. There were 21,300 asylum applications by children who were either unaccompanied or separated from their parents — the highest such number the agency has recorded.
Most of the refugees in the world have fled from five war-affected countries: Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Sudan. Of those, Afghanistan has for the past 32 years held the top spot; one of every four of the world's refugees is an Afghan — and nearly all of them have fled to Pakistan or Iran.
The next biggest source of refugees is Somalia's long-running conflict, but the rate slowed a bit last year. Iraqis and Syrians were the next biggest refugee populations.
It's the poorer countries that generally show the most generosity — Germany being a major exception — in a trend that keeps accelerating. Some 81 percent of the world's refugees are hosted by developing countries, up from 70 percent a decade ago.
Pakistan, home for 1.6 million refugees, continues to be the biggest host. Next is Iran, with 868,200 refugees, followed by Germany, with 589,700.