(Adds quotes from António Guterres of UNHCR.)
By Joseph D‘Urso
LONDON/ISTANBUL, June 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A lmost 60 million people worldwide were forcibly uprooted by conflict and persecution at the end of last year, the highest ever recorded number, the U.N. refugee agency said on Thursday, warning that the situation could deteriorate further.
More than half the displaced from crises including Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia were children, UNHCR said in its annual Global Trends Report.
In 2014, an average of 42,500 people became refugees, asylum seekers, or internally displaced every day, representing a four-fold increase in just four years, the aid agency said.
“I believe things will get worse before they eventually start to get better,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said at a news conference in Istanbul.
UNHCR said Syria, where conflict has raged since 2011, was the world’s biggest source of internally displaced people and refugees.
There were 7.6 million displaced people in Syria by the end of last year and almost 4 million Syrian refugees, mainly living in the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
The number of Syrian refugees has overtaken the number of Afghan refugees for the first time, the report found.
“Even amid such sharp growth in numbers, the global distribution of refugees remains heavily skewed away from wealthier nations and towards the less wealthy,” UNHCR said.
UNHCR said there were 38.2 million displaced by conflict within national borders, almost five million more than a year before, with wars in Ukraine, South Sudan, Nigeria, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo swelling the figures.
Of the 19.5 million refugees living outside their home countries, 5.1 million are Palestinians. Syrians, Somalis and Afghans make up more than half the remaining 14.4 million refugees, UNHCR said.
It also noted that more than 1.6 million people sought political asylum in a foreign country last year, a jump of more than 50 percent compared to the previous year - largely due to the 270,000 Ukrainians who submitted asylum claims in Russia.
While many conflicts have erupted or reignited in the past five years, few have been conclusively resolved. Just 126,800 refugees were able to return home in 2014, the lowest number in 31 years, UNHCR said.
Guterres said the responsibility to protect Syrian refugees should not be lie solely with Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, and called on the European Union and other parts of the world to open their borders to refugees.
“It is important... for people to be able to have the chance to move into those countries without having to force themselves in the hands of smugglers and traffickers, who exploit them in a miserable way,” he said.
Reporting By Joseph D'Urso, Additional reporting from Dasha Afanasieva in Istanbul, Editing by Katie Nguyen; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org