Imagine the entire population of France uprooted from their homes, forced to flee danger, persecution or starvation. The U.N. refugee agency says more people than that — 65 million — were displaced worldwide at the end of last year, easily setting a new postwar record.
And it warned that European and other rich nations can expect the flow to continue if root causes aren't addressed.
After a year when more than a million people arrived on European shores, UNHCR said Monday — World Refugee Day — that continued conflicts and persecution in places like Syria and Afghanistan fueled a nearly 10-percent increase in the total number of refugees and internally displaced people in 2015.
"I hope that the message carried by those forcibly displaced reaches the leaderships: We need action, political action, to stop conflicts," said Filippo Grandi, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "The message that they have carried is: 'If you don't solve problems, problems will come to you.'"
The Geneva-based agency's latest Global Trends Report shows that for the first time since World War II, the 60-million mark was crossed.
"If these 65.3 million persons were a nation, they would make up the 21st largest in the world," the report said.
In stark detail, UNHCR said that, on average, 24 people had been displaced every minute last year — or 34,000 people a day — up from 6 every minute in 2005. The total number of displaced people has roughly doubled since 1997, and risen by 50 percent since 2011 alone, when the Syria war began.
About 11.5 million people from Syria have fled their homes: 6.6 million remaining within the war-ravaged country and 4.9 million moving abroad. At the end of last year, more than half of all refugees were from three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. More than half of all displaced people were children, UNCHR said.
Turkey was the top host country for the second year running, with 2.5 million refugees — nearly all from neighboring Syria. Afghanistan's neighbor Pakistan had 1.6 million, while Lebanon, next to Syria, hosted 1.1 million.
"The scale of this human suffering is almost unimaginable; the need for the world to respond is beyond question," said U.S. President Barack Obama, adding that he planned to convene a summit on refugees in September when world leaders meet for the U.N. General Assembly.
"In advance of that summit, the United States is urging other governments to contribute more funding for humanitarian aid operations, to grant more refugees the chance to work and attend school, and to provide more resettlement opportunities for refugees who cannot safely go home or remain where they are," he said in a statement. "We are urging our non-governmental partners, including the private sector, to do more as well."
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan noted that displacement has been a "major challenge" throughout history but "humanity stands idly by as more than 65 million people escape from inhumane treatment and oppression today."
"Governments whose policies aggravate humanitarian crises around the globe remain reluctant to lend their victims a helping hand," Erdogan said. "The international community has a political and moral obligation to restore the human dignity of refugees."
UNHCR's Grandi said policymakers and advocacy groups face daunting challenges in helping the largest subset of displaced people: Some 40.8 million living away from their homes within countries in conflict. Another 21.3 million are refugees and some 3.2 million more are seeking asylum.
More than a million people fled to Europe last year, causing a political crisis in the EU — with Greece and Italy facing the initial wave, Germany welcoming in hundreds of thousands, and some eastern European countries erecting barriers to block the flow.
Concerns about immigration have affected the debate in Britain about whether to remain in the European bloc in Thursday's referendum.
This year, the flow of refugees into Europe has eased through the Turkey-to-Greece route that was the dominant thoroughfare last year. A recent EU-Turkey deal allows Greece to return Syrian asylum-seekers to Turkey without evaluation of their protection claims on the basis it is a "safe third country."
Human Rights Watch on Monday urged the EU to evaluate Syrian refugees' protection claims on the merits.
Grandi called on countries to work to fight the anti-foreigner hatred that has accompanied the rise in refugee populations, and decried both physical barriers — like fences erected by some European countries — and legislative ones that limit access to richer, more peaceful EU states.
Such European policies are "spreading a negative example around the world," he said.
"There is no plan B for Europe in the long run," Grandi said. "Europe will continue to receive people seeking asylum. Their numbers may vary ... but it is inevitable."