GENEVA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Syria's war has contributed to the biggest rise in global refugee numbers since 1994, the year of the Rwandan genocide and the height of conflict in the Balkans, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) said in its annual report published on Wednesday.
By the end of 2012, more than 45.2 million people worldwide were refugees, seeking asylum or displaced in their own country -- and the number increased on average by one every 4.1 seconds.
"So, each time you blink another person is forced to flee," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told a news conference.
This year, the flow of refugees from Syria has accelerated, he added. The total now stands at 1.65 million – though that is less than half the refugee population of 3.45 million that UNHCR projects by the end of 2013.
"The number of refugees who fled from Syria since January 1 is more or less the same amount as the total number of refugees who fled all over the world during 2012," Guterres said.
Syria also has about 4.25 million internally displaced people, a number the United Nations expects to remain constant for the rest of the year.
Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq are shouldering most of the refugee burden, with help from foreign aid donors such as the European Union, Kuwait, the United States and Japan.
The G8 group of industrialised nations pledged $1.5 billion at their summit in Northern Ireland on Tuesday, helping to cover a Syria aid bill that is expected to top $5 billion – covering food, medical supplies and refugee support - by the end of the year.
While Turkey and Jordan have set up massive camps to house refugees, Lebanon, which has taken in almost a third of those who have fled the war so far, is relying on families to help shelter Syrians.
Guterres said the problem was becoming "an existential question" for Lebanon, but he declined to say how many more refugees the country could cope with.
"I don't think we can say there is a limit in the capacity. Many people would have said that we have already exceeded that limit."
There was no alternative strategy to hoping for an end to the fighting or accepting the risk of an explosion in the Middle East, he said.
"Either this conflict stops, sooner rather than later, or the humanitarian consequences become out of proportion with anything we have known in the recent past."
Guterres is asking governments to help with temporary resettlement of a few of the most vulnerable Syrians and is working on contingency plans for a sudden exodus, together with the International Organisation for Migration, the Lebanese government and several other countries.
"(We will) study the possibility of a mechanism of evacuation of a larger number of people, not yet quantified, if all of a sudden there is an outflow that is totally impossible to manage. But these are things, these kind of sudden massive outflows, we hope will not happen."
Aside from Syria, recent refugee black spots include Mali, Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, but Guterres said there were signs of hope in Somalia, which is emerging from two decades of war.
He said 2012 set a record for the number of unaccompanied children seeking asylum –21,300 worldwide -- since UNHCR began collecting data. Most were from Afghanistan or Somalia.
"This is becoming one of the most serious humanitarian problems that we face," he said. "Because these people, most of them, travel under the mechanisms that are managed by traffickers, by smugglers, many of them risk their lives, many of them perish along the way.
Major source countries of refugees (end-2012)
Democratic Republic of Congo (509,400)
Major refugee hosting countries (end-2012)