Here's a statistic that helps put the world's current conflicts into grim perspective: there haven't been this many people seeking asylum in developed countries since 1992, when Yugoslavia dissolved in war.
That's according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which tracks the number of people who register for asylum every year in 44 developed countries. That total number of asylum claims per year is shown in the chart above.
The number spikes twice: to 898,000 in 1992, with the catastrophic breakup of Yugoslavia, and again now. Yugoslavia was right in the middle of Europe and sent many of its citizens fleeing into neighboring countries that classify as developed, so it's telling that conflicts in far-off places such as Afghanistan and Eritrea are today producing so many asylum seekers.
There are two other, smaller bumps you'll see in the chart: The first was in the late 1990s, with the conflict in Kosovo. The violence of the Arab Spring helped raise the number again. But it's since spiked dramatically, from 597,000 in 2013 to 866,000 in 2014.
These figures, to be clear, only include people who sought asylum, and who did so in those 44 developed countries (UNHCR classifies those countries using the somewhat outdated term "industrialized"). They do not include, for example, the huge numbers of refugees living in camps in countries neighboring Syria or the Central African Republic. Still, this is a worrying metric of the toll of conflict on people around the world.
Here are a few factors driving the rise.
1) The disasters in Syria and Iraq
It's not surprising that Syria and Iraq would lead the trend, but you can see by just how much when you look at the asylum seekers' top five countries of origin in 2014:
- Syria (149,641)
- Iraq (68,719)
- Afghanistan (59,472)
- Serbia and Kosovo (55,668)
- Eritrea (48,402)
The number of Syrians claiming asylum almost tripled between 2013 and 2014, from around 56,300 applicants in 2013.
Meanwhile, the number of Iraqis claiming asylum in 2014 was almost double that of the previous year. Continuing violence in Afghanistan also saw a jump of about 23,000 more asylum seekers coming from there.
2) People from Kosovo keep trying and failing to claim asylum
Then there's the surprisingly large flood of people trying to leave Serbia and Kosovo. Both Balkan nations were involved in the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s, but they've officially been at peace for 16 years. What is going on?
It's difficult to say for sure, partly because the two countries' figures get lumped together. Tiny Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but not all governments recognize it — so some governments count arriving asylum seekers from Kosovo as Serbians, and the UN is unable to officially separate the two.
But what's clear is that a massive exodus from Kosovo is underway. Kosovo is one of the poorest corners of Europe; youth unemployment is reported to be 60 percent or more. In recent years, tens of thousands of Kosovars have been heading to Western Europe, especially Germany, in search of work — hoping to get in by claiming asylum.
The problem is that the asylum system is designed for people fleeing conflict and persecution. And because Serbia and Kosovo are now considered safe, almost all of these migrants are sent back.
But people keep trying. William Spindler of the UNHCR told me that 95 percent of the 35,000 Serbians and Kosovars who claimed asylum in 2013 were unsuccessful; the next year, more people tried anyway. If anything, it's a sign of just how dismal people's opportunities in Kosovo are.
3) Thousands of people are fleeing Eritrea's crazy dictatorship
There's another country that's witnessing a huge exodus: Eritrea, a nation that human rights organizations sometimes describe as Africa's own North Korea. President Isaias Afewerki, in power for the last 24 years, runs one of the most oppressive regimes on the planet.
"The main reason for the mass flight is that a growing number of Eritreans feel they are living in a prison camp," the Economist wrote in 2013.
In just one example of the government's appalling rights abuses, "All males up to the age of 50 have to do national service on starvation wages in an army whose senior ranks are brutal and corrupt," the article said.
It's testament to Eritreans' desperation that they take often horrific risks to escape: after Syrians, they make up the biggest numbers trying to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean in rickety boats, a journey that ends all too often in tragedy.