Aid agencies at breaking point, U.N. refugee chief warns

'The international humanitarian community is really reaching the limits of its capacity,' Antonio Guterres warns

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Aid agencies are close to breaking point in their efforts to help millions of desperate victims of conflicts around the globe, U.N. refugee agency chief Antonio Guterres warned on Friday.

“The international humanitarian community is really reaching the limits of its capacity, with multiplication of conflicts,” Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, told reporters.

Worldwide, 51.2 million people were forcibly displaced at the end of 2013, according to U.N. figures, mostly remaining within their embattled homelands’ borders or fleeing to neighboring countries. The total was the highest since World War II.

“In 2011, there were 14,000 new refugees and internally displaced people every day. In 2012, 23,000. In 2013, 32,000. An exponential growth of needs,” said Guterres.

Global attention is focused squarely on the conflict in Iraq and Syria, which has driven millions of people from their homes, but the world also faced less headline-grabbing crises such as those in Africa, he said.

Wars are not the only factor.

“The impacts of climate change, of food insecurity, of water scarcity, of the multiplication of natural disasters, combined with population growth and urbanization, and their impacts on the global environment, all this is making humanitarian needs grow in a dramatic way,” said Guterres.

He echoed comments made Wednesday at a U.N. refugee agency meeting by U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, who urged the international community to stem crises before they emerge, rather than stepping in to pick up the pieces afterward.

A major problem, Guterres added, is not just the repeated funding shortfalls faced by aid agencies but also the cumbersome mechanisms under which donor nations allocate funds, despite the speed of evolving crises.

“We need to start thinking out of the box in relation to humanitarian funding,” he said.

“Either there is a quantum leap, either there is a substantive change, or we will no longer be able to respond. It will be impossible to deliver according to the needs of the people we care for with business as usual,” he warned.

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