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There are now more people forcibly displaced around the world than ever before

The number of people forcibly displaced around the world has doubled in the past decade, reaching its highest level on record according to an annual snapshot by the United Nations’ peak refugee body.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) Global Trends Report 2020 found as of the end of last year, global displacement numbers rose to 82.4 million people.

That is a near 3 million jump since 2019, marking the ninth consecutive year-on-year increase.

“Sadly we’re seeing record numbers of global displacement, both in terms of refugees – that is people who are outside their country – and also internally displaced people,” said Naomi Steer, national director of Australia for UNHCR.

“We’ve seen over the last decade the number of forcibly displaced people double. That’s an incredible figure.”

With one in 95 people worldwide now classified as ‘forcibly displaced’, Ms Steer believes if such a trajectory continues, “it’s going to be a question of not ‘if’ but ‘when’ we reach the 100 million mark.”

The people behind the numbers

The majority of those forcibly displaced are internally displaced people, also known as IDPs, who remain within their own country but are unable to return home. The UNHCR found there are 48 million IDPs, with a further 26.4 million refugees, 4.1 million asylum seekers, and 3.9 million Venezuelans displaced abroad.

The 74-page report highlighted multiple crises in all corners of the globe that are driving the large displacement numbers.

The world’s worst affected nation is Syria, where its devastating civil war has stretched into its 10th year. There are 13.5 million Syrians now displaced, including 6.7m IDPs and 6.8m refugees or asylum seekers.

In South America, Colombia continues to report the highest number of IDPs, with 8.3m people internally displaced at the end of 2020. Neighbouring Venezuela’s long-running political and economic instability and ongoing humanitarian crisis account for 3.9 million of those displaced abroad. A total of 5.4m Venezuelans are either refugees or migrants.

In Asia, the persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingya minority means one million people remain in overcrowded camps in neighbouring Bangladesh.

Refugees from Syria at a camp in Suru, Turkey.

Refugees from Syria at a camp in Suru, Turkey.


Ethnic conflict is also still widespread in Africa. Violence in Ethiopia displaced 1 million people in 2020 alone, and 500,000 fled abduction and massacre in Mozambique.

Ms Steer says the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Yemen are among other areas of concern in Africa.

“Conflict is the greatest factor forcing people from their homes,” Ms Steer said. 

“But now we’re seeing much more complex situations where climate change, urbanisation, poverty, food security, are all coming together to really be a mega-storm, where we’re seeing these very large numbers of people leaving.”

The report also found the number of refugees worldwide rose by nearly a quarter of a million by the end of 2020, increasing to almost 20.7 million. More than two-thirds of refugees (68 per cent) come from just five countries: Syria (6.7 million), Venezuela (4 million), Afghanistan (2.6 million), South Sudan (2.2 million), and Myanmar (1.1 million).

Venezuela's political, humanitarian and socio-economic crisis has left millions of people displaced across South America.

Venezuela’s political, humanitarian and socio-economic crisis has left millions of people displaced across South America.

AP Photo/Fernando Vergara

A further 5.7 million Palestinian refugees are categorised separately, falling under the mandate of a separate UN agency that solely supports them.

Turkey hosts the most refugees, with the 3.7 million within its borders accounting for 15 per cent of all people displaced across borders globally. Colombia (1.7 million refugees) is second, followed by Pakistan (1.4 million), Uganda (1.4 million) and Germany (1.2 million).

Resettlements plummet

But resettlements in 2020 plummeted, with only 34,400 refugees resettled in a third country, accounting for one-third of the total in 2019.

Those record-low numbers, Ms Steer said, are just one of many consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It “has made things much more difficult for refugees and displaced people, and for people generally seeking safety and security,” she said.

“If we look at the global trend numbers for this year, I’m sure they would have been much higher if not for the fact that the pandemic resulted in closed borders, preventing people from being able to leave to more secure and safer locations.”

UNHCR report finds number of forcibly displaced people in world has doubled in past decade to record high

Wani is a 17-year-old refugee from South Sudan and lives in the Bidibidi camp in Uganda. He and his sister were separated from their parents due to the civil war.

World Vision

Overall, the UNHCR found closed borders reduced the number of forcibly displaced people seeking refuge overseas by an estimated 1.5 million, with those people now stuck in unsafe situations.

World Vision Australia’s CEO, Daniel Wordsworth, says the pandemic has “exacerbated the negative experience” facing those displaced, including those currently living in refugee camps.

“You have ongoing fragility, people are becoming incredibly isolated. We’re seeing the number of people seeking mental health services triple in the last 12 months,” Mr Wordsworth said. 

“This is really deteriorating. It’s also putting a huge burden on the health system and freezing economic activity, so people are experiencing a high degree of poverty.”

Despite few reported coronavirus outbreaks across the world’s refugee camps, aid agencies say there has also been a worrying increase in gender and sexual-based violence due to the shutdowns.

At the Bidibdi camp in Uganda, one of the largest refugee camps in the world, child protection worker Monday Vikie says school closures are just one example of how already precarious existences have become even harder.

“The major challenge that we are facing in this period of the COVID pandemic is that we have had an increase in the number of teenage pregnancy cases in the village,” Ms Vikie said.

“That is so common. Since schools have closed down, children are not going to school. Children are idle and moving around doing nothing.”

Children in crisis

According to the UNHCR, children remain of major concern when it comes to dealing with the world’s displaced. Not only are they more vulnerable, but they make up a disproportionate amount of those forced to flee.

The Global Trends report found that while children constitute 30 per cent of the world’s population, they make up 42 per cent of the total number of people displaced.

The UNHCR also determined between 2018 and 2020, 1 million babies were born as refugees.

UNHCR report finds number of forcibly displaced people in world has doubled in past decade to record high

Suzan, an 18-year-old South Sudanese refugee, lives in the Bidibidi camp with her mother and brother. She is completing her high school education.

In a separate report, World Vision collated the indirect impacts of the pandemic on children and families who are IDPs or refugees, finding 77 per cent cannot meet food needs, 71 per cent cannot meet rental needs, and 68 and 69 per cent are unable to meet health and education needs.

“It’s the effects of that shutdown that are sort of rippling out and causing this kind of damage,” Mr Wordsworth said.

At the Bidibidi refugee camp in Uganda, like countless around the world, children are though showing incredible resilience and courage.

In a series of video diaries filmed for SBS News on behalf of World Vision, some teenagers documented a day in their lives. They spoke of their daily struggles, including being unable to afford books and pens for school and healthcare products including sanitary pads. But they also spoke of their hopes and dreams.

“I want to become a teacher,” said Harriet, 16. 

Suzan, 18, said: “My hope is to continue with the studies and after completing I’d like to become a nurse to provide services to my people”.

The UNHCR has pointed to solutions to the greater displacement crisis, including the fact that 3.4 million people were able to return home in 2020 (predominately IDPs). But Ms Steer says those numbers pale in comparison to the greater global situation.

“It’s really unacceptable that millions of people will be spending many years outside their countries with very little prospect to return home in safety,” she said.

“Resolving conflict and bringing about peace must be a number one priority.”

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