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Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2020

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Global Forced Displacement

More than 82 million people worldwide are forcibly displaced

"While the 1951 Refugee Convention and the Global Compact on Refugees provide the legal framework and tools to respond to displacement, we need much greater political will to address conflicts and persecution that force people to flee in the first place."
Filippo Grandi
UN High Commissioner for Refugees

The year 2020 will be remembered as a year like no other. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted all facets of life, causing millions of deaths around the world and leading to human suffering, economic recession, restrictions on human mobility and severe limitations on daily life.

While the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on wider cross-border migration and displacement globally is not yet clear, UNHCR data shows that arrivals of new refugees and asylum-seekers were sharply down in most regions – about 1.5 million fewer people than would have been expected in non-COVID circumstances, and reflecting how many of those seeking international protection in 2020 became stranded (see Figure 1 by region).Similarly, the United Nations estimate that the pandemic may have reduced the number of international migrants by around two million globally during the first six months of the year. This corresponds to a decrease of around 27 per cent in the expected number of international migrants from July 2019 to June 2020.

People were forced to flee their homes throughout the year despite an urgent appeal from the U.N.
Secretary-General on 23 March 2020 calling for a global ceasefire to enable a concerted response to the pandemic. By the end of 2020, the number of people forcibly displaced due to persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations and events seriously disturbing public order had grown to 82.4 million, the highest number on record according to available data. This was more than double the level of a decade ago (41 million in 2010, see Figure 2), and a four per cent increase from the 2019 total of 79.5 million. As a result, above one per cent of the world’s population – or 1 in 95 people – is now forcibly displaced. This compares with 1 in 159 in 2010.

Several crises – some new, some resurfacing after years – forced people to flee within or beyond the borders of their country. Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen continued to be hotspots, while conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic (Syria) stretched into its tenth year. In the Sahel region of Africa, nearly threequarters of a million people were newly displaced in what is perhaps the most complex regional crisis worldwide. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), atrocities carried out by armed groups led to UNHCR partners documenting the killings of more than 2,000 civilians in its three eastern provinces.

In Ethiopia, more than one million people were displaced within the country during the year, while more than 54,000 fled the Tigray region into eastern Sudan. In northern Mozambique, hundreds of thousands escaped deadly violence, with civilians witnessing massacres by non-state armed groups in several villages, including beheadings and abductions of women and children. The outbreak of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan left a devastating impact on civilians in both countries and displaced tens of thousands of people.

Measures implemented by governments to limit the spread of COVID-19, including restricting freedom of movement and closing borders, made it considerably harder for people fleeing war and persecution to reach safety. However, a number of States have found ways to preserve some form of access to territory for people seeking international protection despite the pandemic. Uganda, for example, has accepted thousands of refugees from the DRC while ensuring that necessary health measures, including quarantine, were also taken.

During 2020, an estimated 11.2 million people became newly displaced – a total that includes people displaced for the first time as well as people displaced repeatedly. This includes 1.4 million who sought protection outside their country, plus 9.8 million new displacements within countries. This figure exceeds the 2019 total of 11.0 million.

With many governments closing borders for extended periods of time and restricting internal mobility, only a limited number of refugees and internally displaced people were able to avail themselves of solutions such as voluntary return or resettlement to a third country. Some 251,000 refugees were able to return to their country of origin in 2020, either assisted by UNHCR or spontaneously. This is the third lowest number of the past decade, and it continues a downward trend from the previous two years.
Impediments to returns in many countries of origin include ongoing insecurity, the absence of essential services and the lack of livelihood opportunities.

Refugees are not the only forcibly displaced people struggling to access solutions. In comparison with 2019, 40 per cent fewer IDPs (3.2 million versus 5.3 million in 2019) were able to return to their place of residence, leaving millions of IDPs in protracted displacement. Almost half of all IDP returns were concentrated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1.4 million).

The conflict in Syria has dragged on for one full decade, with more than half of its population still forcibly displaced, representing by far the largest forcibly displaced population worldwide (13.5 million, including more than 6.7 million internally displaced). When considering only international displacement situations, Syrians also topped the list with 6.8 million people, followed by Venezuelans with 4.9 million.

Afghans and South Sudanese came next, with 2.8 and 2.2 million respectively (see Figure 3).

There was no change from 2019 in the top five countries that host the largest number of people displaced across borders.18 Turkey reported the highest number with just under 4 million, most of whom were Syrian refugees (92 per cent).

Colombia followed, hosting over 1.7 million displaced Venezuelans. Germany hosted the third largest number, almost 1.5 million, with Syrian refugees and asylum-seekers constituting the largest groups (44 per cent). Pakistan and Uganda hosted the 4th and 5th largest number, with about 1.4 million each (see Figure 4).

Children are particularly affected during displacement crises, especially if their displacement drags on for many years. New UNHCR estimates show that almost one million children were born as refugees between 2018 and 2020. Many of them are at risk of remaining in exile for years to come, some potentially for the rest of their lives. It is especially challenging to ensure the best interests of children who are at risk, including children who are unaccompanied or separated from their families. Some 21,000 unaccompanied or separated children (UASC) lodged new asylum applications in 2020 (2 per cent), compared to 25,000 one year earlier (1 per cent).20 Considering that new asylum applications in 2020 dropped by one million due to COVID-19, this figure is disproportionately high.