Yemen + 20 more

IRC Watchlist 2021


IRC's 2021 Emergency Watchlist: triple threat of COVID, climate change and conflict threatens 200 million people without urgent action

  • The most dangerous humanitarian emergencies of 2021 are nearly all neglected, long-running crises like Afghanistan, Syria, and the DRC that remain highly volatile after years or decades of crisis.
  • These 20 countries represent just 10% of the global population, but account for 85% of those in humanitarian need.
  • New analysis by experts from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) shows Yemen is the country most at risk of humanitarian catastrophe in 2021, for the third year in a row, followed by Afghanistan, Syria, DRC and Ethiopia.
  • Famine threatens four countries in the top ten of the Watchlist - Yemen, Burkina Faso, northeast Nigeria and South Sudan.
  • Measures to contain the pandemic are leaving women behind, as they face devastating harm to economic opportunities, schooling, and access to healthcare in these crisis countries.
  • The triple threat of conflict, climate change and COVID-19 is driving the crises in nearly all Watchlist countries.
  • The IRC is responding to crises in 18 out of 20 of Watchlist countries delivering lifesaving healthcare, protection, education and economic recovery programming.

New York, NY, December 16, 2020 — Today, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), released its annual Emergency Watchlist highlighting 20 devastating humanitarian crises which are expected to deteriorate the most in 2021. Ongoing conflict compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change have led to unprecedented emergencies across the globe. As multiple countries face historic levels of hunger and sit on the verge of pending famine, the IRC is calling on world leaders to take action now, before decades of hard-won progress on reducing poverty, hunger and disease is lost or even reversed.

David Miliband, President and CEO at the IRC, said, "2020 will go down as one of the most turbulent years in history, but the next year will be remembered for how we either helped or turned away from those suffering the most. Watchlist 2021 should serve as a wake-up call for policymakers, government leaders, and concerned citizens around the world about the cost of neglecting humanitarian crises - and how they urgently need international attention. More than 235 million people are in need of humanitarian aid and more than 80 million people are displaced from their homes. The world continues to look away as we live through the age of impunity in which governments, dictators, generals, and militias ignore the laws of war, knowing that they will never be held accountable for their abuses. The most severe and devastating crises like Afghanistan, Syria and DRC have been reeling for years or even decades, and are expected to become even worse in 2021.

The triple threat of conflict, COVID-19 and climate change are dramatically worsening an already dire situation for people living in conflict-affected countries. Working in 18 out of 20 of the crises on this year's Watchlist, and in nearly 20 other countries worldwide, the IRC sees the impacts of this every day as we work tirelessly to help people survive and rebuild their lives. Women and girls are disproportionately impacted by all aspects of conflict, as we see rises in violence against women, early and forced marriage, loss of income and education opportunities. While we witness historic levels of displacement, aid agencies like the IRC are increasingly under attack and face obstacles put in place by parties to conflict that prevent them from reaching those most in need.

Without action, conflicts risk spreading across borders with dire humanitarian implications. We risk repeating these same mistakes now with newly emergent crises like those in Ethiopia and Mozambique. With the alarming findings from Watchlist 2021, the IRC is calling on world leaders to fund frontline responses to the triple threat from conflict, COVID-19 and climate change, for all actors to urgently abide by the UN Secretary General's call for a global ceasefire, and for those with influence to push for humanitarian access to those most in need. This is only the bare minimum to start addressing the plight of millions of civilians highlighted by the Watchlist."

More top findings from Watchlist 2021:

  • Deaths and illness from non-COVID health impacts of the pandemic may exceed those from COVID-19 itself.
  • Loss of livelihoods is driving up food insecurity and could trigger multiple famines in 2021, particularly in Yemen, Burkina Faso, northeast Nigeria and South Sudan.
  • Long-running conflicts in places like Afghanistan and the DRC are driving the largest increases in humanitarian needs. The number of people in need in Afghanistan and the DRC has risen by 385% and 275% respectively since 2015. Concerningly, Watchlist reveals that many of these states are at risk of an even more violent 2021.
  • Measures to contain the pandemic are leaving women behind, while increasing the risks they face. Women and girls represent more than 70% of people facing chronic hunger.
  • Conflicts are becoming more and more complex. One-fifth of conflicts today involve more than ten actors and two-thirds involve at least three parties, making the delivery of humanitarian assistance more complicated.
  • Watchlist countries are the most dangerous places for aid workers: since 2016, 94% of all aid workers killed, 84% of aid workers injured and 98% of aid workers kidnapped have been in the countries on this year's list.
  • Humanitarian access and action is increasingly under threat as humanitarian responses are threatened by bureaucratic obstacles.
  • The global rise in the number of conflicts is driven by a 600% increase in internationalized civil conflicts - those crises involving a foreign actor - since 1990.
  • The influence of non-state armed groups - including criminal gangs, communal militias, militant groups and more - over crisis situations is growing. From Afghanistan to Colombia to Mozambique, non-state armed actors have significant influence over the crises in every Watchlist 2021 country.
  • Wars are increasingly fought without respect for International Humanitarian Law, resulting in direct harm to civilians and critical infrastructure.

The challenges are immense, but there are practical steps the international community can and should take. The IRC urges new political focus from global leaders to address the trends highlighted by Watchlist 2021:

  • Target those at risk of being left behind. Displaced populations, hard-to-reach populations, women and other vulnerable populations should be included in all aspects of humanitarian responses - from national health systems to social safety nets to the distribution of an eventual vaccine.
  • Reach the frontline in crisis-affected contexts. Provide greater humanitarian funding and direct more funding to frontline responders, who are on the ground and ready to scale up to meet rising needs.
  • Prioritize diplomacy to support humanitarian action by removing obstacles to humanitarian action.
  • Strengthen multilateral systems to respond to the triple threat of conflict, COVID-19 and climate change.
  • Break the cycle of impunity for civilian harm by restoring accountability for violations of International Humanitarian Law.

The Watchlist is divided into a ranked Top Ten and an unranked bottom half. The Top Ten countries are where we assess there is greatest risk of deterioration leading to the most serious emergencies in 2021:

1. Yemen

2. Afghanistan

3. Syria

4. Democratic Republic of the Congo

5. Ethiopia

6. Burkina Faso

7. South Sudan

8. Nigeria

9. Venezuela

10. Mozambique

  • Cameroon

  • Central African Republic

  • Chad

  • Colombia

  • Lebanon

  • Mali

  • Niger

  • Palestine

  • Somalia

  • Sudan


The Watchlist draws on 85 quantitative and qualitative measures, including insights from the IRC's 30,000 staff and volunteers in over 40 countries globally.