By Aara Ramesh
Despite many countries closing their borders and restricting travel during the Covid-19 pandemic, the United Nations (UN) has said that the plight of refugees and asylum-seekers actually worsened in 2020. As of the end of the year, over 82.4 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced, representing over 1% of the global population, according to a report from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
While these figures are only provisional and the full impact of the pandemic is still being assessed by officials, the estimates paint a worrying picture. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of people forcibly displaced went from 1 in every 159 humans to 1 in every 95. Last year marks the ninth consecutive year that global forced displacement figures have risen. In fact, over the last nine years, the figure has doubled, having been recorded at below 40 million in 2011.
Nearly half (42%) of all those forcibly displaced were children younger than 18 years old. Between 2018 and 2020, estimates suggest that nearly 1 million children were born as refugees, many of whom might maintain that status for the next several years. However, fewer unaccompanied or separated children filed for asylum in 2020, with only 21,000 doing so, as compared to 25,000 in 2019. Children, alone or not, are considered to be particularly vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking in the displacement process.
Before diving deeper into the figures, it would be useful to quickly look over key terms in the lexicon of migration, both voluntary and involuntary.
Concepts In Migration
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), forced migration is “a migratory movement which, although the drivers can be diverse, involves force, compulsion, or coercion.” Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are those “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border.”
Refugees are defined as those who leave their country of origin out of fears over being persecuted for race, nationality, a specific political opinion, or religion, among a multitude of other factors. They are also unable or unwilling to return to their country due to this fear. Asylum-seekers are those refugees whose claims have not yet been determined, but who are still seeking international protection. Resettlement is the “transfer of refugees from the country in which they have sought protection to another State that has agreed to admit them — as refugees — with permanent residence status.”
While there are many people world over who choose to migrate for personal reasons, including the pursuit of different economic opportunities, there are still millions more who are forcibly displaced as a consequence of conflicts, disasters, climate change, and phenomena like famine.
The World Bank characterizes forced displacement as more than just a humanitarian or moral issue, saying that it is additionally an economic and developmental challenge as well. Displacement severely impacts both the home country and the host country, necessitating, as it does, sufficient resources to safely and humanely resettle those displaced.
The UNHCR’s 2020 Report
Of the 82.4 million forcibly displaced at the end of 2020, 26.4 million were refugees. Of those, 5.7 million were Palestinian refugees under the mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), while the rest were under the purview of the UNHCR. Of the overall figure, roughly 3.9 million were Venezuelans displaced abroad and 4.1 million were asylum-seekers. A shocking 48 million people were IDPs, up 2.3 million from 2019.
In 2020, 11.2 million people were forced to flee their homelands, which is a slight uptick over 2019’s 11 million figure. This included those fleeing for the first time as well as those who had repeatedly fled, both within and beyond their country’s borders.
Multiple regions reported that new arrivals dropped sharply in 2020 — about 1.5 million fewer than what was expected in a non-pandemic scenario — which seems to indicate that a large number of displaced people were left stranded and particularly vulnerable.
According to officials, more than 160 countries closed their borders during the worst of the pandemic last year. At least 99 of those did not make an exception for people seeking protection away from their homelands.
The regions most affected by internal displacement included Ethiopia, Sudan, the Sahel countries, and Mozambique in Africa; Yemen and Afghanistan in the Middle East; and Colombia in South America. Internationally, the greatest number of displaced persons came from Syria (6.8 million people), Venezuela (4.9 million), Afghanistan (2.8 million), and South Sudan (2.2 million).
In terms of host countries, Turkey housed the largest number of refugees (just under 4 million, 92% of whom were Syrian), followed by Colombia (over 1.7 million displaced Venezuelans); Germany (almost 1.5 million, 44% of whom were Syrian refugees and asylum-seekers); and Pakistan and Uganda, each with around 1.4 million people.
The UNHCR report also tracked how many displaced people chose to return to their home country, and how many were resettled. In 2020, 3.2 million IDPs returned home, a drop of 40% over 2019 figures. Only 251,000 refugees made their way home, a 21% drop from a year previously. Only 33,800 refugees were naturalized in the country where they sought asylum, and just 34,400 were resettled. This last figure, in particular, is worrying due to its future implications. This is the lowest it’s been in two decades and is a 69% drop over 2019. There are currently around 1.4 million refugees thought to need resettlement.
According to the World Bank, the number of people in situations of extreme poverty is likely to have risen by 119–124 million in 2020, largely as a result of the pandemic. And earlier this month, the UN estimated that the number of children forced into labor in 2019 was higher than it had ever been in the previous 20 years — a situation only predicted to worsen as a result of Covid-19. Among the many effects of Covid-19 on displaced persons, the UNHCR particularly highlights food shortages and insecurity, economic challenges, access to decent healthcare, and a lack of protective services.
On June 20, World Refugee Day, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that the pandemic had not only obliterated the livelihoods of refugees, but had also led to them facing increased “stigmatization and vilification.” This is despite many of them serving as frontline workers in their host countries. Mr. Guterres, who was the head of the UNHCR for a decade, added that displaced peoples had also been “exposed disproportionately” to the coronavirus.
Both the UNHCR and Mr. Guterres called for increased cooperation and coordination on a global and national scale in order to better handle the growing crisis forced displacement.
However, the report did note a ray of hope amidst the rising certainty that the number of forcefully displaced people will cross 100 million shortly. Under the new administration, the U.S. government has acceded to accepting up to 62,500 more refugees for resettlement in 2021, and up to 125,000 more in 2022. Colombia said in February this year that it would grant temporary protection to more than 1 million Venezuelans. The agency is hopeful that other countries will follow suit.
To read the full UN report, please click here.