The number of people fleeing wars, violence, persecution, and human rights violations, rose last year to nearly 82.4 million people, a further four percent increase on top of the already record-high of 79.5 million, recorded at the end of 2019.
According to the UN Refugee Agency flagship Global Trends Report published on Friday, the restrictive COVID-19 pandemic did not slow forced displacement around the world, and instead could have left thousands of refugees and asylum seekers stranded and vulnerable.
The new ‘one percent’
Despite COVID-related movement restrictions and pleas from the international community for a concerted global ceasefire, displacement continued to occur – and to grow. As a result, more than one percent of the world’s population – or 1 in 95 people – is now forcibly displaced. This compares with 1 in 159 in 2010.
The agency explains that while the full impact of the pandemic on wider cross-border migration and displacement globally is not yet clear, 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, reflecting how many of those seeking international protection in 2020 became stranded.
New and old crises
According to UNHCR, several crises – some new, some longstanding and some resurfacing after years – forced 11.2 million people to flee in 2020, compared to 11.0 million in 2019.
The figure includes people displaced for the first time as well as people displaced repeatedly, both within and beyond countries’ borders.
By the end of 2020, there were 20.7 million refugees under UNHCR’s mandate. Another 48 million people were internally displaced (IDPs) within their own countries.
Driven mostly by crises in Ethiopia, Sudan, Sahel countries, Mozambique, Yemen, Afghanistan and Colombia, the number of internally displaced people rose by more than 2.3 million.
When considering only international displacement situations, Syria topped the list with 6.8 million people, followed by Venezuela with 4.9 million. Afghanistan and South Sudan came next, with 2.8 and 2.2 million respectively.
Turkey continued to host the largest number of refugees with just under 4 million, most of whom were Syrian refugees (92%). Colombia followed, hosting over 1.7 million displaced Venezuelans.
Germany hosted the third-largest population – almost 1.5 million, with Syrian refugees and asylum-seekers as the largest group (44%). Pakistan and Uganda completed the top-5 hosting countries, with about 1.4 million each.
The COVID-19 crisis also hit the forcibly displaced hard, who faced increased food and economic insecurity as well as challenges to access health and protection services.
At the peak of the last year, over 160 countries had closed their borders, with 99 States making no exception for people seeking protection.
According to UNHCR, the dynamics of poverty, food insecurity, climate change, conflict and displacement are increasingly interconnected and mutually reinforcing, driving more and more people to search for safety and security.
A call to end the suffering
UNHCR is urging world leaders to step up their efforts to foster peace, stability and cooperation in order to halt and begin reversing nearly a decade-long trend of surging displacement driven by violence and persecution.
“Behind each number is a person forced from their home and a story of displacement, dispossession and suffering. They merit our attention and support not just with humanitarian aid, but in finding solutions to their plight”, reminded the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi.
In a statement, Mr. Grandi underscored that while the 1951 Refugee Convention and the Global Compact on Refugees provide the legal framework and tools to respond to displacement, a much greater political will is needed to address conflicts and persecution that force people to flee.
“The tragedy of so many children being born into exile should be reason enough to make far greater efforts to prevent and end conflict and violence,” he added.
Girls and boys under the age of 18 account for 42 percent of all forcibly displaced. They are particularly vulnerable, especially when crises continue for years.
New UNHCR estimates show that almost one million children were born as refugees between 2018 and 2020. Many of them may remain refugees for years to come.
Low rate of return
The agency emphasized that over the course of 2020, some 3.2 million internally displaced and just 251,000 refugees returned to their homes –a 40 and 21 percent drop, respectively, compared to 2019. Another 33,800 refugees were naturalized by their countries of asylum.
Refugee resettlement registered a drastic plunge with just 34,400 refugees resettled, the lowest level in 20 years – a consequence of a reduced number of resettlement places and COVID-19.
“Solutions require global leaders and those with influence to put aside their differences, end an egoistic approach to politics, and instead focus on preventing and solving conflict and ensuring respect for human rights,” urged Grandi.
The UN Refugee agency reminded that 2020 is the ninth year of uninterrupted rise in forced displacement worldwide. There are twice as many forcibly displaced people than in 2011 when the total was just under 40 million.
Myanmar: From political crisis, to ‘multi-dimensional human rights catastrophe’
What began as a coup by the Myanmar military has ‘rapidly morphed’ into an all-out attack against the civilian population that has become increasingly widespread and systematic, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned on Tuesday.
Speaking at the 47th session of the Human Rights Council, Michelle Bachelet reiterated that the situation in the country has evolved from a political crisis in early February to a “multi-dimensional human rights catastrophe”, repeating a formulation she first used a month ago.
Since the coup, nearly 900 people have been killed while around 200,000 people have been forced to flee their homes because of violent military raids on neighbourhoods and villages.
“Suffering and violence throughout the country are devastating prospects for sustainable development and raise the possibility of State failure or a broader civil war”, she cautioned.
Ms. Bachelet explained that the catastrophic developments since February have had a severe and wide-ranging impact on human rights, peace and security, and sustainable development.
“They are generating clear potential for massive insecurity, with fallout for the wider region”.
The UN High Commissioner urged the international community to stand united in pressuring the military to halt its continuing attacks on the people of Myanmar and return the country to democracy, reflecting the ‘clear will of the people’.
The UN must act
She said the UN system must not fail the country a second time”, she added, citing the 2019 review of UN action in the country, by Gert Rosenthal.
She also advised swift action to restore a working democracy before the human rights situation in the country deteriorates further.
“This should be reinforced by Security Council action. I urge all States to act immediately to give effect to the General Assembly’s call to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar”, Ms. Bachelet said.
Hunger, violence and poverty
Ms. Bachelet said COVID had had a ‘disastrous’ impact on an economy that relied on remittances, the garment industry and other sectors which have been devastated by the resultant global recession.
UN Agencies estimate that over 6 million people are severely in need of food aid and forecast that nearly half the population could fall into poverty by early 2022.
“A void has been opened for the most harmful – and criminal – forms of illicit economy to flourish”, she underscored.
Meanwhile, a countrywide general strike, combined with the widespread dismissal of civil servants – including educators and medical personnel – has cut off many essential services in the country.
Since 1 February, at least 240 attacks on health-care facilities, medical personnel, ambulances and patients have disabled COVID-19 testing, treatment and vaccination.
Intense violence and repression
She denounced indiscriminate airstrikes, shelling, civilian killings and mass displacement. Civil voices are also being silenced: over 90 journalists have been arrested and eight major media outlets shuttered.
“We have also received multiple reports of enforced disappearances; brutal torture and deaths in custody; and the arrest of relatives or children in lieu of the person being sought”, she said.
Despite the repression, the UN High Commissioner indicated that the military leadership has not successfully secured control of Myanmar, nor won the international recognition it seeks.
“On the contrary, its brutal tactics have triggered a national uprising that has changed the political equation”, she said.
She added that people across the country continue peaceful protests despite the massive use of lethal force, including heavy weaponry, and a ‘civil disobedience movement has brought many military-controlled government structures to a standstill’.
Some people, in many parts of Myanmar, have taken up arms and formed self-protection groups. These newly formed groups have launched attacks in several locations, to which the security forces have responded with disproportionate force, she noted.
“I am concerned that this escalation in violence could have horrific consequences for civilians. All armed actors must respect and protect human rights and ensure that civilians and civilian structures such as health centres and schools are protected”.
“Any future democratic government in Myanmar must have the authority to exercise effective civilian control over the military. The international community should build upon the range of international accountability mechanisms already engaged, until transitional justice measures also become genuinely possible at the national level”, the High Commissioner concluded.
Amid COVID job losses, ‘high food prices are hunger’s new best friend’
Job losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic combined with high food prices are making it hard for millions of families to get enough to eat, the World Food Programme (WFP) warned on Thursday.
WFP estimates that a record 270 million people worldwide are acutely food insecure or at high risk this year, a 40 per cent jump from 2020.
“High food prices are hunger’s new best friend. We already have conflict, climate and COVID-19 working together to push more people into hunger and misery. Now food prices have joined the deadly trio,” said Arif Husain, Chief Economist at the UN agency.
Food price inflation
WFP said countries more likely to experience high food price inflation are those that depend on food imports, or where climatic or conflict shocks could disrupt local food production, or those suffering from macro-economic fragility, with some of the highest price increases found in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, currency depreciation has further driven up local food prices in many countries, such as Zimbabwe, Syria, Ethiopia and Venezuela.
WFP’s latest Market Monitor, which provides information on price changes for common staples, reveals that in Lebanon, where economic turmoil has accelerated over the past year, the average price of wheat flour was 50 per cent higher in March through May than in the previous three months. The year-on-year price rise was 219 per cent.
In war-torn Syria, cooking oil has increased by nearly 60 per cent, and by 440 per cent year-on-year.
Mozambique, which is confronting a conflict in the north, is among “high food price hotspots” in Africa. The price of cassava there shot up by 45 per cent in March through May, compared to the previous three months.
The picture is reflected across international markets, according to the Food Price Index published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
After rising for 12 consecutive months, food prices dropped slightly in June, reaching 124.6, which is just below the peak of 136.7 a decade ago. At the same time, the cost of a basic food basket has risen by more than 10 per cent in nine of the more than 80 countries where WFP operates.
Trouble for families
WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, and its food assistance can make the difference between life or death for millions facing hunger.
While food price hikes directly impact the people it serves, they have also affected millions of families whose incomes have been decimated by the pandemic.
The crisis could push as many as 97 million people worldwide into poverty by the end of the year, according to the World Bank.
“If you’re a family that already spends two thirds of your income on food, hikes in the price of food already spell trouble. Imagine what they mean if you’ve already lost part or all of your income because of COVID-19,” said Mr. Husain.
WFP explained how high food prices affect its work, first by driving up the number of people who need help. At the same time, the cost of commodities for food assistance operations is increased, with the agency paying 13 per cent more for wheat during the first four months of the year than it did in 2020.
WFP is aiming to reach nearly 140 million people worldwide this year, its biggest operation ever.
Famine knocking at the door of 41 million worldwide
Famine is already present in four countries but millions more people are at risk, the World Food Programme (WFP) warned on Tuesday, underscoring the need for urgent funding and humanitarian access to reach those in need.
Recent analysis by the UN agency reveals 41 million people in 43 countries “are teetering on the very edge of famine”, up from 27 million two years ago.
Help needed now
“I am heartbroken at what we’re facing in 2021. We now have four countries where famine-like conditions are present”, WFP chief David Beasley told its Executive Board on Monday, according to a press release.
He described the situation as “just tragic”, as “these are real people with real names.”
WFP said 584,000 people are already experiencing famine-like conditions in Ethiopia, Madagascar, South Sudan and Yemen.
Nigeria and Burkina Faso are also of particular concern as they have pockets where famine-like conditions are present.
“In Somalia in 2011, 260,000 people died of hunger – and by the time the famine was actually declared – half of that number had already died,” Mr. Beasley recalled. “We can’t debate the numbers to death when people need our help now.”
Conflict, climate change and currency depreciation
Hunger has risen due to conflict, climate change and economic shocks, WFP said. However, soaring prices for basic foods have also compounded the situation, with the global cost of maize rising almost 90 per cent year-on-year, for example.
In many countries, currency depreciation is also a factor, the agency added. This has driven prices even higher, stoking food insecurity in places such as Lebanon, Nigeria, Sudan, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
WFP is this year mounting its biggest operation ever, targeting 139 million people. With sufficient funding and access, the agency said it can provide them with lifesaving food and nutritional assistance.
Mr. Beasley underlined the urgent need for support.
“I want to emphasize just how bad it is out there. Today, 41 million people are literally knocking on famine’s door. The price tag to reach them is about $6 billion. We need funding and we need it now,” he said
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