Almost 60 million people displaced in 2021, more to follow Ukraine war: monitoring centre

The Democratic Republic of Congo (Credit: Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre)

A record 59 million people were living in internal displacement at the end of 2021, a new report revealed on Thursday.

New waves of violence, conflict, and climate change-related disasters around the world have pushed more people out of their homes than ever before, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), a project hosted by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Geneva. 

Its latest data shows there were 38 million new displacements, where someone has been forced to flee – often more than once –  last year.  This is the second highest annual figure in a decade and brings the total number of people living internally displaced to 59.1 million – up from 55 million a year earlier.

“The situation today is phenomenally worse than even our record figure suggests, as it doesn’t include nearly eight million people forced to flee the war in Ukraine,” said NRC secretary general Jan Egeland. 

“We need a titanic shift in thinking from world leaders on how to prevent and resolve conflicts to end this soaring human suffering.”

Record numbers flee due to conflict and violence.  An unprecedented 53 million people were living displaced from their homes as a result of conflict and violence across 59 countries covered in the report at the end of 2021. This is an increase of 5.8 million compared with 2020. 

Much of this is due to deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan, Yemen, and sub-Saharan Africa. Ethiopia has the largest conflict-driven displacement with over 5.1 million people stranded from the northern region, where a protracted civil war has continued since 2020. 

Over 80 per cent of the world’s displaced people are in sub-Saharan Africa, where attacks by non-state armed groups have caused more people to flee their homes, as well as prevented infrastructural development and stability that could produce durable solutions for the already displaced. 

Disasters trigger most movements in 2021. Disaster and hazardous weather conditions forced 5.9 million to be living away from their homes at the end of 2021. 

The total number of displacements – where people are often forced to move more than once – during the course of the year was much higher, at 23.7 million, or 60 per cent of all displacements.  

China, the Philippines and India were particularly affected, where floods, rains, and cyclones hit highly exposed areas home to millions of people.

Though many of these people were temporarily and preemptively evacuated from disaster-hit zones, damage to housing will leave many without homes to return to for long periods of time, the report warned.

Climate change is also placing high-income countries at risk. Last year almost 260,000 people were removed from their homes by hurricane Ida in the United States, and 83,000 were hit by heavy rains in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

“This is only the third year we’ve been able to produce such a figure. Given the incomplete data, it should be considered, therefore, a significant underestimate,” Alexandra Bilak, director of the IDMC told journalists at the press conference on Monday. 

Internally displaced people have also been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, many of whom lost their income and employment. Many displaced families have resorted to reducing their meals, borrowing money, and selling their livestock to cope. These difficulties were further worsened by rising global food prices, limited availability in the markets, and depreciating national currencies in many low income countries. 

Children bear the brunt. This year's report also highlights the issues faced by displaced children, and its implications for the future. At the end of 2021, there were 33 million young people under the age of 25 living in internal displacement, of which 25.2 million were displaced before they turned 18 years of age. 

Displaced children not only lose their homes, but are also vulnerable to losing access to education, health care, and are at a heightened risk of facing abuse and violence. Many of them will spend their entire childhoods in displacement, which will compound their negative experiences and deprive them of fulfilling their potential, according to the assessment.

“We need to build back hope for these children, who are now more often cemented into displacement year after year,” Egeland told journalists.

Despite efforts to curb climate change, future generations will face increasingly frequent disasters and hazardous weather. “Over half the population under 18 lives in high risk countries, and the cost of inaction must not be underestimated,” added Balik. 

In 2021, the direct economic cost of global displacement totalled $21bn, according to the report. This calculation accounts for supporting every internally displaced person with housing, education, health and security, as well as their loss of income for one year. Particularly for vulnerable countries, and those ravaged by conflict and war, this can come up to a significant portion of their GDP.

In Syria, the cost of displacement came up to 15 per cent of the country’s GDP last year, and 10 per cent for Somalia. This financial dimension of displacement is crucial when considering both mobilisation of support and finding future solutions, the report stressed

“This [report] is really an X-ray of our global consciousness,” said Egeland. “It is a sign of how we succeed or don’t succeed in protecting people in their homes.”