Global internal displacement hits highest level on record in 2020

A young boy plays in a camp for Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in northern Mozambique, April 2021. (EPA / JOAO RELVAS)

Conflict and natural disasters have forced a person to flee within their own country every second of last year, pushing the number of people living in internal displacement to a record high of 55 million, a new report has found.

Frequent extreme weather events and spiralling conflict triggered over 40.5 million new displacements, pushing the total number of internally displaced people (IDPs) to the highest reported in a decade, according to a joint report published Thursday by the International Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) in Geneva and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).

The record high came despite restrictions on movement brought in worldwide to halt the spread of Covid-19, which some experts had expected would push down displacement numbers.

“It is particularly concerning that these high figures were recorded against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, when movement restrictions obstructed data collection and fewer people sought out emergency shelters for fear of infection,” said Alexandra Bilak, the director of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) in a statement.

The number of IDPs has been rising steadily for the past ten years, and is now more than double the 26 million people who have fled across borders as refugees. The report estimated that 48 million people have fled conflict and violence, while natural disasters have displaced seven million. Incomplete data means the true figure may be much higher.

Secretary general of the NRC Jan Egeland called the findings “shocking” and said that they are evidence that “we are failing to protect the world’s most vulnerable people from conflict and disasters.”

Bilak told reporters that Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa regions accounted for more than 90 per cent of all new displacements recorded in the context of conflict and violence in 2020.

Escalating fighting and the expansion of extremist groups in Ethiopia, Mozambique and Burkina Faso fuelled some of the world’s fastest growing displacement crises, while long-running conflicts in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria and Afghanistan continued to drive people from their homes.

Meanwhile, extreme weather events were responsible for 98 per cent of all disaster displacement. Extended rainy seasons in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa drove up internal displacement, and intense cyclone seasons in the Americas, South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific uprooted millions of people. The Atlantic hurricane season was also its most active on record, with 30 named storms battering Central American and Caribbean countries.

Moreover, the report highlighted the dangerous convergence of conflict and weather-related disasters in many of the world's most fragile settings, with 95 per cent of last year's new conflict displacements occurring in countries particularly vulnerable to climate change.

This drove people to become displaced multiple times. For example, thousands of families fleeing torrential rain and flooding in Yemen in August 2020 had already been displaced at least once by the country's long-running conflict. The report noted that conflict-related displacement typically lasts much longer than displacement caused by disasters, with people often displaced for years.

“In 2020, the year of the pandemic ... we all thought there would be less conflict - there will be some more sanity in that year, more people will be protected,” Egeland told reporters. “We also hoped that global efforts against climate change and to prevent disaster displacement would go better. The verdict is now in this report before us, and it's not looking good. ”

As rising temperatures continue to drive up the frequency and intensity of weather-related hazards and conflicts around the world continue to escalate, the report notes that countries have been making significant advances in developing national and regional policies to reduce displacement risk, but there is much more to be done.

“Today's displacement crises arise from many interconnected factors, including climate and environmental change, protracted conflicts and political instability. In a world made more fragile by the Covid-19 pandemic, sustained political will and investment in locally-owned solutions will be more important than ever, ”said Bilak.

Egeland referenced numbers of returned IDPs in countries such as Iraq, Libya and Syria as “glimmers of hope” that it is possible to bring people home, even after years of protracted conflict. “It's not hopeless - people can return,” he told reporters. “We can and must do better in the prevention of conflict, in resolution of conflict, and protection of civilians in disaster risk reduction, in humanitarian relief and development.”