The year 2020 will be remembered like no other. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted all facets of life, causing millions of deaths around the world and leading to human suffering, economic recession, restrictions on human mobility and severe limitations on daily life.
Growing displacement despite pandemic
While the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on wider cross-border migration and displacement globally is not yet clear, UNHCR 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, and reflecting how many of those seeking international protection in 2020 became stranded.
Despite COVID-related movement restrictions and pleas from the international community for a ceasefire that would facilitate the COVID-19 response, displacement continued to occur – and to grow. As a result, above one per cent of the world’s population – or 1 in 95 people – is now forcibly displaced. This compares with 1 in 159 in 2010.
Figures at a glance
FORCIBLY DISPLACED PEOPLE WORLDWIDE
at the end of 2020 as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations and events seriously disturbing public order.
Crises in 2020
During 2020, several crises – some new, some longstanding and some resurfacing after years – forced 11.2 million people to flee, compared to 11.0 million in 2019. This figure includes people displaced for the first time as well as people displaced repeatedly, both within and beyond countries’ borders.
When considering only international displacement situations under UNHCR’s mandate, 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 per cent). 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 per cent). Pakistan and Uganda completed the top-5 hosting countries, with about 1.4 million each.
The COVID-19 crisis
As of 24 May 2021, more than 165 million people worldwide have been confirmed to have contracted COVID-19 since the first case was recorded in December 2019. People who have been forcibly displaced or who are stateless have been among the hardest-hit groups of society, facing increased food and economic insecurity as well as challenges to access health and protection services.
Climate change is also driving displacement and increasing the vulnerability of those already forced to flee. Many are living in climate “hotspots” where they typically lack the resources to adapt to an increasingly inhospitable environment. 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.
Children are particularly affected during displacement crises, especially if their displacement drags on for many years. They account for 30 per cent of the world’s population, but an estimated 42 per cent of all forcibly displaced people.
Considering by region of asylum for refugees and Venezuelans displaced abroad, the three Sub-Saharan African regions stand out as having the highest proportion of refugee children. West and Central Africa has notably more refugee women and girls (54%) than any other region.
New UNHCR estimates show that among refugees and Venezuelans displaced abroad, almost one million children were born in displacement between 2018 and 2020, an average of between 290,000 and 340,000 per year. Many of them are at risk of remaining in exile for years to come, some potentially for the rest of their lives.
With many governments closing borders for extended periods of time and restricting internal mobility, only a limited number of refugees and internally displaced people were able to avail themselves of solutions such as voluntary return or resettlement to a third country.
Some 251,000 refugees were able to return to their country of origin in 2020, either assisted by UNHCR or spontaneously. This is the third lowest number of the past decade, and it continues a downward trend from the previous two years. Impediments to returns in many countries of origin include ongoing insecurity, the absence of essential services and the lack of livelihood opportunities.
Refugees were not the only forcibly displaced people struggling to access solutions. In comparison with 2019, 40 per cent fewer IDPs (3.2 million versus 5.3 million in 2019) were able to return to their place of residence, leaving millions of IDPs in protracted displacement. Almost half of all IDP returns were concentrated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1.4 million).
In the early phase of the pandemic, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration put on hold resettlement departures for several months amid border and travel restrictions around the world. While these activities subsequently resumed, only 34,400 refugees were resettled to third countries in 2020, two-thirds of them assisted by UNHCR. This compares to 107,800 the year before and marks a dramatic 69 per cent decline – at a time when 1.4 million refugees are estimated to be in need of resettlement.
cases submitted to States by UNHCR for refugee resettlement.
refugees admitted for resettlement during the year in 21 countries.
The early months of 2021 have offered a glimmer of hope, even as conflict and displacement continue in many parts of the world. The announcement by the US Government to admit more resettled refugees – up to 62,500 in 2021 and up to 125,000 in 2022 – will provide solutions to more of the world’s most vulnerable refugees, especially if other countries follow suit. Another positive step is the Government of Colombia’s announcement in February 2021 to grant temporary protection status to more than one million Venezuelans. Many more such symbols of solidarity and responsibility-sharing are needed to fulfil the rights, needs and, where possible, hopes of the displaced people around the world – and also realize the vision of the Global Compact on Refugees.
Figures in the 2020 Global Trends are based on data reported by governments, non-governmental organizations and UNHCR. Numbers are rounded to the closest hundred or thousand. As some adjustments may appear later in the year in UNHCR’s Refugee Data Finder, figures contained in this report should be considered as provisional and subject to change. Unless otherwise specified, the report does not refer to events occurring after 31 December 2020.