The UN Global Goals and Forced Displacement

UNHCR's work on the Sustainable Development Goals

The UN Global Goals and Forced Displacement

UNHCR's work on the Sustainable Development Goals

Conflict and persecution have forced more than 80 million people around the world to flee their homes.

In a world increasingly shaped by climate change, poverty and conflict, the Sustainable Development Goals cannot be achieved without taking into account the rights and needs of refugees, internally displaced and stateless people.

The principles that underpin the 2030 Agenda, notably leaving no one behind and ensuring human rights for all, provide a powerful basis for inclusion. 

This is how UNHCR works with the different Global Goals: 

Many refugees and other forcibly displaced persons are living in poverty. 85% of all refugees live in developing countries with one-third being hosted by the least developed countries, where extreme poverty is widespread.  

In Lebanon for example, an assessment from 2021 showed that nine in ten Syrian refugees are living in extreme poverty. And in Uganda, hosting the largest refugee population in Africa with 1.5 million refugees primarily from South Sudan, a UNHCR/World Bank survey on the socio-economic consequences of COVID-19 shows that around half of the refugees in the country are projected to be living below poverty lines 

In the fight against poverty among refugees and the displaced, UNHCR is working to ensure that social protection systems are strengthened and expanded to include the forcibly displaced. UNHCR is also working to ensure that refugees have equal rights to economic inclusion and the right to work which can ensure livelihoods.   

A concrete initiative is the Coalition to Alleviate Poverty where UNHCR has joined forces with the World Bank Partnership for Economic Inclusion and 13 NGO partners. The Coalition has set the goal of alleviating poverty of 500,000 households, both refugees and their hosts, in 35 countries within 5 years. 

Food insecurity is making people vulnerable to sexual abuse, violence, and exploitation – and food insecurity risks amplifying the factors forcing people to flee. Globally, 135 million people across 55 countries and territories experienced acute food insecurity in 2019, and around 80% of all forcibly displaced live in countries or territories affected by malnutrition and acute food insecurity.   

As a consequence of underfunding of the humanitarian response, refugees often face food ration cuts, which risk resulting in malnutrition, anaemia and stunted child growth. In 2021, in Eastern and Horn of Africa for example, 72% of the almost five million refugees hosted in the region have been facing food cuts due to funding shortfalls.   

In addition to providing food support to refugees together with e.g. World Food Program (WFP), UNHCR is supporting governments to take measures to control malnutrition by promoting appropriate practices for young children and infants. UNHCR is also advocating with partners and governments to include refugees into nutrition programs.  

As a concrete initiative, UNHCR and WFP have for years implemented multi-storey gardens (MSG) in refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. These gardens are part of a food security strategy to support dietary diversity and enhance refugees’ contributions to their own food consumption. 


Good health is an essential requirement for refugees to be able to rebuild their lives. However, years or even decades of forced displacement are naturally affecting the health and wellbeing of people forced to flee – and many refugees face obstacles or completely lack access to health care, including mental health care.   

In Yemen, for example, where millions are internally displaced, access to healthcare, water and sanitation is scarce, and 40,000 Somali refugees in the country are in risk of being left completely without primary healthcare in 2021.   

COVID-19 has also severely affected refugees, internally displaced and the stateless – there were 41,401 cases of COVID-19 and 401 deaths cases reported amongst persons of concern to UNHCR in 2020. And the pandemic has highlighted the inequal access to health care.    

UNHCR works with governments and partners to provide emergency health services and improve local health services, including by providing guidance, infrastructure and capacity building as well as by funding laboratories, medicine, equipment and supplies. UNHCR also advocates for refugees to be included in national health systems and plans.  

While remaining committed to the allocation principles of the COVAX initiative – the global effort to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines reach those in greatest need – UNHCR has been calling on states to include the forcibly displaced in COVID-19 responses as well as vaccination roll-outs.  

In 2020, UNHCR supported access to comprehensive primary health care services as well as referral to secondary and tertiary care for refugees in 50 countries hosting 16.5 million refugees. 

7.9 million refugees are children of school age (by end-2020). Their access to education is limited, with almost half of them unable to attend school at all. At all levels, refugee enrolment is lower than that of non-refugees. As refugee children get older, the picture rapidly worsens and those at secondary level are at greatest risk of being left behind.  

In 2019-2020, 68% of refugee children were enrolled in school at the primary level; at secondary level the average was just 34%; and it dropped to a low 5% at the tertiary level.   

In addition, several dimensions point to reduced quality in refugee education. Teacher-pupil ratios average as high as 1:70 and other challenges such as lack of trained teachers, lack of classrooms, and lack of school materials and supplies persist.  

UNHCR partners with governments, international organizations – as well as NGOs and the private sector – to ensure quality education for refugee children and youth. The key call is to include refugees into national education systems in close collaboration with the national authorities. According to UNHCR this is the most sustainable option.   

One example is UNHCR’s partnership with Educate a Child which since 2012 has helped more than 1.2 million refugee and internally displaced children to access primary school and reduce the risk of dropping out in countries such as Syria, Rwanda and South Sudan. 

In the area of higher education, UNHCR has set an ambitious goal together with partners – the 15by30 target – which aims to ensure that 15% of refugee youth, or approximately 500,000 refugees in total, can access higher education by 2030. One initiative to support this ambition is UNHCR’s so-called DAFI scholarship programme, which since 1992 has supported over 18,000 young refugees with scholarships in order to go to university.   

Women and girls make up around half of all refugees, internally displaced and stateless people around the world. The discrimination and inequality that women and girls face in some societies are only amplified in times of displacement, and flight can also enhance the vulnerability of for example unaccompanied girls, pregnant women and female heads of households.   

The socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on displaced communities have added to the mounting risks of violence, abuse and sexual exploitation, all of which are consequences of gender inequality. The pandemic has also led to many refugee girls dropping out of school in order to work or be married.   

All of UNHCR’s work is steered by UNHCR’s policy on Age, Gender and Diversity and more specific commitments to ensure equality for women and girls – and to make the world a safer place for women and girls. One concrete element is to ensure that women and girls in displacement settings are provided with individual registration and documentation, which is an important prerequisite for equality. UNHCR also manages programmes that help women improve leadership skills, reduce barriers for girls’ education and ensure that women and girls can access opportunities.   

One example is from Cameroon, where UNHCR in the capital of Yaoundé has been working with a refugee collective of representatives from various refugee groups, but with women being highly underrepresented. Working with government and NGO partners, UNHCR carried out empowerment sessions to inform refugee women of leadership opportunities, and the results have been gender parity in the representation going forward.   

On the global level, UNHCR takes part in a number of international fora that address gender issues and sexual violence, such as the UN Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s Expert Group on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse. 

Access to water and sanitation is key to ensure refugees’ health and wellbeing – without it, their water sources can become contaminated, and without clean water they are exposed to diseases and infections. However, limited resources as well as dense and overcrowded living conditions are severely affecting the situation.  

Even if the humanitarian standard is set to 20 litres of water per person in a day, this is only reached for 43% of refugees in camps. As comparison, the average water consumption for an individual in Europe is 128 litres per day. An example is found in refugee camps in eastern Chad, where the Sudanese refugees had to make do with only 14 litres of water each per day in 2019.  

UNHCR is working to ensure clean water and sanitation by for example drilling boreholes and creating long-term infrastructure, including building latrines, for both refugees and their local hosts in areas with vulnerable people.   

UNHCR’s so-called WASH programmes (Water, Sanitation & Hygiene) are set up in both emergencies, stabilized and protracted situations – and currently WASH-initiatives have been implemented in 26 countries within 162 camps and sites and benefitting more than 3.6 million refugees.    

An example for improved water supply is in Tongogara camp in Zimbabwe, hosting more than 14,500 Congolese refugees. Here, the installation of new high-capacity boreholes and a pipe system, running on solar power, are now ensuring piped water to the different sectors of the camp. 

Access to safe and sustainable energy is a basic human need. Limited energy access negatively impacts populations in humanitarian settings – and may put particularly women and children at increased risk. However, an assessment shows that some 97% of displaced populations in camps have limited or no access to electricity – and at least 80% rely on firewood for cooking and heating.  

Access to reliable and sustainable electricity, including more hours of light, means that refugees can work, study, run a business, socialize, and be connected, which all lead to better well-being and self-reliance. Having cleaner cooking fuels mean that refugees can spend less time collecting wood, which can be dangerous for women and girls, and avert the ill-health of inhaling open fire smoke. 

UNHCR is working with many different partners to find solutions to provide clean energy to displaced populations, including by promoting sustainable household energy technologies. In Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh, home to +800,000 Rohingya refugees, UNHCR has distributed Liquefied Petroloum Gas to more than 100,000 households to ensure safe and healthy energy for cooking. And in Ethiopia, UNHCR and IKEA Foundation are supporting mini-solar cooperatives that provide both Somali refugees and their host communities with clean and affordable energy.  

In 2020, UNHCR launched the Clean Energy Challenge, bringing together the private sector, governments and organizations to realize an ambitious goal of bringing affordable, reliable and sustainable energy to all settlements for forcibly displaced people and their nearby host communities by 2030.  

The 1951 Refugee Convention explicitly recognizes refugees’ right to access the labor market. Nevertheless, 70% of refugees live in countries with restricted right to work. Empowering refugees to earn a decent living and participate in local economies is critical if they are to rebuild their lives.  

In times of conflict and crisis, many forcibly displaced lose their livelihood, which severely impacts their ability to provide for themselves and their families. In South Sudan, for example, 1.6 million have been internally displaced and cut off from livelihood, education and protection. In Marib in Yemen, 85% of internally displaced families are unable to pay rent regularly due to scarce livelihood opportunities.  

UNHCR works to promote livelihoods and economic inclusion for refugees. We advocate for their right to work and their inclusion in national programs and labor schemes. In order to strengthen the self-reliance of forcibly displaced persons, UNHCR is facilitating access to training and skills-building.  

MADE51 is an initiative created by UNHCR, that offers refugee-made products to the international market. This initiative connects refugees with social enterprise partners to design, produce and market artisanal products around the world, allowing them to earn much-needed income.  

When given the opportunities and rights to work, refugees in many countries have launched their own businesses, not only supporting their families but also boosting local economies.

Lack of internet connectivity for many refugees and internally displaced persons, as well as costly devices and limited training opportunities, prevent many of them from taking advantage of new technologies. UNHCR believes that displaced populations and their hosts have the right to be part of a connected society. 

UNHCR has launched the Connectivity for Refugees Initiative, led by UNHCR’s Innovation Service. The initiative aims to ensure digital inclusion and provide forcibly displaced people access to technology, enabling them to build better futures for themselves, their families and the world. 

UNHCR is working with many stakeholders, including the private sector, to ensure better connectivity for refugees and take advantage of technology and innovative approaches in humanitarian settings. In 2021, for example, UNHCR signed a partnership with Ericsson to bring connectivity in humanitarian emergencies – and since 2013, UNHCR and Vodafone Foundation have expanded refugees’ access to education and connectivity via the Instant Network Schools programme in countries such as Mozambique, DR Congo and Kenya.  

When given the chance, many refugees themselves are using cutting-edge and innovative technology to solve problems and address challenges. One example is from Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan – here, Syrian refugee Marwan, studying robotics at the camp’s Innovation Lab, designed a robot to dispense hand sanitizer and help the fight against COVID-19. 

Refugees, internally displaced people and stateless populations are in constant risk of exclusion – socially, economically and politically – while already being among the world’s most vulnerable and underserved communities.  

Across the world, many minorities and indigenous people risk living on the margins of society, and forced displacement are often amplifying the discrimination and inequalities they face. This is for example the reality of the Awá Mayasquer community in Colombia, who for decades have been among the country’s millions of internally displaced.  

Another vulnerable group is LGBTI+ refugees who – even after having fled persecution, violence and rights abuses – often continue to face stigma, discrimination and threats during their flight and displacement.  

Steered by the Age, Gender and Diversity Policy, UNHCR is working to ensure equal opportunities and to end discrimination by promoting social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, gender, sexual orientation, disability, race, ethnicity, religion or other status. At the same time, UNHCR is advocating for states to adopt migration laws that ensure and support inclusion. 

UNHCR is also working with governments and other partners to eradicate statelessness and ensure that stateless persons enjoy their human rights without discrimination despite their lack of citizenship. The 10-year #IBelong-campaign aims at eradicating statelessness by 2024.  

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of refugees, around 60% (2019-figures) don’t live in camps, but in cities and urban settings – and so cities are a prime destination for most asylum-seekers and refugees. UNHCR is working to ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing.  

In UNHCR’s view, it is imperative that refugees are included in their host communities and are given a chance to take part in society, contribute and be able to provide for themselves. This requires efforts and commitment from the refugees, but it’s also necessary that they are received by welcoming communities and are provided opportunities and a foundation to integrate and rebuild their lives. 

UNHCR is advocating for inclusive cities and is working to promote sustainable integration through social cohesion and equal opportunities, including via cooperation with Council of Europe’s Intercultural Cities Programme. UNHCR has also launched the Cities #WithRefugees initiative – and cities across the world are continuing to sign up, committing to include and embrace refugees.  

Across the world, UNHCR – including via our participation in the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative – is also supporting and promoting so-called community sponsorship programmes and pilots. These initiatives allow citizens and communities to directly engage in reception and integration of refugees – and are creating successful results in countries such as Spain, the United Kingdom and Canada, where private sponsorships have welcomed more than 300,000 refugees since 1979.

The consequences of the climate crisis are increasingly seen as an amplifying factor on the vulnerabilities, threats and conflicts, forcing people to flee. Almost 9 in 10 refugees and 7 in 10 internally displaced people originate from countries most vulnerable to and least able to adapt to climate change.  

In addition, the forcibly displaced and their hosts are finding themselves on the frontlines of the climate emergency, living in climate “hotspots” where flooding, droughts, desertification and extreme weather are exacerbating their hardships. This is seen in for example SomaliaSouth Sudan and Bangladesh. 

Guided by a Climate Action strategy, UNHCR is strengthening the response and stepping up ambitions by providing legal guidance to ensure better protection to people displaced in the context of climate change; by reducing the environmental degradation and enhancing climate resilience in displacement settings; and by limiting our own environmental footsteps.  

One example is seen in the Minawao refugee camp in Cameroon, where UNHCR and partners since 2018 have launched programmes to reverse deforestation. Refugees and their hosts have planted 360,000 seedlings, greening the camp and surrounding environment.  

UNHCR is also raising awareness and advocating for change through the participation in a number of global fora and processes such as the Platform on Disaster Displacement.

With more than 84 million people globally forced from their homes due to conflict, violence and persecution (mid-year 2021), lack of peace and justice is truly felt every day by millions of refugees and internally displaced people.  

As UNHCR has highlighted repeatedly, the world’s failure in creating peace and ending conflicts are resulting in global displacement figures reaching tragic records year after year – while even fewer refugees and internally displaced persons are returning home every year. In the decade from 2010-19 only 3.9 million refugees were able to return voluntarily compared to almost 10 million and more than 15 million refugees returning in the two previous decades.  

By end-2020, 76% of all refugees were finding themselves in so-called protracted crises, 49 refugee crises in total, characterized by at least five consecutive years of displacement. 

Lack of justice is also directly linked to the often overlooked global challenge of statelessness: Millions of people around the world are being denied nationality because of discrimination or gaps in nationality laws. Their statelessness often means that they are bereaved of basic services and rights, such as going to school, seeing a doctor, opening a bank account or buying a house.  

Via the #IBelong-campaign and a Global Action Plan, UNHCR is working with governments and partners to end statelessness by 2024. The work e.g. includes advocacy to ensure legal identity for all, including birth registration, law amendments to avoid new statelessness and ensure stateless people a path to citizenship as well as better identification of stateless communities.  

Much progress has been achieved – including in Kyrgyzstan that in 2019 became the first country to completely eradicate statelessness within its borders, or in Ivory Coast that became the first country in Africa to adopt a procedure to identify and protect stateless people 

With global forced displacement spiraling upwards year after year, the need for joining forces to help, protect and find solutions for the world’s displaced have never been more urgent. 

UNHCR is working with +900 partners worldwide – from governments and international organizations to NGOs, grassroots and refugee-led initiatives. The focus on strengthened partnerships is highlighted in the Global Compact on Refugees, adopted in 2018, calling for an all-of-society-approach in the refugee response, including private sector, academia, civil society and refugees themselves.  

This materialized at the first ever Global Refugee Forum in 2019, where +3,000 participants came together and committed to a total of more than 1,400 concrete pledges to realize the ambitions of the Global Compact on Refugees.  

One of UNHCR’s long-lasting partners is Microsoft: Since 1999, we have jointly worked to empower thousands of young refugees with digital skills and computer science training in Kakuma camp in Kenya. Another UNHCR-partner is retail company Uniqlo, who since 2006 has donated +35 million pieces of clothing to refugees in more than 48 countries, while also providing thousands of refugees vocational training and livelihood opportunities across Asia.  

Including forced displacement in the SDGs: a new refugee indicator


In 2019, a significant step was taken to ensure that the forcibly displaced are not left behind – and that their inclusion is not overlooked in the continued global monitoring on the progress of the Global Goals.

The introduction of a specific indicator on refugees in the SDG Indicator Framework will help ensure focus and stocktaking on the situation for refugees and other forcibly displaced.

Read more.