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Displacement Reaches Record High as Wars Continue and New Conflicts Emerge

Displacement Reaches Record High as Wars Continue and New Conflicts Emerge

Cover Top10 2Displacement

A displacement camp in Yemen. (Photo: Philippe Kropf/UNOCHA)

Since pictures of the lifeless body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi on a Turkish beach tore at heartstrings around the world in September 2015, public attention beyond Europe has been transfixed by the escalating flows of asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean. Much attention also has been devoted to the resulting political crisis as European leaders struggled to mobilize a coherent response (for more on the European refugee crisis see Issue #1: Migration Crisis Tests European Consensus and Governance). Yet the nearly 1 million people who have arrived on Europe’s shores in 2015 are but the tip of a much larger and growing displacement crisis that touches on nearly every region of the world, unleashing profound consequences for economic and political development, security, and stability at a global level—and forever altering and disrupting the lives of millions (for more on the smuggling industry facilitating this movement, see Issue #4: Big Business of Smuggling Enables Mass Movement of People for Enormous Profits).

Measuring the Scale of the Crisis

By the end of 2014, nearly 60 million people worldwide were displaced either within or beyond their country’s borders, according to the most recent publicly available United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates. Of these, nearly 13.9 million were newly displaced, a number roughly equivalent to the current population of the Netherlands. Syrians have quickly become the world’s largest displaced population; as of July 2015, at least 7.6 million were internally displaced, and by December nearly 4.4 million had been registered as refugees outside Syria.

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Other crises less frequently in the headlines have also generated substantial suffering and displacement, and in some places, internally displaced persons (IDPs) share space and resources with refugees from neighboring countries as conflicts and war erode national borders. As South Sudan marked its fourth independence anniversary in 2015, more than 770,000 people had fled to neighboring countries and at least 1.6 million were internally displaced—in addition to the continuing inflow of Sudanese refugees, which totaled more than 265,000 as of August. The number of refugees fleeing the Central African Republic has nearly doubled since December 2013, reaching more than 450,000 as of mid-November 2015. In addition, nearly 38,000 people were newly displaced in the capital Bangui as religious and communal violence intensified in September. And in Yemen, more than 5,600 people have been killed and 2.3 million displaced (up from 545,700 in May), with another 170,000 fleeing the country since sectarian conflict broke out in March. At the same time, the country is host to 264,600 refugees, the vast majority Somali, and in the first ten months of 2015, 70,000 refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants had crossed the Red Sea to Yemen.

While few places in the world remain untouched by growing displacement (four of UNHCR’s five regional offices reported a substantial growth in refugee populations in 2014, and the conflicts driving displacement have continued into 2015), the effects have clearly been felt more heavily in certain places. Most individuals who are eventually forced to seek refuge across borders—approximately 14.4 million people in 2014—did so in a neighboring country. Ten countries, none in Europe and nearly all in the developing world, host close to 60 percent of the world’s refugees. Ninety percent of Syrian refugees are hosted in neighboring countries, and in Lebanon, Syrians now comprise almost one-quarter of the total population. The consequences of mass displacement have been most profound for the countries and regions that are, in many ways, least equipped to take on the responsibility of providing protection.

Even more of those forced from their communities and homes choose, at least initially, to remain within the boundaries of their countries. Ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine in 2015, for example, forced more than 2 million people to flee, with more than 1.5 million internally displaced as of October. And Iraq hosts more than 270,000 refugees, most in the Kurdish regional governorate, who live alongside at least 3.2 million Iraqis displaced as of mid-November, driven from their homes largely by ISIS violence. As strain on these communities grows or violence proliferates, internal displacement can become a precursor to refugee flows. 

The Human Costs Behind the Numbers

While the sheer scale of displacement has become almost incomprehensible, the costs of violence, persecution, and discrimination on individuals and communities are concrete. New refugees have entered a global humanitarian protection system already stretched to its limits by seemingly unresolvable conflicts and crises, and most therefore have little hope of going home. Nearly half of refugees under UNHCR’s mandate are in “protracted” situations in which 25,000 or more individuals have been refugees in a host country for five or more years. As of 2014, the average duration of these situations had reached 25 years, a lifetime for some refugees. For example, 24 years after it opened, the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya—the world’s largest—is home to more than 350,000 people. Circumstances for IDPs are equally grim, and nearly all countries experiencing internal displacement have IDP populations who have been displaced for ten years or more. Many have been forced to move multiple times as conflicts evolve or dwindling personal resources demand new adaptation strategies.

As conflict and violence perpetuate displacement (for more on disaster-driven displacement, see Issue #7: Climate Change and Natural Disasters Displace Millions, Affect Migration Flows), the social, economic, and mental-health costs mount for refugees and IDPs alike. In many countries, refugees do not have the right to work; IDPs can also experience difficulties finding employment or transferring skills to a new setting. As of January 2015, two-thirds of Syrians in Jordan were living below the poverty line (US $1.30/day). With economic circumstances increasingly dire, families and individuals may resort to child labor or marriage, or other coping mechanisms that can add to the trauma of displacement. Educational paths are disrupted as children experience difficulties accessing school. In 2015, UNHCR found that 80 percent of Afghan children in Pakistan were out of school. Such education gaps have long-lasting effects that can take generations to overcome.

Reverberations Felt Far from the Frontlines

As global attention has zeroed in on the Syrian crisis, the effects of mounting displacement and continued conflict further from the borders of the developed world have been given second billing; yet 86 percent of the world’s refugees are in developing countries. Funding for international humanitarian and development aid has followed suit; while the refugee emergency in Europe sparked a flurry of new pledges since the summer, other refugee situations remain chronically underfunded. The United Nations’ regional refugee response in Sudan, for example, had received just 19 percent of the $658 million in requested assistance for 2015 as of November.

Yet no conflict or crisis occurs in isolation. If one lesson can be drawn from the events of this year in the Mediterranean, it is that in an ever-more connected and mobile world, the effects of violence, poverty, and persecution cannot be contained within national borders. The flows of refugees and IDPs are a symptom of the lack of capacity at the national and international levels to address these drivers. While the challenge is daunting, the costs of inaction are equally high. The scars of displacement, trauma, and nearly 60 million lives left in limbo in 2015 will be with the world for generations to come.  


MPI Research


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