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Displaced people walking in the main alley of Tsuya camp in the parish of Drodro, northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Photo: NRC/Tom Peyre-Costa)

Displaced people walking in the main alley of Tsuya camp in the parish of Drodro, northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Photo: NRC/Tom Peyre-Costa)

As Climate Crisis and Violence Converge, Internal Displacement Hit Global Record High of 55 Million in 2020: Report

"We are failing to protect the world's most vulnerable people from conflict and disasters," said the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Kenny Stancil

A new report out Thursday shows that the intensification of conflicts and extreme weather-related disasters drove the total number of people living in internal displacement to an all-time high of 55 million by the end of last year.

"Today's crises arise from many interconnected stressors, which include climatic changes but also chronic poverty and inequality, political instability, and exclusion."
—Alexandra Bilak, IDMC

"For many of us, 2020 was a year of lockdowns and travel restrictions," said Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), referring to public health measures aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19. "But not so for the millions who fled for their lives because of conflict, violence, and disasters."

Last year alone, escalating violence and an abundance of disasters exacerbated by the climate emergency—crises that are related and often intersect—displaced 40.5 million people within 149 countries and territories, the highest annual figure recorded in a decade. In fact, one person per second was uprooted within their country last year, according to the latest global analysis of internally displaced people published by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) and the NRC.

In contrast to refugees, who cross national borders, internally displaced people (IDPs) remain in their country of origin after being forced to flee their homes. With approximately 26 million refugees around the globe, IDPs now outnumber refugees by a ratio of more than two-to-one.

Egeland called the report's findings "shocking."

"We are failing to protect the world's most vulnerable people from conflict and disasters," he said in a statement.

The number of people living in internal displacement throughout the world had been steadily increasing for more than a decade before it reached a record high of 55 million at the end of last year.

As the report explained, about three-quarters of the 40.5 million people who were uprooted in 2020 were the victims of disasters in which preexisting patterns of inequality and vulnerability interacted with environmental hazards. 

While 2% of disasters were triggered by geophysical factors, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, 98% were weather-related disasters—cyclones, hurricanes, typohoons, floods, wildfires, landslides, heat waves, and drought—that climate experts say are increasing in intensity and frequency as a result of rising temperatures. 

For instance, when Cyclone Amphan hit highly exposed and densely populated areas in South Asia, it triggered five million new displacements across Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Myanmar. 

The Atlantic hurricane season, meanwhile, was "the most active on record" and included Hurricanes Iota and Eta, which battered a dozen Central American and Caribbean countries, the report pointed out. Furthermore, "extended rainy seasons across the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa uprooted millions more."

"Today's crises arise from many interconnected stressors, which include climatic changes but also chronic poverty and inequality, political instability, and exclusion," said Alexandra Bilak, director of the IDMC.

In addition to disaster-induced displacement, the report noted that almost 10 million of last year's new IDPs were fleeing various forms of conflict, including wars, political repression, and violent crime.

"It cannot continue like this. We have to do something with the root causes of displacement."
—Jan Egeland, NRC

As the report stated, "Most new displacements triggered by conflict and violence in 2020 were recorded in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa."

Displacement crises were particularly severe in Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Burkina Faso in 2020 due to "the expansion of extremist groups," according to the report. Moreover, long-standing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, and Afghanistan also forced millions to flee.

Where conflicts and disasters converged, people were "displaced for a second or even third time, increasing and prolonging their vulnerability," the report stated. Many of those who fled flooding in Yemen, for example, "had already been uprooted at least once by conflict."

In light of the fact that 95% of last year's conflict-related displacements occured in countries with high or very high vulnerability to the climate crisis, Raouf Mazou, assistant secretary-general of the United Nations Refugee Agency, stressed the need for "a closer analysis of the overlaps between disaster- and conflict-induced displacement."

Although disaster-driven displacement can become protracted, people often return to their damaged communities in the wake of a storm in order to rebuild. Conflict-fueled displacement, on the other hand, tends to last for years. That dynamic helps explain why, even after a year in which disasters caused three times as much internal displacement as conflicts, the overwhelming majority of IDPs at the end of the year were the victims of violence.

Of the 55 million IDPs across the world at the end of 2020, the report said that 48 million had fled violence in 59 countries and territories. Meanwhile, although the report acknowledged that "it should be considered an underestimate," at least seven million of the world's IDPs had been uprooted by disasters in 104 countries and territories. 

"It cannot continue like this," said Egeland. "We have to do something with the root causes of displacement."

Niels Annen, minister of state in Germany's Federal Foreign Office, added that with more people now being displaced by disasters than by conflict and violence, it is "essential to better address the protection needs of climate-displaced people."

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