Climate Action

Why did 40.5 million people flee their homes? (IDMC internally displaced persons report)

The increase in number of internally displaced persons in Ethiopia, Mozambique and Burkina Faso are the highest: IDMC

The increase in number of internally displaced persons in Ethiopia, Mozambique and Burkina Faso are the highest: IDMC Image: Unsplash/Julie Ricard

Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • There were 40.5 million new internally displaced persons in 2020 – the highest annual figure for 10 years as per IDMC.
  • These were triggered globally by disasters and violence.
  • Weather-related events accounted for almost all of the 30.7 million disaster-led displacements last year.
  • Governments are starting to put policies in place to help internally displaced persons, but more data and more funding is needed.

Every second in 2020 – and in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis – someone was forced to flee their home from extreme weather events or conflict, in a record year for internal displacement.

The latest data from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) shows 40.5 million new displacements – the highest annual figure for 10 years – were triggered globally by disasters and violence last year.

It brings the total number living in internal displacement to 55 million, of which 20 million are children under 15 and 2.6 million are over 65.

“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 IDMC director Alexandra Bilak.

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Numbers for new internally displaced persons across different sub-continents (IDMC report)
Numbers for new internally displaced persons across different sub-continents (IDMC report) Image: IDMC

Why was the number of internally displaced persons so high in 2020?

Climate change appears to be having an impact, although the Global Report on Internal Displacement (GRID 2021) warns the direct causal link has not yet been “convincingly quantified”.

Storms and floods caused the majority of internal displacements last year – more than three times the 9.8 million displacements caused by conflict and violence. In fact, almost all (98%) of the 30.7 million disaster-led displacements last year were caused by weather-related events.

 55 million internally displaced persons towards the end of 2020
55 million internally displaced persons towards the end of 2020 Image: IDMC

Cyclone Amphan, which made landfall in Eastern India and Bangladesh in May 2020, triggered around five million displacements across Bangladesh, India, Bhutan and Myanmar, the IDMC reports.

It also caused around $14 billion in reported economic losses for India, with the UN describing it as the costliest tropical cyclone on record for the North Indian Ocean.

Number of internally displaced persons by hazards, in the past 12 years.
Number of internally displaced persons by hazards, in the past 12 years. Image: IDMC
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Some of the world’s fastest-growing displacement crises are in Ethiopia, Mozambique and Burkina Faso, where violence has escalated and extremist groups have expanded.

Long-running conflicts also caused the number of internally displaced persons to rise, including in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria and Afghanistan, despite the UN Secretary-General António Guterres calling for a global ceasefire to unite against COVID-19.

How can the world respond to the internal displacement crisis?

As the world continues to warm, scientists say climate change and other factors in combination are likely to fuel future displacement, reports the IDMC.

“If the world’s population were to remain at its current level, the risk of flood-related displacement would increase by more than 50% relative to 2000 levels for each degree of global warming.”

Slow-onset effects of climate change, such as desertification, land degradation, loss of biodiversity, ocean acidification, sea level rise will trigger displacement through loss of land, livelihoods, food or water – and these are hard to monitor.

Links between drivers, triggers and impacts of internal displacement (Global report on internally displaced persons)
Links between drivers, triggers and impacts of internal displacement (Global report on internally displaced persons) Image: IDMC

Internal displacement costs both individuals and countries. The IDMC estimates loss of income, and support for housing, education, health and security for internally displaced people in 2020 came to almost $20.5 billion.

Governments are developing national and regional policies to reduce displacement risk and mitigate against climate – and countries are starting to invest in proactive measures, such as planned relocation and local integration, the report says.

“These solutions for reducing the number of internally displaced persons, require strong local governance and decentralized interventions that include the perspectives of those at risk and support community-led livelihood initiatives.”

Filling the data gaps and dispelling misconceptions around displacement – particularly that it’s caused by ‘natural phenomena’ and is short-term – will also be essential to help shape policy and make the case for more flexible and predictable funding, says the IDMC.

“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.

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