Urban Transformation

The number of people fleeing their homes has doubled in a decade. Why? 

A refugee camp with displaced persons

One in every 78 persons on this planet is a refugee. Image: Unsplash/Julie Ricard

Helen Nugent
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • At the end of 2021, 89.3 million people worldwide had been forced to flee their homes, double that of a decade ago.
  • The number of displaced people has now reached 100 million.
  • A think-tank predicts more than one billion people are at risk of being displaced by 2050 due to environmental change, conflict and civil unrest.
  • Human-made factors driving displacement include rapid economic development, and urban and population growth in hazard-prone areas.

Mass displacement: what is forcing people to flee their homes?

Imagine being forced to flee your home, leaving behind everything you’ve built and worked for, knowing you may never be able to return. This is a reality for 100 million people around the world, according to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

In its latest Global Trends report, published in June 2022, UNHCR unveiled a stark picture of worldwide forced displacement. At the end of 2021, the number of people displaced by persecution, war, violence and human rights abuses had reached 89.3 million, a rise of 8% in just a year and more than double that of a decade ago.

Put another way, it means that one in every 78 persons on this planet is displaced, a statistic which has surpassed previous estimates. The figure of 100 million was recorded in May, propelled in part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A chart showing the number of forcibly displaced refugees worldwide by year
The number of displaced refugees increased by 8% in the last year. Image: Statista

An examination of the refugee numbers

As detailed in UNHCR’s report, of the 89.3 million people displaced in 2021, 27.1 million were refugees. The International Committee of the Red Cross defines refugees as people who have crossed an international frontier and are at risk in their country of origin, whereas internally displaced people are individuals who have been forced to leave their homes but have not crossed a border. Of the latter group, out of a total of 53.2 million, some 4.6 million were asylum seekers and 4.4 million were Venezuelans seeking to escape their country’s turmoil, UNHCR says.

Including Venezuela, more than two thirds of refugees came from just five countries, among them Syria and Afghanistan.

Where are refugees going?

While 2022 has seen the conflict in Ukraine and the subsequent mass displacement of its citizens, UNHCR reports that low- and middle-income countries housed the most displaced people in 2021, taking more than four in five refugees. Top of the list was Turkey, followed by Colombia, Uganda, Pakistan and Germany.

Conflict is a major driver of displacement and increasing number of refugees.
Conflict is a major driver of displacement and increasing number of refugees. Image: UNHCR

Why is mass displacement happening?

A number of new crises have contributed to the escalation in displacement and the number of refugees. Equally, there are still centuries-old situations that continue to force people to leave everything behind. Historical factors include:

Persecution.

Conflict.

War.

Violence.

Human rights violations.

Events disrupting public order.

Disasters.

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When it comes to more modern-day displacement drivers, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre cites a variety of human-made factors including rapid economic development, urban growth and population growth in hazard-prone areas.

In addition, UNHCR points to the following heightened factors:

  • Escalating and new conflicts: in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, Afghanistan and Burkina Faso, among others.
  • Food scarcity.
  • Inflation.
  • Climate crisis.

In terms of climate change, UNHCR calls it the “defining crisis of our time and disaster displacement one of its most devastating consequences”. The agency has previously said that an annual average of 21.5 million people have been forcibly displaced by weather-related occurrences since 2008.

More worryingly, the Institute for Economics & Peace, a think tank, predicts that more than one billion people are at risk of being displaced by 2050 due to environmental change, conflict, and civil unrest.

The World Economic Forum is working with IOM, UN Migration on its Strategic Intelligence Platform. The migration insight area of the platform shows how migration issues are connected to factors such as sustainable development, education and skills and climate change, among others.

Solutions for the refugees

Nevertheless, there are some rays of hope. Many countries have been tackling – and managing – forced displacement for decades, as the World Bank points out. Its own work includes support for host countries, recognizing the need for tailored solutions for specific communities rather than a blanket approach, enhancing job opportunities, and making sure that long-term planning decisions are taken on a collective basis.

The Global Compact on Refugees, established in 2018, states that a priority must be enabling refugees to rebuild their lives with their dignity intact. Of course, lasting peace in the world’s many conflict zones would be the biggest achievement, and allow displaced people to return home.

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