Number of Refugees Has Risen by 3 Million in 2020, UN Report Says

Only 34,400 refugees were resettled in 2020, in part because of border closures due to the coronavirus, while the total number of refugees fleeing violence and persecution rose to 82.4 million

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Refugees in the Greek island of Lesbos, around three months ago.
Refugees in the Greek island of Lesbos, around three months ago.Credit: ELIAS MARCOU/רויטרס
Bar Peleg

The number of people who fled conflicts, violence, persecution and human rights abuses reached 82.4 million in 2020, a rise of 3.65 percent compared to 79.5 million people at the end of 2019.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that the COVID-19 pandemic pushed millions of displaced people further into poverty, and millions of children were unable to attend school.

According to the annual Global Trends report released on Friday morning, countries also slashed the number of spaces for resettling displaced people last year.

In the early part of the pandemic, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration put their resettlement departures on hold due to border restrictions in 160 countries, and 99 of them did not allow any exceptions for people seeking protection or asylum. But even after they resumed, only 34,400 refugees were resettled, the lowest number in two decades.

"In the year of COVID, a year in which movement was practically impossible for most of us... 3 million more people have been forcibly displaced," UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi told Reuters.

Amid a rise in populism and nationalism in global politics, Grandi called on world leaders to "stop demonizing people" that are forced to move.

"To say that the only way to address this population flow is by building walls or pushing people back at sea is morally despicable or unspeakable. These are human beings," Grandi said. "Whatever the motive for the flight or for the movement, human beings deserve full dignity like everybody else."

During 2020, only about 3.2 million displaced persons and 251,000 refugees returned to their homes – drops of 40 percent and 21 percent respectively – compared to 2019. Another 33,800 refugees received citizenship in the countries that gave them asylum.

More than two thirds of all refugees displaced abroad came from just five countries: Syria (6.7 million), Venezuela (4.0 million), Afghanistan (2.6 million), South Sudan (2.2 million) and Myanmar (1.1 million). Most sought refuge in neighboring countries, which meant that low- and middle-income nations continued to host the largest number of refugees.

“Behind each number is a person forced from their home and a story of displacement, dispossession and suffering,” said Grandi. “They merit our attention and support – not just with humanitarian aid, but in finding solutions to their plight.”

"Trends have unfortunately continued. So if we had to work to update the figures... for the first six months of 2021, we will probably see a further increase from that 82.4 million," said Grandi.

Around 42 percent of those displaced were children.

2020 was the ninth year in a row that the number of displaced persons rose around the world, which is now equivalent to around 1 in every 95 people. The number of displaced persons in the world has doubled since 2011.

While the world’s refugee population continued to grow, most of the total increase was due to a larger number of internally displaced people fleeing within the borders of their own countries.

Crises in Ethiopia, Sudan, Mozambique, Yemen, Afghanistan and Colombia accounted for the large numbers of displaced persons, as did escalating violence in the countries of Africa’s Sahel region, including Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali.

At the end of 2020, 20.7 refugees were under the auspices of the UNHCR, 5.7 million Palestinian refugees, and 3.9 million Venezuelans who were outside their countries. Another 48 million people were displaced internally inside their countries, and 4.1 million were asylum seekers.

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