UN Reports a Record 79.5 Million Displaced at End of 2019

About one percent of the global population fled war or persecution by the end of last year, even though the coronavirus crisis slowed the exodus

Lee Yaron
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Sudanese asylum seekers celebrate the fall of the regime of Omar al-Bashir in Tel Aviv, April 13, 2019.
Sudanese asylum seekers celebrate the fall of the regime of Omar al-Bashir in Tel Aviv, April 13, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Lee Yaron

Nearly 80 million people worldwide, or one percent of humanity, were uprooted at the end of 2019 after fleeing wars or persecution, a record figure capping a "tumultuous" decade of displacement, the United Nations said on Thursday.

The figure rose by some 9 million from a year earlier and is close to double the 41 million recorded in 2010, despite COVID-19 restrictions slowing down movement, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said.

Syrians, Venezuelans, Afghans, South Sudanese, and stateless Rohingya from Myanmar top the list of 79.5 million refugees, asylum seekers and internally-displaced, it said in its annual flagship report, Global Trends.

"This almost 80 million figure – the highest that UNHCR has recorded since these statistics have been systematically collected – is of course a reason for great concern," said Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

"This is by the way approximately one percent of the world population," he told a news briefing.

Some 73 percent of refugees seek asylum in a neighboring country, defying the populist notion that they flood to the West, Grandi said.

"This continues to be a global issue, an issue for all states but an issue that challenges most directly the poorer countries, not the rich countries – in spite of the rhetoric," he said of the displacement.

Israel is host to about 30,000 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan, most of whom have been in the country for about a decade. According to statistics given from the Population and Immigration Authority to the High Court of Justice, asylum requests from 13,467 Eritreans and 4,673 Sudanese – about two-thirds of asylum seekers from those countries – have yet to be decided, and are still pending.

Of all the pending requests, over a thousand were submitted by Sudanese citizens who had fled Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile regions, areas that experienced genocide and ethnic cleansing, and whose residents are widely considered refugees.

A decade and a half has passed since the first survivor of the Darfur genocide arrived in Israel seeking asylum; since then, only one Sudanese citizen has been recognized as a refugee, and just 13 Eritrean asylum seekers by the end of 2019.

A May 2018 state comptroller's report on the progress of the asylum system, noted that earlier that year, the deputy attorney general had announced that "there is a major legal difficulty in defending the rate of processing asylum requests, and this includes the lack of a decision regarding requests from Eritrean and Sudanese citizens who made their requests long ago.      

Ayelet Oz, executive director of the Tel Aviv-based Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, said the World Refugee Day “a day of reckoning but also a day of celebration: Reckoning over more than a decade of a dysfunctional asylum system, which operates in complete opposition to its purpose and does anything in its power to avoid a decision in refugee status requests filed by Eritrean and Sudanese nationals; and a day of celebration and appreciation of the endless force of the asylum seeker community that keeps on surviving and making a life in Israel against all odds."

"Asylum seekers teach all of us that even out of the harshest, most oppressive place can emerge a message of hope,” Oz added.

The global exodus includes 5 million Venezuelans who have fled their country mired in an economic and political crisis. Some 3.6 million of them were not counted in its previous statistics, but are now deemed in need of international protection, the UNHCR said.

Most Venezuelans have gone to Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil and Chile. An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 have returned to their homeland since April, Grandi said.

"In most of the countries Venezuelans live off of the informal economy and many even qualified people unfortunately have had to live a life of subsistence basically, selling vegetables in markets, doing menial work, it's been really very precarious," he said. "And with lockdowns, a lot of these jobs have disappeared almost overnight."

But restrictions imposed because of the pandemic have slowed displacement generally, Grandi said.

"For the time being, most likely it has actually put breaks on movements because of the difficulties in moving. There has been basically no international travel, there has been very little ability to cross borders," he added.

In a statement by High Commissioner Grandi, he said that even though the effects of the coronavirus crisis on displaced people, refugees and asylum seekers are not included in the yearly report, they hold great importance.

“What started as a health crisis has expanded, and today many of the most vulnerable – refugees and the displaced people amongst them – face a pandemic of poverty,” he said. “Refugees themselves are also contributing in significant ways, despite often living in extremely vulnerable conditions.

"They are, for example, volunteering as front line health workers in Colombia and the United Kingdom; making soap for distribution in Lebanon and Niger; sewing masks and protective gear in Iran; helping construct isolation centers in Bangladesh; and elsewhere around the world, they are contributing time to help the needy in their host communities.”

Some 107,000 refugees were resettled in third countries last year, the UNHCR said.

"This is a declining figure unfortunately. The resettlement to the U.S. as you know has declined dramatically. The biggest resettlement country today is Canada," Grandi said.

Canada admitted 31,100 refugees for resettlement, the United States 27,500 and Australia 18,200, UNHCR figures show.

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