Number of internally displaced people reaches record high

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A camp for internally displaced people in Somalia. Photo by: Faisal Abdi via Kalu Institute / CC BY-NC-ND

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — The number of internally displaced people around the world soared by almost 25% in 2019, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

At 50.8 million people, the figure is the highest ever recorded by the center and represents an increase of almost 10 million from the year before.

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While the organization had been hopeful 2020 would be the year for change due to “positive political signals,” COVID-19 means things may only get worse.

With the current difficulties in delivering humanitarian aid to displaced populations, it is now highly unlikely that numbers are going to start decreasing, said IDMC’s director, Alexandra Bilak. “On the contrary, they’re more likely to increase as people struggle to have access to basic services,” she said, describing the figures as “shocking.”

In places such as India and Myanmar, some health care workers have reportedly become displaced after locals forced them to leave their homes for fear that they would spread the coronavirus. And border closures across the globe mean those seeking assistance in neighboring countries may be forced to seek refuge internally instead.

Trends in new displacements from 2009 to 2019. Image by: IDMC

According to the “Global Report on Internal Displacement 2020,” the fleeing of conflict and violence — predominantly in Syria, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yemen, and Afghanistan — is mainly to blame for the high numbers of internally displaced persons, or IDPs, in 2019. It accounts for 45.7 million IDPs, while climate-related disasters — such as Hurricane Dorian and cyclones Idai and Kenneth — are responsible for 5.1 million.

“Collectively, we are failing by epic proportions to protect the world’s most vulnerable.”

— Jan Egeland, secretary-general, Norwegian Refugee Council

Of the 50.8 million IDPs, over half — 33.4 million — were newly displaced last year.

Bilak warned that the current pandemic will leave IDPs more vulnerable than before. “IDPs are often highly vulnerable people living in crowded camps, emergency shelters, and informal settlements with little or no access to health care. … [COVID-19] will compromise their already precarious living conditions by further limiting their access to essential services and humanitarian aid,” she said.

Iraq has already reported coronavirus cases among IDPs. Yet in settlements and camps, the key measures that can prevent the spread of the virus — self-isolation and hand-washing — are jeopardized by limited space and access to clean water.

Jan Egeland, secretary-general at the Norwegian Refugee Council — which produces the annual report alongside IDMC — issued a statement urging politicians, generals, and diplomats to seek cease-fires and peace talks, calling continued political violence “senseless” during this pandemic.

“Year after year, conflict and violence uproot millions of people from their homes. Collectively, we are failing by epic proportions to protect the world’s most vulnerable,” he said.

Some governments have already taken steps to address displacement within the last year, according to the report. For example, in Indonesia, Mali, and Sri Lanka, national systems have been put in place to compile data on displacement. In India, Bangladesh, and Fiji, preemptive evacuations and early warning systems have been implemented to enable better disaster preparedness, and countries such as Niger and Somalia improved their policy frameworks on internal displacement.

Finance and political commitment are crucial, Bilak said, but it now remains to be seen whether such commitments can be sustained as COVID-19 strains those resources.

“This global pandemic is certainly going to put at risk all of the good efforts we started documenting,” she said.

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  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.