UN: Nearly 80 million people forcibly displaced worldwide

Conflict, violence, persecution forces 11 million to flee in 2019, as coronavirus pandemic worsens plight of refugees.

UNHCR report
More than 40 percent of displaced people are children [File: Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Nearly 80 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide by the end of last year as a result of conflict, violence, persecution and human rights violations, according to the United Nations.

Ahead of World Refugee Day on June 20, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, released its annual report on displacement on Thursday, which showed an estimated 11 million more people fled their homes in 2019, almost doubling the total figure over the past decade.

Among the overall 79.5 million displaced people globally, 26 million were refugees, 4.2 million asylum seekers and 45.7 million internally displaced people (IDPs) – those who fled to other parts of their own country, the report said.

“Forced displacement is vastly more widespread and common today. The world’s biggest conflicts are driving this and they must be brought to an end,” Selin Unal, UNHCR Turkey spokesperson, told Al Jazeera.

The UNHCR said the annual increase was a result of a “worrying new displacement” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Sahel region, war-torn Yemen and Syria – which alone accounted for a sixth of the world’s displaced.

It also attributed the rise to the first-time inclusion in its annual report of Venezuelans who had fled amid a deteriorating economic crisis to other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean.

People from Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar made up more than two-thirds of the refugee population.

Turkey hosted the largest number of refugees, 3.9 million people, mostly from Syria where a civil war has entered its tenth year.

INTERACTIVE: UNHCR Global Displacement 2019 report
Year-end figures of displacement over the last decade [Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]

Mariela Shaker, who left her hometown Aleppo in 2013, dodging bombs and mortars, and sought asylum in the United States, said being a refugee was not a choice, but could be anyone’s fate.

“It is one of the worst feelings to be forced to leave your country, your memories and everything behind. You end up going to a new place that you know nothing about and start all over from scratch,” the 29-year-old musician and UNHCR supporter told Al Jazeera.

Taban Shoresh, who narrowly survived an ethnic massacre as a child in Iraq during then-President Saddam Hussein’s rule, said her past trauma shaped her life in the United Kingdom.

“In my teenage years, I had a lot of untapped anger which clearly stemmed back to my past trauma. I felt confused about my identity, and was torn between two starkly different cultures,” the 37-year-old British aid worker and One Young World ambassador said.

“My experiences also instilled in me the desire to help other people from a very early age. Living through extreme circumstances produced a sense of compassion and empathy within me, setting me on this humanitarian path,” she told Al Jazeera. 

Her Lotus Flower charity supports vulnerable women and girls in refugee camps in the Kurdish region of Iraq through sustainable employment and psychological therapy.

UNHCR report
A refugee camp in Zongo, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) [File: Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera] 

Coronavirus crisis

The UN says the coronavirus pandemic has hit the refugee community and internally displaced people the hardest due to the health risks, loss of income and greater exposure to gender-based violence.

“COVID-19 is having a significant impact on countries and has worsened existing socioeconomic vulnerabilities among both refugee and host communities,” the UNHCR’s Unal said.

According to a recent survey by Jewish global refugee agency, HIAS, more than 70 percent of those displaced can no longer meet their basic needs for food, compared with about 15 percent before the pandemic, and more than 75 percent are no longer able to access health services.

The border closures and travel restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus have also caused delays in the asylum-seeking process, HIAS said.

“Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has had a devastating impact on people’s ability to support themselves, to secure and maintain housing, to find and keep food on the table. Refugees that had jobs or savings have lost them,” Rachel Levitan, HIAS vice president for international programmes, told Al Jazeera.

“Countries need to take their human rights obligations seriously and create policies that maintain public health while also protecting those fleeing to safety and helping them stay alive by providing pathways to basic needs.”

Follow Saba Aziz on Twitter: @saba_aziz

Source: Al Jazeera