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Number of displaced persons at record high: UN report

June 18, 2021

The UN has called for action after an increase in people fleeing conflict and persecution despite the COVID pandemic. The number of displaced people has doubled in the last decade.

Migrants stand behind a fence at Karatepe refugee camp, on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece.
A total 82.4 million people have left their homes due to persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violationsImage: Panagiotis Balaskas/AP/picture alliance

The number of people leaving their homes due to persecution, conflict, violence, and human rights violations has increased to 82.4 million, according to the Global Trends report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 

The report released in Geneva on  Friday called for reversing the global trend towards more flight and displacement triggered by violence and persecution, which has been going on for almost a decade.

The newly released total figure is 4% higher than the previous year, when 79.5 million had been recorded at the end of 2019.

The vast majority of refugees around the world are hosted by countries that border crisis areas and are low- and middle-income nations. Developing countries hosted 86% of the world’s refugees and Venezuelans displaced abroad. While the least developed countries provided asylum to 27% of the total. 

A woman holds a baby at Karatepe refugee camp, on the eastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece.
The majority of refugees are hosted by low- and middle-income countries that border crisis areasImage: Panagiotis Balaskas/AP/picture alliance

A displaced person behind each number

At the end of last year, there were 20.7 million refugees under the UNHCR mandate, 5.7 million Palestinian refugees, and 3.9 million Venezuelans who fled their homes. All those figures represent slight increases compared to 2019. 

A further 48 million people were displaced within their own country, while there are 4.1 million asylum-seekers.

These figures show that despite the pandemic and calls for a global cease-fire so governments could care for the sick, conflict continues to drive people from their homes.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said behind each of these numbers "is a person displaced from their home and a story of flight, uprooting, and suffering.

"Each individual deserves our attention and support — not only through humanitarian assistance but by finding solutions to end their plight," Grandi said.

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Grandi said that while the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention and the Global Compact for Refugees are important legal frameworks and tools to respond to displacement, "We need much stronger political will to address the conflicts and persecution that force people to flee in the first place."

Borders shut down at peak COVID

The report also found that at the height of the pandemic in 2020, more than 160 countries closed their borders, while 99 countries made no exception for people who had sought international protection.

But with improved measures such as medical examinations at borders; health certificates or temporary quarantine on arrival; simplified registration procedures; and hearings by video, more countries found ways to guarantee access to asylum, while containing the spread of the coronavirus.

Over the course of last year, 33,800 refugees were granted citizenship by a host country. However, resettlement — the admission of refugees from a non-secure first host country to a safe third country — saw a dramatic slump.

Only 34,400 applications for resettlement were accepted — the lowest figure in 20 years. This was because of significantly fewer resettlement places made available, and due to the pandemic.

Grandi said those who govern and who have influence must "put aside their differences, abandon selfish approaches in their policies and focus instead on preventing and resolving conflicts and guaranteeing respect for human rights."

More children born as refugees

According to the report, children are particularly affected during displacement crises, especially if their displacement drags on for many years.

The UN estimates that almost 1 million children were born as refugees between 2018 and 2020. Furthermore, 42% of displaced persons are girls and boys under the age of 18.

Many of them are at risk of remaining in exile for years to come, some potentially for the rest of their lives.

UNHCR spokesperson Chris Melzer told DW that quite often there isn't enough money to give more than just basic education to refugee children.

"I've heard from several refugees around the world, actually parents telling me 'Forget us, we are a lost generation, but do something for our children. Give them education, let them have a chance'. Well, we don't want to give up the parents' generation as well. But indeed, education is the key factor," he said.

The European Union, in cooperation with UNICEF, has launched programs to support Afghan children who have been separated from their families.
Children are particularly affected during displacement, especially if their displacement drags on for many yearsImage: Aref Karimi/DW

The report said it was especially challenging to ensure the best interests of at-risk children, not least children who are unaccompanied or separated from their families.

Some 21,000 unaccompanied or separated children lodged new asylum applications in 2020, compared to 25,000 one year earlier. Considering that new asylum applications in 2020 dropped by 1 million due to COVID-19, this figure is disproportionately high.

Refugees in Germany dropped significantly

The number of arrivals in Germany has dropped significantly for the fourth year in a row, to 102,600 applications.

The country hosted the third-largest number with nearly 1.5 million; Turkey hosted the highest, with 3.7 million refugees. Colombia was second with more than 1.7 million, including Venezuelans displaced abroad.

Woman refugee in Kilis on the Turkish Syrian border.
Turkey, bordering war-torn Syria, still hosts more refugees than any other country at presentImage: picture alliance/Pacific Press/Donna Bozzi

"While globally the situation is becoming more and more dramatic, in Germany and Europe the numbers have dropped for the fourth year in a row, again significantly," said the UNHCR representative in Germany, Katharina Lumpp.

Europe should use this period of fewer arrivals to develop a reliable concept for the adequate distribution of arriving asylum-seekers, she noted. "Then a system of fair responsibility-sharing could be anchored in Europe.''