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Conflict, persecution, climate crisis drive surge in global forced displacement

Peolpe displaced from Sudan's Jazira state arrive in packed vehicles to the entrance of the eastern city of Gedaref, Sudan, on June 10, 2024
Peolpe displaced from Sudan's Jazira state arrive in packed vehicles to the entrance of the eastern city of Gedaref, Sudan, on June 10, 2024

The United Nations refugee agency says forced displacement around the globe surged to historic new heights last year, driven by conflict, persecution, human rights violations, climate crises and other disturbing events.

In its 2024 Global Trends Report, UNHCR says 117.3 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide by the end of 2023. Some 68 million were uprooted from their homes by conflict and remain displaced within their own countries. Another 31 million were refugees, while tens of millions more were asylum seekers, returnees or stateless people.

The report, released Thursday, finds that the number of forcibly displaced has continued to rise this year and that the current figure now stands at 120 million.

"Regrettably, this is the 12th consecutive year in which this figure goes up," U.N. refugee chief Filippo Grandi told journalists in Geneva Monday in advance of the report's publication. "Conflict remains a very, very big driver of displacement."

Grandi added that UNHCR "declared 43 emergencies in 29 countries" in 2023. "This figure, until two, three years ago, used to be on average eight, maximum 10 times a year."

Grandi deplored changes in the conduct of wars, noting that warring parties almost everywhere nowadays "disregard the laws of war, of international humanitarian law and often with the specific purpose of terrorizing people, of instilling fear in people."

"This, of course is a powerful contributor to more displacement than even in the past," he said.

The report cites the conflict in Sudan as a key factor driving the current surge in forcible displacement. By the end of 2023, a total of 10.8 million Sudanese were displaced from their homes — triple the number before the war began in April of that year. Most of the uprooted Sudanese — 9.1 million — are internally displaced, while another 1.7 million are refugees.

Describing himself as "very keen" to speak out about Sudan, Grandi called it "a very forgotten crisis although it is one of the most catastrophic ones — not just in terms of displacement, but in terms of hunger, lack of access, violation of human rights, and so forth."

Other crises that have created a spike in new forced displacements are the conflicts in Gaza, Myanmar, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. UNRWA, the UN relief and works agency for Palestine refugees, estimates up to 1.7 million people — over 75% of the population — "have been displaced within the Gaza Strip, with some having been forced to flee multiple times."

The report says more than 1.3 million people were displaced within Myanmar in 2023 "by escalating violence following the military takeover in February 2021" and that a resurgence of fighting in the eastern part of DRC uprooted 3.8 million people who "were newly internally displaced" during the year.

The U.N. report also touches on what the report calls endless conflicts that continue to displace people in countries that include Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.

Of the complex mix of diverse factors uprooting populations globally, Grandi described climate change as a particularly virulent driver of conflict and displacement, with one sometimes triggering the other.

"It can be a driver of conflict and hence of displacement, especially when the very scarce resources of very poor communities become even scarcer because of climate change," he said. "That drives conflict. We have seen it in so many parts of Africa, in the Sahel, for example. In the Horn of Africa, but also elsewhere."

The report debunks a common misperception that many refugees go to rich countries.

"The vast majority of refugees are hosted in countries neighboring their own, with 75 percent residing in low-and middle-income countries that together produce less than 20 percent of the world's income," say the report, which also notes that although children account for 30% of the world's population, they account for 40% of all forcibly displaced people.

Syria remains the world's largest displacement crisis, UNHCR reports, "with 13.8 million forcibly displaced in and outside the country."

The United States is identified as the world's largest recipient of new asylum claims with 1.2 million applications tallied in 2023, followed by Germany, Egypt, Spain, and Canada.

Authors of the report acknowledge that solutions for forced displacement are very rare. They note that only around five million internally displaced people and one million refugees returned home in 2023.

Despite this grim assessment, High Commissioner Grandi said that solutions do exist, citing the example of Kenya which has enacted the so-called Shirika plan, to resolve its nagging refugee problem.

"The President has decided, and the country's institutions have approved, that for the 600,000 refugees in Kenya, mostly Somalis and South Sudanese, measures will be progressively taken to include them in the communities in which they live.

"I consider that a positive trend," he said. "And Kenya being an important country in East Africa, I hope that this will have a positive impact also on other countries."