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Conflicts drive forced displacement to historic new levels

Op-Ed 2024-06-20, 12:53am


Displaced Palestinian families from Khan Younis wait on the roadside for detained husbands and fathers. © UNOCHA-Ismael Abu Dayyah

Penang, 18 Jun (Kanaga Raja) — Forced displacement surged to historic new levels across the globe both in 2023 and this year, with overall numbers rising to 120 million by May 2024, said UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

In its latest flagship Global Trends report released on 13 June, UNHCR said that conflicts from Sudan to Gaza and Myanmar are creating new displacement and urgently require resolution.

It said the rise in overall forced displacement – to 120 million by May 2024 – was the 12th consecutive annual increase and reflects both new and mutating conflicts and a failure to resolve long-standing crises.

The figure would make the global displaced population equivalent to the 12th largest country in the world, around the size of Japan’s, it added.

A key factor driving the figures higher has been the devastating conflict in Sudan: at the end of 2023, 10.8 million Sudanese remained uprooted, said UNHCR.

Meanwhile, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Myanmar, millions were internally displaced last year by vicious fighting.

“Behind these stark and rising numbers lie countless human tragedies. That suffering must galvanize the international community to act urgently to tackle the root causes of forced displacement,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

“It is high time for warring parties to respect the basic laws of war and international law. The fact is that without better cooperation and concerted efforts to address conflict, human rights violations and the climate crisis, displacement figures will keep rising, bringing fresh misery and costly humanitarian responses,” he added.

According to the UNHCR report, an estimated 117.3 million people remained forcibly displaced at the end of 2023, having been forced to flee persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations and events seriously disturbing public order.

This constitutes a rise of 8 per cent or 8.8 million people compared to the end of 2022 and continues a series of year-on-year increases over the last 12 years, it said.

One in 69 people globally or 1.5 per cent of the entire world’s population was forcibly displaced, nearly double the one-in-125 people a decade ago.

Based on operational data, UNHCR estimates that forced displacement has continued to increase in the first four months of 2024 and by the end of April 2024 is likely to have exceeded 120 million.

The report said that during the year, the global refugee population increased by 7 per cent to reach 43.4 million.

It said this reflects new displacement, primarily from Sudan, as well as revised refugee population figures in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Pakistan and Germany.

“The end-year total includes 5.8 million other people in need of international protection, predominantly from Venezuela, half a million people more than at end-2022, as Government population estimates in Colombia and Brazil were revised upwards. It also includes 6 million Palestine refugees under UNRWA’s mandate.”

The number of new individual asylum applications surged during the year, with 3.6 million recorded, it said.

However, UNHCR said that there was a 17 per cent drop in the overall number of people seeking international protection in 2023 to 5.6 million, primarily due to the lower numbers of refugees from Ukraine applying for and being granted temporary protection, mainly in European countries.

The total number of asylum-seekers waiting for a decision by the end of the year rose by 26 per cent to 6.9 million as new individual asylum applications outpaced substantive decisions on these.

According to data by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, the number of internally displaced people due to conflicts grew sharply by 5.8 million to reach 68.3 million at the end of 2023, said the report.

In total, at least 27.2 million people were forced to flee during 2023, with one in four fleeing to another country, it added.

It said as conflict-related fatalities have increased, so too has the number of people forced to flee.

It said during the last 25 years, the average number of people forced to flee in a year has been 14.3 million, while between 2021 and 2023 alone, this average has exceeded 27.8 million, nearly double the 25-year average.

Clearly, the intensity of recent conflicts has grown, the report noted.


The report recalled that conflict in Sudan broke out in April 2023 between the Sudanese Army Forces and the Rapid Support Forces, causing one of the largest humanitarian and displacement crises in the world.

As escalating violence quickly spread from the capital, Khartoum, to other parts of the country, more than 6 million people in Sudan had been forced to flee by the end of the year, with a further 1.2 million fleeing to neighbouring countries.

UNHCR said the number of Sudanese refugees and asylum-seekers globally increased by at least 826,800 during the year to reach 1.8 million, almost all of whom were hosted by neighbouring countries, including the Central African Republic, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia and South Sudan.

In total, 10.8 million Sudanese remained forcibly displaced at end-year. As the conflict rages on, thousands are still being displaced daily, more than one year after it began, it added.

As of May 2024, operational data indicates the number of new displacements since April 2023 has risen to more than 7.1 million within the country, with a further 1.9 million people hosted in neighbouring countries.

Prior to the war, the country was already facing a dire humanitarian situation, with 3.6 million people internally displaced.

This figure rose to 9.1 million, the largest number of people ever recorded to have remained displaced within their own country at end-year, said the report.

“Hunger is widespread in the country, with more than 20 million people (42 per cent of the entire population) facing acute food insecurity, especially in conflict areas that are hard to reach.”

One million refugees also lived in Sudan prior to the latest conflict, primarily from Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan and the Syrian Arab Republic.

The report said conflict in the Gaza Strip in the State of Palestine has had a devastating toll on the Palestinian civilian population.

The humanitarian situation is extremely dire, with levels of hunger so widespread with all of the 2.2 million inhabitants facing acute food insecurity and an imminent threat of famine.

UNRWA estimates that between October and December 2023, up to 1.7 million people (or over 75 per cent of the population) have been displaced within the Gaza Strip, with some having been forced to flee multiple times.

By the end of 2023, there were 6 million Palestine refugees under UNRWA’s mandate, 1.6 million of whom were in the Gaza Strip.

The report said that more than 1.3 million people have been displaced within Myanmar in 2023 by escalating violence following the military takeover in February 2021, bringing the total number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country to more than 2.6 million by the end of 2023.

An additional 1.3 million refugees and asylum-seekers from Myanmar were hosted in other countries. Nearly one million are stateless Rohingya refugees, most of whom fled Myanmar seven years ago.

Most live in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp in Bangladesh, where dependency on humanitarian aid is widespread and the security situation is deteriorating, said the report.

Globally, nearly 10.9 million Afghans remained displaced, almost all within their country or in neighbouring countries, it added.

“In 2023, the number of Afghan refugees reported globally increased by 741,400 to reach 6.4 million, mostly reflecting new population estimates reported by both the Islamic Republic of Iran and Pakistan.”

Opportunities for sustainable return remain limited, as almost half the population of more than 40 million people in Afghanistan face acute food insecurity, and millions remain displaced from their homes within the country, the report said.

After the escalation of the war in 2022, displacement within and from Ukraine continued, albeit at a slower rate than during the previous year, said UNHCR.

“Approximately three-quarters of a million people became newly internally displaced, primarily in eastern and southern Ukraine, where fighting was most intense during 2023.”

Reflecting revised estimation methodologies, as well as return movements, the number of people remaining internally displaced in Ukraine by the end of 2023 decreased to 3.7 million, said the report, adding that the number of Ukrainian refugees and asylum-seekers increased by 275,500 to 6 million.

At the end of the year, an estimated one-sixth of the Ukrainian pre-war population had fled abroad, it said.

“Whilst new estimates indicate that up to 1.3 million internally displaced people and at least 324,600 refugees returned during 2023, it remains highly challenging to accurately quantify such movements.”

At end-year, a total of 9.7 million Ukrainians remained forcibly displaced, the report added.

Meanwhile, it said in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a resurgence of fighting in the eastern part of the country has exacerbated a humanitarian emergency where large-scale forced displacement started nearly two decades ago.

During the year, 3.8 million people were newly internally displaced, while 1.8 million IDPs were estimated to have returned during the same period, and 6.7 million people remained internally displaced in the country at the end of 2023.

Somalia continued to experience persistent insecurity in 2023 as well as weather extremes, with flash floods in April 2023, after five consecutive failed rainy seasons, said the report.

During the year, 673,000 Somalis were displaced within their country due to conflict, with a further 2 million new internal displacements caused by disasters.

The report said some 20 countries around the world, hosting millions of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people, are experiencing increasing risks of climate-related hazards as well as conflicts.

Elsewhere, it said that indiscriminate gang violence in Haiti has caused a surge in human rights violations, with 311,000 people remaining displaced within their country at the end of the year.

Nearly half of the country’s 11.4 million people require humanitarian assistance. The number of Haitian refugees and asylum-seekers rose sharply by 68 per cent to 350,600.

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

It said hostilities in Syria flared up in 2023, with the number of people displaced within the country growing by 174,000 to stand at 7.2 million at end-year. Including 6.5 million Syrian refugees and asylum-seekers, a total of 13.8 million Syrians remained forcibly displaced in 137 countries at end-year.

A further 141,900 refugees fled to Armenia, with most of them arriving after renewed armed conflict in the South Caucasus region in September 2023, it added.

The report also found that most forcibly displaced people remain within their country (58 per cent at end-2023).

Of those seeking protection in another country, most remain in countries neighbouring their home country (69 per cent of refugees at end-2023).

“However, some refugees and asylum-seekers residing in such countries do not find sufficient protection and access to rights, national services and labour markets and therefore choose to move onward.”


The report said most refugees have remained displaced for many years, and globally, the total number of refugees under UNHCR’s mandate reached 37.4 million at the end of 2023, 2.7 million (+8 per cent) more than at the end of the previous year.

This included refugees escaping rapid escalations of conflict in Sudan and gang-related violence in Haiti as well as further forced displacement from countries including Afghanistan and Ukraine.

Compared to a decade ago, the total number of refugees globally has more than tripled. The global total included 5.9 million people in refugee-like situations and 5.8 million other people in need of international protection, the report said.

It also said during 2023, more than 2.8 million people were granted international protection including 823,800 who had made an individual asylum claim, 891,000 recognized on a group basis and a further 1.1 million people who received temporary protection.

The total number of people granted international protection in 2023 represents a decrease from the 4.9 million people in the previous year.

In 2023, a further 486,500 people in refugee-like situations were estimated to have been displaced during the year, said the report.

Almost three in four refugees (73 per cent) originated from just five countries, and 87 per cent of them are from just 10 countries, consistent with the previous year.

The largest refugee population globally were Afghans, constituting one in six of all refugees under UNHCR’s mandate, said the report.

Slightly more than 6.4 million Afghans were hosted in 108 countries, an increase of 741,400 or 13 per cent from the previous year. This was predominantly due to the increase of Afghans in refugee-like situations in the Islamic Republic of Iran (+327,300) and Pakistan (+189,800).

As in previous years, 90 per cent of all Afghan refugees were hosted in the Islamic Republic of Iran (3.8 million) and Pakistan (2 million).

The report said that the number of refugees from Syria stood at 6.4 million at end-year, a slight decrease from the previous year. Almost three-quarters (73 per cent) were hosted in neighbouring countries including Turkiye (3.2 million), Lebanon (784,900) and Jordan (649,100).

“Almost all of the reported 6.1 million Venezuelans have remained in Latin American countries (97 per cent), particularly in Colombia (2.9 million), Peru (1 million), Ecuador (471,400) and Chile (435,800). Overall, the total has increased from 5.4 million at end-2022.”

As the Russian Federation’s war on Ukraine continued, the number of refugees from Ukraine stood at 6 million at the end of the year. This represents an increase of 5 per cent from end-2022, and 25 times more than a decade ago, said UNHCR.

Around 2.6 million Ukrainians were hosted in neighbouring countries (44 per cent), with a further 3.4 million in other European countries and beyond.

The report said in 2023, after the outbreak of war in Sudan, the number of Sudanese refugees surged by 79 per cent to 1.5 million. Approximately six in seven (86 per cent) are hosted in neighbouring Chad (923,300) and South Sudan (359,600).

Prior to the outbreak of the war, Sudan also hosted a substantial Syrian refugee population. With obstacles to obtaining valid documents, the number of Syrian refugees in Sudan decreased from 93,500 in 2022 to 26,600 in 2023 as many moved onwards to other countries.

The report said that globally, the Islamic Republic of Iran (3.8 million), Turkiye (3.3 million), Colombia (2.9 million), Germany (2.6 million) and Pakistan (2 million) hosted the largest refugee populations, including other people in need of international protection.

It said almost all refugees hosted in the Islamic Republic of Iran and Pakistan are Afghans and similarly nearly all refugees in Turkiye are Syrians.

Over the last decade, the numbers of refugees in those major host countries have all increased, except for Turkiye where numbers have dropped by 14 per cent since 2021.

UNHCR said that in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the increase by 339,400 refugees in 2023 was mainly due to the inclusion of additional estimates of Afghans.

Germany was the only country which does not share a border with the major refugee source countries it hosted.

Most refugees in Germany were from Ukraine (1.1 million), Syria (705,800), Afghanistan (255,100) and Iraq (146,500) at end-year.

“Most people fleeing conflict and persecution remain near their country of origin. By the end of 2023, 69 per cent of refugees were hosted in neighbouring countries, remaining at a similar level to the previous year.”


Significantly, the report found that low-income countries continued to host a disproportionately large share of the world’s displaced people, both in terms of their population size and the resources available to them.

These countries represent 9 per cent of the global population and only 0.5 per cent of global gross domestic product, yet they hosted 17 per cent of refugees.

This included very large refugee populations in Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda.

A further 28 per cent were hosted by lower-middle-income countries such as Bangladesh, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Lebanon and Pakistan, said the report.

This was higher than in 2022 (26 per cent), primarily as the Islamic Republic of Iran and Pakistan hosted more Afghans.

Upper-middle-income countries, including Colombia, Jordan and Turkiye, hosted 30 per cent of all refugees, a decrease from 33 per cent one year prior.

High-income countries, which account for most of global wealth, hosted 25 per cent of refugees at end-2023.

The Least Developed Countries consist of 45 countries, including Bangladesh, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda, the United Republic of Tanzania and Yemen.

Together, they account for less than 1.4 per cent of global gross domestic product, yet they were responsible for hosting more than 21 per cent of all refugees worldwide, said UNHCR, adding that this is up from 20 per cent in 2022.

At the end of 2023, the number of refugees in Least Developed Countries stood at 7.7 million, it said.

The report also said as in recent years, most forcibly displaced people remained within the borders of their own countries.

It said the number of IDPs grew by 10 per cent compared to the previous year to reach 63.3 million at end-year, reflecting a continuing rise in the global total for seven years.

More than 80 per cent of them were reported in just 10 of the 37 countries where UNHCR is engaged with IDPs, slightly higher than previous years.

This is primarily due to the surge in the number of people displaced within Sudan following the outbreak of conflict in the country in April 2023, said the report.

At end-year, Sudan (9.1 million), Syria (7.2 million), Colombia (6.9 million), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (6.3 million) and Yemen (4.5 million) reported the largest number of people displaced within their own countries.

The report further said in 2023, 5.6 million people applied for asylum on an individual basis, were recognized through group procedures or were granted temporary protection, 17 per cent less than in the previous year.

While the number of new individual asylum applications (3.6 million) and recognitions from group procedures (891,000) grew from 2022, the number of people receiving temporary protection (1.1 million) dropped sharply, largely due to fewer people fleeing from Ukraine.

In addition to the 3.6 million new individual asylum applications, 268,900 repeat or appeal applications were made for review by courts or other appellate bodies (-19 per cent from 2022), bringing the total to 3.9 million individual asylum applications registered in 160 countries by States or UNHCR worldwide.

This is the largest number of individual asylum applications ever recorded and represents a one-third increase from the 2.9 million individual applications in 2022, said the report.

Over half of all new individual asylum applications globally were received in just five countries: the United States of America (1.2 million), Germany (329,100), Egypt (183,100), Spain (163,200) and Canada (146,800).

The report said most new individual applications were by nationals of Venezuela (314,200), Colombia (209,900), Syria (201,000), Sudan (194,900) and Afghanistan (169,600).

The report also found that in 2023, nearly 1.1 million refugees from 39 countries of origin returned from a total of 93 countries of asylum. Four out of five of those returning were Ukrainian or South Sudanese.

It said during 2023, nearly 5.1 million internally displaced people are estimated to have returned to their place of origin.

This is a 60 per cent drop from the previous year but remains generally consistent with earlier years, it added.

The report said that nearly 62 per cent of all IDP returns were within the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1.8 million) and Ukraine (1.3 million).

It said about 534,300 people displaced in northern Ethiopia returned to their homes during 2023 after a peace agreement was signed in November 2022.

A further 325,900 IDPs in the Central African Republic and 281,000 IDPs in Mozambique returned during the year, it added. – Third World Network