Number of refugees worldwide increases for a ninth year in a row as people continue to be displaced amid the COVID crisis.
A record 82.4 million people have been displaced around the world in 2020 due to violence and persecution, including an estimated 680,000 in Myanmar following ethnic conflict and the recent military coup, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
Indrika Ratwatte, director of the UNHCR Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific, said in Bangkok on Friday that an estimated 200,000 people were added to the number of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in Myanmar in the last four months, since the removal of Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government in February.
Most of the recent IDPs are from the states of Kayah and Kayin, where ethnic groups are engaged in armed fighting with the military. Tens of thousands are also displaced in Shan and Kachin states.
“It is a rather complex map of internal displacement and the situation is of extreme concern to us,” Ratwatte said, adding that it is crucial for the international community to deliver life-saving assistance to the Myanmar refugees.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims were forced to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh in 2017 following a military crackdown, while more than 100,000 of the persecuted minority remain in camps in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Ratwatte was speaking at the presentation of the annual UNHCR Global Trends Report on refugees, during which he also said that in the last 10 years, the number of refugees worldwide had doubled.
“Sadly, forced displacement continues to be a global phenomenon, and sadly yet again, the number of individuals forcibly displaced today are ever-increasing,” he said.
Children account for 42 per cent of all forcibly displaced people worldwide, with estimates showing that almost one million of them were born as refugees between 2018 and 2020, the report said.
More than two-thirds of all people worldwide who fled abroad came from just five countries, including 6.7 million from Syria, 4 million from Venezuela, 2.6 million from Afghanistan, 2.2 million from South Sudan and another 1.1 million from Myanmar.
But Ratwatte pointed out that in 2020, a record low of only 37,000 refugees managed to be resettled in a third country as a result of the restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Many countries closed their borders because they were fearing the vectors of infection, which also meant that those seeking protection have limited access because of the closure of borders,” he said.
“Vulnerabilities have increased exponentially,” Ratwatte added, while highlighting the plight of Rohingya, about 200 of whom died last year trying to cross the sea from Bangladesh to a third country.
The report said that the 2020 record number of refugees is four percent higher than a previous record of 79.5 million refugees in 2019.
Of the total number of refugees, about 20.7 million are under UNHCR’s watch, including 5.7 million Palestinians and 3.9 million Venezuelans.
“We need much greater political will to address conflicts and persecution that force people to flee in the first place,” said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, in a separate statement accompanying the announcement.
Grandi particularly highlighted the condition of refugee children, who the UNHCR said are becoming more vulnerable, especially when crises continue for years.
“The tragedy of so many children being born into exile should be reason enough to make far greater efforts to prevent and end conflict and violence,” said Grandi.
Hungry and vulnerable to COVID
At the virtual press conference in Bangkok, Asif Saleh, executive director of the Bangladesh-based development organisation BRAC, said that the latest UNHCR report confirmed the grim situation of Rohingya refugees in his country.
Since the latest influx in August 2017, more than 800,000 Rohingya refugees have registered with the UNHCR in Bangladesh. Their actual number, however, is likely much higher given that some of them have not been registered, or arrived during earlier waves of mass migration.
“This is a group of people who are living in an extremely-congested 34 refugee camps packed into an area with an average population density of about 40,000 people per square kilometre,” Saleh said.
Given the population density, the Rohingya refugees have become even more vulnerable to the COVID pandemic, which, like most countries, has hit Bangladesh.
So far, the government in Dhaka has managed the spread of the disease in the country, as well as in the camps, but the situation remains “unpredictable” with COVID vaccines still in short supply, Saleh said.
A massive fire in Rohingya camps in recent months further affected the refugees’ already dire situation, with about 10,000 of their shelters destroyed and 60,000 people left homeless.
While people continued to flee across borders, millions more were displaced within their own countries, the UNHCR said.
In Afghanistan, Nader Nadery, a member of the government’s peace negotiating panel, said armed violence remained the driving force of the refugee crisis within his country.
“Unfortunately, that is not going to come to an end very soon,” Nadery said, predicting that factors pushing the refugee crisis will continue.
Violence has intensified since the United States’ announcement of the withdrawal of coalition troops, with the Taliban and other armed groups stepping up attacks on towns and villages, he said. Targeted killings against some sectors of society and ethnic groups, such as Hazaras, have also increased.
Drought, which has affected several areas of Afghanistan, also contributed to the displacement, as well as the continuing spread of COVID-19, Nadery said. So far, the country has more than 96,000 COVID cases and at least 3,800 deaths.
Worldwide, the number of IDPs rose by more than 2.3 million last year, including in Afghanistan, as well as in Ethiopia, Sudan, Sahel countries, Mozambique, Yemen and Colombia.
Last year was the ninth uninterrupted rise in forced displacements worldwide, the UNHCR said.
“Solutions require global leaders and those with influence to put aside their differences, end an egoistic approach to politics, and instead focus on preventing and solving conflict and ensuring respect for human rights,” said Grandi.