A man wades through flood waters near his home in Northern Liech state, South Sudan. An estimated 126,000 people were displaced across the state following heavy rainfall between July and October 2020. Photo: NRC

Disasters contribute to record displacement

Ina Eines|Published 20. May 2021
Last year, one person every second was forced to flee conflict or disaster. More than twice as many people are now displaced within their own country, compared to the number of people who have fled over the border as refugees. Extreme weather is increasingly a factor.

A total of 55 million people were displaced in their home country at the beginning of 2021, according to a new report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). Some 20 million of these were children under the age of 15.

“These are the worst numbers in a decade,” says Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). “We have failed to protect the world’s most vulnerable people from both war and disasters.”

This graph shows the number of people who have been forced to flee in 2020, broken down by country and by whether they’ve fled conflict or disaster. Graphics: IDMC


Disasters a growing factor

Over 30 million people fled disasters in 2020, an increase of over five million on the previous year, and the highest level since 2012. Weather-related events, primarily storms and floods, were responsible for 98 per cent of all disaster displacement.

One of the hardest hit regions was South and Central America. The Atlantic hurricane season was the most active on record, with 30 major storms, forcing millions to leave their homes. In November, hurricanes Iota and Eta caused chaos and flooding in 12 Central American and Caribbean countries. Four million people were affected in Honduras alone.


In addition, intense cyclone seasons in South and East Asia and the Pacific, and extended rainy seasons across the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, uprooted millions of people. Cyclone Amphan triggered nearly five million evacuations across Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Myanmar.

A convergence of conflict and disasters led many people to be displaced for a second or even a third time, increasing their vulnerability. Many of those who fled flooding in Yemen had already been uprooted at least once by the country’s civil war.

Prolonged conflicts and increased violence

By the end of 2020, 48 million people were still displaced from their homes due to conflict and violence, an increase of over two million on the previous year. This is the highest number ever recorded.

The highest numbers of displacements were in Syria (6.6M), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (5.3M) and Colombia (4.9M). Together, these three countries accounted for over a third of the world’s internally displaced people.

In fourth place came Yemen with 3.6 million people displaced, followed by Afghanistan, where 3.5 million are displaced within their home country.

Escalating violence and the expansion of armed groups in Ethiopia, Mozambique and Burkina Faso fuelled some of the world’s fastest growing displacement crises.

Displaced people walking in the main alley of Tsuya camp, in north-east DR Congo. Photo: Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC


Moving forward

The reasons people are forced to flee their homes are many and complex. They include climate-related and environmental factors, protracted conflicts and political instability.

In addition, the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 led to rising poverty, with many people going hungry or lacking access to health care. Humanitarian efforts to support people forced to flee were hindered by travel and access restrictions, and the pandemic will continue to have consequences for humanitarian efforts in the future.

“In a world made more fragile by the Covid-19 pandemic, sustained political will and investment in locally-owned solutions will be more important than ever,” says the director of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, Alexandra Bilak.