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Millions were driven from their homes in 2020 despite COVID-19 pandemic

Displaced family wading through water
A displaced family wades through water after being rescued by boat from a flooded area of Mozambique.
(Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi / Associated Press)

War, violence, persecution, human rights violations and other factors caused nearly 3 million people to flee their homes last year, even though the COVID-19 pandemic restricted movement worldwide, the United Nations refugee agency said in a report Friday.

In its latest Global Trends report, the agency said the cumulative number of the world’s displaced people rose to 82.4 million — roughly the population of Germany — which is a post-World War II record.

Filippo Grandi, the United Nations’ high commissioner for refugees, said conflict and the fallout from climate change in places such as Mozambique, Ethiopia’s battle-scarred Tigray region and Africa’s Sahel area were key drivers of refugees and internally displaced people in 2020.

Such factors added hundreds of thousands to the overall count, the ninth consecutive annual increase in the number of forcibly displaced people. The millions who have fled countries such as Syria and Afghanistan because of protracted wars or fighting have dominated the U.N. agency’s tally for years.

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“This is telling, in a year in which we were all locked down, confined, blocked in our homes, in our communities, in our cities,” Grandi said in an interview before the report’s release. “Almost 3 million people have had to actually leave all that behind because they had no other choice.

“COVID-19 seems to have had no impact on some of the key root causes that push people to flee. War, violence, discrimination — they have continued, no matter what, throughout the pandemic.”

Lack of affordable housing and struggles with language barriers made disruptions to education and work more pronounced for San Diego refugee communities during the pandemic, according to a new report.

The refugee agency said 1% of all humanity is now displaced, and there are twice as many forcibly displaced people than a decade ago. Some 42% of them are under 18, and nearly 1 million babies were born as refugees between 2018 and 2020.

“Many of them may remain refugees for years to come,” the agency’s report said.

The agency, which has its headquarters in Geneva, said that 99 of the more than 160 countries that closed their borders because of the coronavirus did not make exceptions for people seeking protection as refugees or asylum-seekers.

Grandi acknowledged the possibility that many internally displaced people who couldn’t leave their own countries will eventually try to do so if the pandemic eases and borders reopen.

Human Rights First found that many people seeking asylum in the U.S. with strong cases for protection have been sent back to the harms that they fled.

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“A good example is the United States, where already we have seen a surge in people arriving in recent months,” Grandi said, referring to a U.S. provision called Title 42 that has allowed authorities to temporarily block asylum-seekers from entry for health reasons. “Title 42 will be lifted eventually — and I think this is the right thing to do — but this will have to be managed.”

Asked about Vice President Kamala Harris’ recent trip to Central America, where she told people hoping to migrate to the U.S., “Do not come,” Grandi expressed hope that the remark was not reflective of overall U.S. policy.

“I think that messaging indeed, as it was reported, is stark, and maybe shows only one part of the picture now,” Grandi said, adding that he had heard a “more complex response” from other officials in Washington when he was there recently.

Among recent hotspots, Grandi said hundreds of thousands of people were newly displaced in Mozambique and the Sahel last year, and up to 1 million in the Tigray conflict in northern Ethiopia that started in October.

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“I’m worried that if the international community is not able to stop these conflicts, we will continue to see the rise in the numbers,” he said.

The report said that at the end of last year there were 5.7 million Palestinians, 3.9 million Venezuelans and an additional 20.7 million refugees from various other countries displaced abroad. Another 48 million people were internally displaced in their own countries. Some 4.1 million more sought asylum.

Turkey, a neighbor of Syria, has taken in the most refugees in absolute numbers — 3.7 million. The figure is more than twice that of the No. 2 host country, Colombia, which borders Venezuela. Afghanistan’s neighbor Pakistan was third.

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David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, said the U.N. tallies should be “a wake-up call for the international community.” He appealed in particular to the European Union.

During Europe’s 2015 migrant crisis, Germany took in more than 1 million newcomers, sparking a backlash by some. Five years on, tensions have eased.

“The triple threat of conflict, climate change and COVID-19 continues to destroy lives and livelihoods, demanding a truly global response,” Miliband said. “As one of the world’s wealthiest and most stable regions, the EU can and must be at the forefront of these efforts.”

Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, decried an “epic failure of humanity” and said many more people are on the move today than at any time during World War II.

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“The majority of people fleeing today are on the move because of manmade conflicts,” Egeland said. ”What is lacking is the political will and leadership to end these wars.”


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