One per cent of the world's population is now forcibly displaced

A report by UNHCR released in Refugee Week has found a record 79.5 million people are now displaced around the world. An estimated 40 per cent of those are children, tens of thousands of whom are unaccompanied.

Hadeel Alnashy

Hadeel Alnashy fled religious persecution in Iraq and resettled in Australia. Source: SBS News

Forced displacement caused by conflict, persecution and violence is now affecting more than one per cent of humanity, or one in every 97 people.

The United Nations Human Rights Commission's (UNHCR) Global Trends report, released on Thursday, revealed an unprecedented 79.5 million people were displaced at the end of 2019 - the highest total the aid agency has ever recorded. 

Within that total, 26 million people are deemed refugees, 46.7 million are internally displaced, and 4.2 million are considered asylum-seekers.

An estimated 40 per cent of those displaced worldwide are children below 18 years of age, tens of thousands of whom are said to be unaccompanied.

Syria crisis.
Migrants and refugees walk to Pazarkule Border gate in Turkey as they try to reach Greece. Source: AAP

There are also 3.6 million Venezuelans displaced abroad who are likely in need of international protection but who have not applied for asylum in the country in which they are present.

Fleeing her own home country as a teenager seven years ago, Hadeel Alnashy told SBS News she is saddened by the figures.

The now 24-year-old, who lives in Sydney, was forced to flee Iraq with her parents and four siblings in fear of religious persecution. The family sought refuge in neighbouring Jordan.

Hadeel as a young girl with her siblings in Iraq.
Hadeel as a young girl with her siblings in Iraq. Source: Supplied

Hadeel had just finished her high school studies and had dreams of going to university.

"I always dreamt to be a doctor there. I was always a good student, I scored good marks, but unfortunately, something happened to us,” she said. “We left everything, and we escaped.”

Living in Jordan as a refugee, Hadeel and her family were not allowed to work or study. 

“We don't have the right to work, we couldn't go to school, two years just wasted,” she said.

The Alnashy family were not able to practice their religion of Mandeism in Iraq out of fear of persecution.
The Alnashy family were not able to practice their religion of Mandeism in Iraq out of fear of persecution. Source: Supplied

It is a reality for the millions of people forced to cross borders in fear of their lives each day.

In 2019, 73 per cent of refugees lived in neighbouring countries, nearly all of which are considered developing.

Turkey hosted the largest number of refugees worldwide, taking in 3.6 million people, Colombia hosted 1.8 million people, followed by Pakistan, Uganda and Germany. 

Ongoing conflict

The total number of displaced people has increased by nearly 10 million in one year, something UNHCR attributes to two main factors.

The first of which is the ongoing conflict in multiple countries including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yemen and Syria.

Yemen is considered the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
Yemen is considered the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Source: Getty

The Syrian war which is now in its ninth year, accounts for more than 13 million refugees alone, a sixth of the world’s total. 

As for Yemen, which many in the international community call the ‘forgotten crisis’, 3.6 million citizens are currently internally displaced - one of the highest country totals in the world.

 Jean-Nicolas Beuze is the UNHCR’s representative in Yemen and says there is no end in sight. 

“Five years of conflict have led one out of eight Yemeni to leave their home due to the fighting, the bombing, the shelling and their home being destroyed or feeling insecure in their own villages,” he said.

Unlike in other conflicts, most Yemenis are unable to flee to neighbouring countries.

"They cannot leave Yemen due to the geographical location of the country and are trapped within their own country, and often close to the frontline,” Mr Beuze said.

Counting displaced people from Venezuela

UNHCR says the rising number of displaced people is also due to Venezuelans outside of their own country being better represented this in this year's report. Many of them are not legally registered as either refugees or asylum-seekers but have been counted.

UNHCR report finds number of forcibly displaced people in world has doubled in past decade to record high
Venezuela's political, humanitarian and socio-economic crisis has left millions of people displaced across South America. Source: AP Photo/Fernando Vergara

By the end of last year, around 4.5 million Venezuelans had fled the country, most of whom travelled to other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean.

It is considered one of the biggest displacement crises in the world.

Climate change: an 'additional conflict'

One of UNHCR’s biggest concerns for the future is climate change and natural disasters.

UNHCR’s special advisor on climate change Andrew Harper said some families and communities have already started to suffer from the consequences of climate change.

“We're really concerned that climate change, being a threat multiplier, is going to lead to additional conflict, either indirectly or indirectly,” he said.

“Places are getting drier, it's more difficult to grow crops, people are fighting over resources, so either people are moving because they can no longer survive as they have for generations, or they're having to move because people are fighting over the little they've got.”

Cyclone survivors shelter near Nhamatanda, Mozambique
UNICEF estimates 1.7 million people in southern Africa have been affected by Cyclone Idai. (AAP) Source: AAP

Existing refugee populations are also falling victim to climate change or natural disasters. 

Last year when the south-east of Africa was hit by tropical cyclone Idai, UNHCR was forced to move refugee families in Mozambique and Malawi urgently to find safer shelters.

Similarly, Rohingya refugees in southern Bangladesh face significant danger during the monsoon season which causes flooding and landslides.

Mr Harper said he expects such incidents to increase in the coming years and is urging governments and policymakers to do more. 

“Do we see the international community stepping up to the plate? No,” he said.

“There are still too many conferences… but actually, if you're in a place like North Africa or the South Pacific where you're losing territory by the day because of rising sea levels, the challenges are here and now.”

Australia's role

Hadeel and her family were able to resettle in Australia on humanitarian visas in 2015.

After five years learning English, getting her driver’s license and winning a full scholarship from the Crescent Foundation to attend Western Sydney University, she is now in her final year nursing studies. 

Hadeel and her sister in Sydney.
Hadeel and her sister in Sydney. Source: Supplied

"Every day when I would come home, I felt like I should quit, but then I have support from my family ... My father said 'you can learn when you put yourself under pressure',” she said.

Australia welcomed 11 per cent of all resettled refugees in 2019. The intake was just over 18,000, the second-largest in the Asia Pacific region behind Malaysia. 

Hadeel said she is glad she was one of those given a second chance. 

“A new country means a new opportunity. There is a new life.”

Refugee Week aims to raise awareness of the issues affecting refugees and is marked 14-20 June. 

6 min read
Published 18 June 2020 at 3:16pm
By Amelia Dunn