Conflict and violence forced people from their homes a record number of times last year, a report has found, with sub-Saharan Africa bearing the brunt of mass internal displacement caused by “huge spikes” in fighting.
People fleeing violence were internally displaced 14.4m times in 2021, an increase of 4.6m on 2020, according to figures published by the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).
Most of those displacements – 11.6m, or 80% of the total – took place in sub-Saharan African countries, with the war in northern Ethiopia dwarfing other conflicts in terms of the number of times people were forced from their homes.
Alexandra Bilak, IDMC director, said the geographic concentration of the conflict-related displacement across sub-Saharan Africa, from the Sahel to east Africa, was a huge concern. “These are, of course, countries that have experienced long histories of conflict, but what these numbers show is that the conflicts are far from having been resolved,” she said.
“So on top of protracted crises, you get new waves of violence every year. In Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, we’re talking huge spikes of new violence that have led to incredibly large numbers being displaced and, at least for now, very little prospect for returns.”
New flare-ups of violence often collided with climate pressures such as drought or flooding, and resulting food insecurity, making it even harder for countries to give internally displaced people (IDPs) the help they needed, she said.
“There’s absolutely no window during which some kind of stabilisation could happen, and some degree of return or sustainable local integration. These constant shocks to the system mean that the numbers keep increasing.”
According to the report, there were 59.1 million IDPs globally in 2021, a cumulative figure, which has grown steadily since the IDMC began documenting in 2003. Every year more displacement is caused by natural disasters than conflict, but last year the number of forced movements due to disasters such as such as storms, floods and volcanic eruptions – 23.7 million – was down considerably on 2020.
The number of times people were forced from their homes by violence was of particular concern to the IDMC. As the report deals with 2021, the figures do not include the huge humanitarian fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where more than 7 million people are thought to be internally displaced.
The only place to rival that scale of displacement was Ethiopia, where conflict – chiefly war between government forces and Tigrayan rebels in the north of the country – triggered 5.1m internal displacements. Until the invasion of Ukraine, that was the highest annual figure ever recorded for a single country.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which saw 2.7m displacements due to conflict, and Afghanistan, where the Taliban toppled Ashraf Ghani’s government, also registered all-time highs. The volatile situation in Myanmar, where the military staged a bloody coup, helped triple the overall figure for east Asia compared with the previous year.
With more than half the global IDP population under 25, and about 25 million under 18, the IDMC called for more targeted interventions to protect children and young people from the particular dangers they face. “The financial difficulties IDPs tend to face may force children to engage in dangerous income-generating activities, including crime, transactional sex or joining armed groups,” the report notes. “Strengthening child protection systems that consider these risks is essential.”
Displaced girls and boys, it adds, confront different risks, with girls at greater risk of sexual violence and child marriage, and boys of recruitment by fighters.
Bilak hoped the report would raise awareness of the worsening plight of IDPs, which historically had received “much less attention” from governments and policymakers than that of refugees or migrants. “This is, first and foremost, a call for acknowledgment of the scale … and the urgency of the issue,” she said.
Faced with the stark increase in conflict-related displacement, she added, the IDMC urged greater investment in peace-building, “and in preventing those conflicts from happening in the first place”.