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A neighborhood in Honduras flooded by Hurricanes Eta and Iota, which destroyed houses and harvests, and increased food insecurity, in December 2020.
Courtesy of NRC/Christian Jepsen
NewsDefend the Planet

Natural Disasters Displaced 3 Times as Many People as Conflict in 2020


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Displacement is a growing threat around the world as climate change intensifies. The United Nations calls on countries to develop international protocols for limiting and addressing displacement. You can join us in taking action on related issues here

Natural disasters displaced more than 30 million people within their countries in 2020, while conflicts and violence displaced around 10 million people, according to a new report by the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).

The primary cause of nature-based displacement were floods, extreme storms, and wildfires — events that have gotten worse in recent years due to climate change. As temperatures warm and sea levels rise, these figures will only rise, putting tremendous pressure on countries to curb greenhouse gas emissions and take climate action. 

“One of today’s most pressing humanitarian challenges is forced displacement related to disasters including the adverse effect of climate change,” Raouf Mazou, assistant secretary-general of UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, said in a statement. “Countries that are already fragile may be at increased risk of erupting into conflict due to the changing climate, as is already being witnessed in the Sahel for example. 

“In climate-vulnerable regions frequently hit by natural disasters, refugees and internally displaced people are not only disproportionately affected but their chances of returning home as a solution to their plight also diminish,” he added.

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Whether displacement happens because of violence or extreme weather, it can cause people to lose family and friends, their homes, and their livelihoods. It can also cause someone to travel hundreds of miles to seek refuge, and plunge them into poverty.

For young people, who account for the majority of those displaced worldwide, the impacts can be especially harmful, especially if it leads to missed school, loss of nutrition, and exposure to traumas.

Combined with figures from earlier years, an estimated 55 million people were internally displaced in 2020. The true figure could be much higher because incomplete data exists for natural disasters. Even still, there are nearly twice as many internally displaced persons (IDPs) as refugees, who find refuge in another country.

"Conflict, violence, and disasters continue to uproot millions of people from their homes every year," Alexandra Bilak, director of IDMC, said in the report. "Never in IDMC’s history have we recorded more people living in internal displacement worldwide than we do today."

Significant regional differences are outlined in the report. Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa accounted for the majority of people displaced by conflict and violence, while East Asia and the Pacific saw the most people displaced by natural disasters. 

Displacement in the context of COVID-19 is particularly alarming, according to the report, because refugee and IDP camps sometimes feature poor hygiene, cramped conditions, and limited access to medical care. 

In Yemen, for example, 45% of IDPs surveyed said they or one of their family members had COVID-19 symptoms. 

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The report stresses that displacement needs to be understood in the broader context of humanitarian concerns. People pushed from their homes need shelter, but they also need help with food, water, education, health care, and more. 

Displacement also has repercussions across a society. If an agricultural community faces an extreme weather event, for example, it could threaten food production regionally.

While the IDMC report is a step forward toward better understanding this multifaceted crisis, the authors stress that more data and resources are needed.

“If we are to understand what works and what does not, we will have to systematically monitor disaster displacement, displacement risk, and what is being done to reduce it over time worldwide,” the report's authors wrote. “The insights gleaned, combined with the exchange of good practices among countries dealing with internal displacement, would enable more reliable and accessible funding, thereby creating fertile ground for real change and sustainable progress.”