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Global refugees face increasing risk of long-term displacement

Syrian children next to a tent in a refugee camp
Syrian children at a refugee camp in Hatay, Turkey. Photo: Cem Genco/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Across the globe, the number of people forcibly displaced by conflict and persecution has risen to more than 70 million, almost double the number a decade ago, according to the latest annual report from the UN High Commission for Refugees.

Why it matters: The trends make clear that forced displacement has become an “entrenched norm,” as people continue to be uprooted by (mostly civil) war and for longer periods of time. Almost 16 million refugees have been in exile for 5 or more consecutive years in a given host country, and 6 million have been displaced for more than 20 years.

Details: The total figure includes 41 million people displaced within their own country, 25.6 million refugees and 3.5 million asylum seekers. Even still, it likely underestimates realities on the ground, as UNHCR’s official tallies are unable to capture some refugees who have not formally applied for asylum.

  • Just 5 countries — Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan and Syria — produced more than two-thirds of the world’s refugees.
  • Turkey, Pakistan and Uganda were the top host countries, and Germany was the only Western country in the top 10.

Between the lines: The newly displaced are fleeing new violence and old conflicts. Some 13.6 million people were newly displaced in 2018 — an average of 37,000 people per day.

  • The largest number of newly displaced came from Ethiopia, where more than 1.5 million have fled new intercommunal violence.
  • The next largest displacement was in Syria, where almost 900,000 people were forced from their homes by renewed fighting. This trend has accelerated in 2019. Since May 1, a regime offensive into Idlib province has displaced some 330,000 people.

What to watch: Governments are granting asylum to fewer people. In 2018, only 44% of asylum decisions resulted in any form of protection, down from 49% in 2017 and 60% in 2016.

But, but, but: Despite the negative trends, there are reasons for hope.

  • Ethiopia passed a law in January that enables refugees to obtain work permits and access education, Colombia gave residency and work permits to more than 500,000 Venezuelans, and Pakistan made it possible for refugees to open bank accounts.
  • These expanded protections are acknowledgments by host countries that refugees can contribute to local communities.

Hardin Lang is vice president for programs and policy at Refugees International.

Go deeper: Read Axios' deep dive on global refugees.