Africa’s tragedy of displacement rises highest in two-decade period

Sunday June 16 2024

Data shows that globally, estimated 75.9 million people are living in internal displacement due to conflict, human rights violations.



Africa’s conflicts are turning out to be the biggest stumbling blocks to achieving crucial Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs), drawing back the continent from its oft-praised colourful economic promise.

That assessment is drawn from two separate reports launched this week on the global trends of conflicts and the attendant human displacements from it, as well as the burden of reconstructing destroyed livelihoods.

In Africa, global trends show, that the root causes of displacement are human rights violations, risk of persecution, conflict, poor governance and loss of livelihoods. That is also Goal 16 of SDGs which seeks to build just and well-governed societies that protect human rights.

The report by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHRC): Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2023, shows that, overall, the world has reported 117.3 million people as displaced. The number could rise to 124 million “as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order.”

And Africa has contributed the biggest number of displacements in the past year, even though it has fewer conflicts now compared to 20 years ago. That is giving a burden to humanitarian responders but it is just a tougher task as well for peace mediators.

In 2023, after the outbreak of war in Sudan, the number of Sudanese refugees surged by 79 per cent to 1.5 million, the biggest surge in Africa. They fled to neighbouring Chad, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt.

Some of these countries were already carrying the burden of displaced people, having themselves suffered conflicts or some kind of natural tragedy due to climate change.

The UNHCR report shows that those fleeing Sudan found themselves in new danger: “The most common type of shock experienced by both refugees and the host community was flooding, which is common in the north of South Sudan,” it said.

Other problems seen in other conflict zones include eruption of disease outbreaks, kidnappings of those fleeing danger, physical attacks and sexual assaults.

Read: Ethiopia armed clashes displace over 50000 people


Globally, there are some 43.4 million refugees including 31.6 million directly under UNHCR protection. But that is half the picture. Most of the people forced to leave their homes may remain within their country. The world now has 68.3 million Internally Displaced People (IDPs). That means one in five people are displaced, and most live in poor countries.

Biggest pile

For 2023, however, the spike was more than the average seen in the last 25 years. In total, at least 27.2 million people were forced to flee their homes during 2023, 25 percent of these fled to other countries, data show. The average displacement per year has been 14.3 million since 1999. Since 2021, the average shot to 27.8 million. Most of those numbers are due to conflicts in Ukraine, Gaza and Sudan.

But more displacements have also happened closer home in the Democratic Republic of Congo (6.7 million), and Somalia (3.9 million). Sudan has the biggest tally on the continent with six million people displaced since the war began last year in April between the Sudan Armed Forces and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

In fact, UNHCR’s estimates may be lower. About 75.9 million people are living in internal displacement due to conflict, and nearly half that number is in sub-Saharan Africa, according to an earlier report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).

Sudan’s year-long war has added the biggest pile to the number, reporting 9.1 million displacements (6.1 million directly from the war). At least 34.8 million people in the sub-Sahara region were displaced in 2023, up from the previous year, IDMC had indicated in May.

“Over the past two years, we’ve seen alarming new levels of people having to flee their homes due to conflict and violence, even in regions where the trend had been improving. Conflict, and the devastation it leaves behind, is keeping millions from rebuilding their lives, often for years on end,” said IDMC Director, Alexandra Bilak, after the launch of the Global Report on Internal Displacement (GRID) last month, an annual assessment since 2008.

UNHCR admits the rise in forced displacement signals a failure to uphold peace and security. But another set of data says Africa’s fewer conflicts are actually churning out more IDPs and deaths.

On the continent where 28 state-based conflicts occurred, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan remained the countries with the most, and also the highest incidence in the world.

EA DRC Refugees 2#1

Congolese internally displaced civilians carry their belongings as they flee renewed tensions from Kanyaruchinya to Goma in the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo on November 15, 2022. PHOTO | REUTERS

Compared to 10 years ago, the number of conflicts in Africa has nearly doubled, from 15 in 2013 to 28 in 2023, according to data from the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO):

Siri Aas Rustad, a research director and author of PRIO’s paper: Conflict Trends: A Global Overview, 1946–2023, says 2023 recorded the highest number of State-based conflicts since 1946, even though they happened in fewer countries: 34, leading to at least 122, deaths by December last year.

Read: Nearly 8m displaced by Sudan war, UN says

“The dramatic increase in battle deaths over the past three years were mainly caused by three conflicts: The civil war in the Tigray region in Ethiopia, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the bombings of Gaza,” she argues.

Rustad analysed data collected under the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, probably before facts about Sudan’s atrocities became clearer. But there was something worrying:

“Following a decrease in State-based conflicts in the 1990s, there has been a worrying increase in State-based conflicts over the past decade.

More than 50 State-based conflicts have been recorded each year for the past eight years, peaking in 2023 with 59 conflicts.” This means the world has returned to Cold War years when rivals US and USSR funded or armed proxies

In the SDGs era, however, it means more distraction and a headache on how to resolve the displacement while also guarding against the collapse of institutions.

“Behind these stark and rising numbers lie countless human tragedies. That suffering must galvanise the international community to act urgently to tackle the root causes of forced displacement, Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for refugees, in a note ahead of the report launch on Tuesday.

Aid agencies in the Horn of Africa had appealed for at least $10 billion to respond to humanitarian situations. But if the number rises from continual fighting, more money will be needed. Yet donors have been overwhelmed by other conflicts, especially in Gaza and Ukraine.

“There is a growing and urgent need to reimagine humanitarian action,” the UNHCR report says.

“At the same time, resources continue to dwindle, and situations are becoming more complex and protracted. Several recent initiatives have collectively highlighted that humanitarian responses in situations of internal displacement have been too slow and process-oriented.”

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