Forced migration or displacement
In studying forced or involuntary migration — sometimes referred to as forced or involuntary displacement — a distinction is often made between conflict-induced and disaster-induced displacement. Displacement induced by conflict is typically referred to as caused by humans, whereas natural causes typically underlay displacement caused by disasters. The definitions of these concepts are useful, but the lines between them may be blurred in practice because conflicts may arise due to disputes over natural resources and human activity may trigger natural disasters such as landslides.
Countries faced with forced displacement — induced by humans or nature — collect data on displaced populations. Such data are typically collected through a combination of population censuses, household surveys, border counts, administrative records and beneficiary registers.
At the international level, data on forced migration are collected and/or compiled by various intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).
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Key terms that are used in the context of forced migration or forced/involuntary displacement include:
According to IOM, forced migration is “a migratory movement which, although the drivers can be diverse, involves force, compulsion, or coercion.”1 The definition includes a note which clarifies that, “While not an international legal concept, this term has been used to describe the movements of refugees, displaced persons (including those displaced by disasters or development projects), and, in some instances, victims of trafficking. At the international level the use of this term is debated because of the widespread recognition that a continuum of agency exists rather than a voluntary/forced dichotomy and that it might undermine the existing legal international protection regime.” (IOM Glossary on Migration, 2019).
According to the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol refugees are persons who flee their country due to "well-founded fear" of persecution due to reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, and who are outside of their country of nationality or permanent residence and due to this fear are unable or unwilling to return to it. UNHCR includes “individuals recognized under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, its 1967 Protocol, the 1969 Organization of African Unity (OAU) Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, those recognized in accordance with the UNHCR Statute, individuals granted complementary forms of protection, and those enjoying temporary protection. The refugee population also includes people in refugee-like situations." (UNHCR, 2017).
Persons in a refugee-like situation includes “groups of persons who are outside their country or territory of origin and who face protection risks similar to those of refugees, but for whom refugee status has, for practical or other reasons, not been ascertained.” (UNHCR, 2013).
According to UNHCR, asylum-seekers are “individuals who have sought international protection and whose claims for refugee status have not yet been determined” (2017, 56).
Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are defined as “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border.” (Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, E/CN.4/1998/53/Add.2.).
Mixed movement (also called mixed migration or mixed flow) is “a movement in which a number of people are travelling together, generally in an irregular manner, using the same routes and means of transport, but for different reasons. People travelling as part of mixed movements have varying needs and profiles and may include asylum seekers, refugees, trafficked persons, unaccompanied/separated children, and migrants in an irregular situation.” (IOM Glossary on Migration, 2019).
Disaster-induced migration is the displacement of people as a result of “a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society involving widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses or impacts, which exceeds the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources.” (UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2009).
Resettlement, according to IOM, is the “transfer of refugees from the country in which they have sought protection to another State that has agreed to admit them — as refugees — with permanent residence status.” (IOM Glossary on Migration, 2019). Resettlement programmes are carried out by both IOM and UNHCR.
Forced displacement due to persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order
According to UNHCR, the number of forcibly displaced people both within countries and across borders as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order has nearly doubled in the last 10 years; there were 41 million forcibly displaced people as of the end of 2010, and the figure was 78.5 million by the end of 2020.2 This represents the highest number available on record (UNHCR, 2021).
Refugees (26.4 million) and asylum-seekers (4.1 million) made up nearly 39 per cent of the 78.5 million people forcibly displaced due to persecution, war, conflict, generalized violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order 48 million internally displaced people accounted for the remaining 61 per cent (ibid.). Such figures show it is important to keep in mind that forcibly displaced persons are not only comprised of refugees and asylum seekers who seek protection in other countries, but also, and indeed mainly, of individuals who have been displaced within the borders of their own countries (see below).
The drastic increase of total forced displacement — both within countries and across borders — as of the end of 2020 compared to the end of 2010 was mainly due to several crises — some already existed, some are new, and some resurfaced after years. These include crises in: the Syrian Arab Republic, which stretched into its tenth year; the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela; the Sahel region of Africa; Afghanistan; Somalia; Ethiopia; Yemen; the Democratic Republic of Congo; Mozambique; Ukraine; and hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan (ibid.).
By the end of 2020, nearly 65 per cent of all refugees were from the top five countries of origin: the Syrian Arab Republic, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (GMDAC analysis based on UNHCR, 2021). As of the end of 2020, more than 56 per cent of all refugees and asylum-seekers with pending applications came from the top five countries of origin of refugees and asylum-seekers: the Syrian Arab Republic, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (GMDAC analysis based on UNHCR, 2021 and the Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela, 2021).
In 2020, refugee resettlement plummeted to its lowest level in almost two decades as a result of travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic and temporary suspensions of resettlement programmes from mid-March to mid-June 2020 (UNHCR, 2021). In 2020, UNHCR submitted 39,500 refugee applications for resettlement and according to government statistics, only 34,400 people were resettled to 21 countries; this is just one-third of the number resettled in 2019 (107,700) and 2018 (92,400) (ibid.) Overall, Syrians accounted for one-third of resettled refugees in 2020, followed by Congolese (12%) (ibid.) 86 per cent of the cases submitted by UNHCR in 2020 were for survivors of torture and/ or violence, people with legal and physical protection needs, and particularly vulnerable women and girls. 51 per cent of the total resettlement submissions were for children (ibid.).
In 2019, there was an increase in the number of refugees and other vulnerable persons assisted under the auspices of IOM for resettlement, relocation and humanitarian admissions; 94,992 individuals in 2018 and 107,437 individuals in 2019 (IOM 2020). Individuals assisted in 2019 were relocated to 30 countries. The top 5 countries of departure in 2019 by the number of individuals assisted for resettlement, relocation and humanitarian admissions were Turkey, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Jordan and Uganda (IOM, 2020).
Forced displacement within countries due to conflict and disasters
By the end of 2020, 55 million people were living in internal displacement as a result of conflict and violence as well as disasters (the stock of internal displacements) (IDMC, 2021). Of this total, 48 million people in 59 countries were internally displaced by conflict and violence and 7 million people in 104 countries were internally displaced by disasters (ibid.). It is important to note that displacement by conflict and displacement by disaster cannot always be reliably distinguished because many people can be displaced for one reason, and then displaced for a second or even third time by a different reason. Most of the 55 million IDPS are living in low- and middle-income countries that suffer from the effects of global inequality, the steep rise in extreme weather events, and unsustainable development practices (ibid.).
In 2020, 40.5 million new internal displacements across 149 countries were recorded (ibid.). Disasters triggered more than three-quarters (30.7 million) of the new displacements recorded; the rest, about 9.8 million, were prompted by conflict and violence (ibid.).
Most of the new displacements triggered by conflict and violence (about 91%) were recorded in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa (ibid.). The five countries with the highest number of new internal displacements due to conflict and violence were the Democratic Republic of Congo (2.2 million), the Syrian Arab Republic (1.8 million), Ethiopia (1.7 million), Mozambique (592,000) and Burkina Faso (515,000) (ibid.).
Most disaster displacements (98%) were the result of tropical storms and floods in East Asia and the Pacific and South Asia. The five countries with the highest number of new internal displacements due disasters were China (5.1 million), the Philippines (4.4 million), Bangladesh (4.4 million), India (3.9 million) and the United States (1.7 million) (ibid.).
UNHCR collects and provides data on the following types of forcibly displaced persons: refugees (including those in a refugee-like situations), IDPs, asylum seekers, returned refugees, returned IDPs, individuals under UNHCR’s statelessness mandate, and other groups or persons of concern to UNHCR. UNHCR’s Statistics Database provides data disaggregated by persons of concern, year, country of asylum, origin, gender, age, legal status and resettlement. In addition, UNHCR annually produces six main publications with relevant statistics : Global Trends: Forced Displacement, Statistical Yearbooks, Mid-Year Trends, Global Appeal, and Global Report. UNHCR also began a statistics technical series of papers that “make available in a timely fashion research, developments and studies on a variety of topics relevant to the statistical work of UNHCR”.
As the global reference point for data on IDPs, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) compiles and disseminates data relating to IDPs through its online Global Internal Displacement Database (GIDD). In addition, IDMC produces an annual Global Report on Internal Displacement (GRID), covering internal displacement worldwide due to conflict, violence and disasters.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) presents data from UN DESA and UNHCR relating to migration, including forced migration specific to children. Data are disaggregated by country of asylum.
IOM collects forced migration data through the Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM). DTM is a system used to track and monitor displacement and population mobility due to natural disasters and conflict, and has been active in over 60 countries since 2004. Data are regularly captured, processed and disseminated to provide a better understanding of the movements and evolving needs of displaced populations and migrants, whether on site or en route, with over 30 million individuals tracked in 2017. Data on conflict- and disaster-induced displacement are presented in the DTM Data Portal. In addition to this, IOM collects data on the number of migrants it assisted and resettled to States offering temporary protection or permanent resettlement. An overview of these data can be found in the annual report on IOM Resettlement or in the IOM Snapshot.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) manages the Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX), an open platform for sharing data from a range of partners, which provides 4,915 datasets over 244 locations.
Eurostat provides statistics on various international migration topics, including outcomes of forced migration to Europe. Through its database, Eurostat provides data on the number of refugees, asylum applications, decisions on asylum applications and resettlement, and Dublin statistics within Europe.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) provides assistance and protection for Palestinian refugees in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The UNRWA in Figures publication releases statistics on the number of Palestinian refugees and refugee camps. Today, over 5 million Palestine refugees have registered with UNRWA.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Organization of American States (OAS) together operate the Continuous Reporting System on International Migration in the Americas (SICREMI), which produces biannual reports of collected data from various sources in the Americas Region. The publication provides a short chapter on asylum seeking in the Americas, including data by country of asylum from 2001 to 2015.
The Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela (R4V), established on 12 April 2018, is led and coordinated by UNHCR and IOM. It is aimed at addressing the protection, assistance and integration needs of Venezuelan refugees and migrants in Latin American and Caribbean countries. The website provides cumulative data on pending asylum claims lodged by Venezuelans, recognized refugees from Venezuela and residence permits granted to Venezuelans.
The Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System (WRAPS), a system operated by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, provides statistics on refugee arrivals and admissions in the United States, by region, state and nationality. In addition, the Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS) produces Annual Flow Reports and Data Tables on refugee and asylum statistics, disaggregated by country of origin, age, sex and marital status.
The Government of Canada’s Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) Department has an Open Government Portal through which information on immigration and citizenship programmes can be found. Specifically, the portal provides monthly statistics on asylum claims, Syrian refugees and resettled refugees.
The Australian Government provides statistics on their humanitarian programme, which include quarterly asylum statistics and yearly asylum trends as well as yearly outcomes for their Offshore Humanitarian programme (refugee visas) and monthly irregular maritime arrivals reports. Their archived Fact Sheet provides an overview of their refugee and humanitarian programme with figures from 2011 to 2016.
Data strengths & limitations
Given the high public interest on forced displacement, complete and reliable data are essential. Existing data provide an indication of refugee and IDP figures globally, but they are based on estimates and varying data collection methods. Data discrepancies can occur due to disaggregation by country of origin or country of asylum only. Often data are lacking information on sex and age.
As one of the largest sources for data on forced displacement, UNHCR provides a unified approach to registering refugees, asylum seekers and IDPs through its Handbook for Registration. The Handbook, which provides guidance and operational standards for registration, among other topics, is useful for UNHCR staff and governmental and non-governmental partners who independently operate camps.
Many forced (and/or mixed) migration movements are monitored through population movement tracking systems, which provide rough estimates of such population flows. Organizations such as UNHCR, IOM, and the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) have such tracking systems in place to monitor the movements of mixed migration flows and IDPs. However, such movement tracking systems are subject to caveats including but not limited to: massive population flows that overwhelm capacity; limited access to certain routes and locations due to instability; unwillingness of individuals to provide information when there is no assistance being offered; and political pressures to suppress accurate reporting on IDP movements (Sarzin, 2017).
Data collection of forced or mixed migration movements, where refugees move alongside irregular migrants or via irregular migration routes, can be difficult and scarce because of the clandestine nature of such migration and the various motives for migrating (GMG, 2017). The identification of individuals in need of protection also becomes challenging as many refugees travel together alongside migrants underway for work or other reasons (ibid.). As more resources are needed in order to collect such data, governments tend to only collect data on forced migration in developed countries (Sarzin, 2017).
In regard to collecting data relating to IDPs and other forcibly displaced persons, the problem of inconsistent definitions and methodologies arises. Inconsistent definitions and methodologies across countries, organizations and movement tracking systems can produce different totals, resulting in data that are not comparable (World Bank, 2017). In order to curb such inconsistencies, the Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX), founded in 2014 by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and IDMC have been advocating for data interoperability, which describes the extent to which computer systems and devices can exchange data and interpret that shared data. The former has been advocating for this for the last 20 years. Both agencies are actively committed to advocating for data interoperability through the Grand Bargain.
- 1. Other organizations may refer to other terms, such as forced displacement.
- 2. The total number of displaced persons as of the end of 2020 in this thematic page is different from the total number UNHCR reports because the page excludes the number of Venezuelans displaced abroad (which UNHCR includes in its total). For data on Venezuelan migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, see www.r4v.info.