On Monday, 20 June, the international community observed World Refugee Day at a time when a record 100 million people are forcibly displaced by persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations. The unprecedented number of forcibly displaced people is not only a reflection of the expansion of conflicts where perpetrators are targeting civilians, but also of the longevity of crises preventing displaced populations from returning home. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), global food insecurity, the climate crisis, the war in Ukraine and protracted, as well as new conflicts and crises, are the leading causes of this “dramatic milestone.”
The commission of atrocity crimes not only gravely impacts civilian populations, but often results in mass civilian displacement. At the end of 2021, more than 69 percent of refugees came from only five conflict torn countries – Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar (Burma) – where various state actors and/or non-state armed groups have perpetrated crimes against humanity or war crimes. Intensifying violence across the Central Sahel – Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger – and ongoing inter-communal conflict and violence following the October 2021 military coup in Sudan also continue to force hundreds of thousands of people to flee.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – which has been characterized by possible war crimes and crimes against humanity – has caused the fastest growing and one of the largest displacement crises in decades, with more than 14 million people displaced since 24 February. In just four months of violence, more people have been forcibly displaced by the conflict in Ukraine than are estimated to have fled during 11 years of conflict in Syria.
Three days prior to World Refugee Day the international community marked the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought. Many of the conflicts driving mass displacement and atrocities are exacerbated by the destructive impacts of climate change, such as desertification and extreme weather events, including severe flooding and droughts. The adverse effects of climate change have become a significant driver of displacement and have been recognized as a “threat multiplier” for conflict and mass atrocities because of their potential to exacerbate existing threats. Climate extremes amplify the risk of food and water shortages, sometimes resulting in the loss of livelihoods and increased competition for resources that may trigger violence.
Severe drought – coupled with the rising food costs due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine – are driving resource scarcity and increasing the risk for inter-communal conflict in the Horn of Africa. As the fourth consecutive rainy season has failed to materialize, over one million people in the region have been uprooted in search of food, water and pasture for their livestock, and millions are at risk of famine. Millions of livestock have already perished, threatening pastoral ways of life and exacerbating communal tensions as desperation rises.
In Somalia, decades of recurrent conflict and instability have amplified climate-related vulnerabilities. More than 200,000 people are facing catastrophic levels of hunger while around 800,000 Somalis – mainly women and children – have been displaced. UNHCR recorded more than 100,000 new internal displacements due to drought, lack of livelihoods or conflict and insecurity in May 2022 alone. Those displaced are at heightened risk of violence and predation, including sexual and gender-based violence, by armed extremist groups like Al-Shabaab.
In neighboring Ethiopia, two food emergencies have left 25.9 million people in need of urgent assistance. In the northern Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions, conflict and the commission of likely war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing have resulted in man-made famine-like conditions. All sides to the conflict have targeted humanitarian convoys and storage facilities, razed farmland, killed livestock and targeted civilian infrastructure, including water systems.
Meanwhile, an additional 22 million people are threatened by hunger due to drought in Sudan and South Sudan, where recurrent conflict, atrocities and political crises have left populations increasingly vulnerable to climate-related risks. South Sudan is facing its “hungriest year” since gaining independence in 2011, with more than 70 percent of the population reliant on food aid, according to the World Food Programme.
Sarah Hunter, Communications and Digital Media Officer at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, said that, “urgently addressing the fallout of another historic drought in the Horn is of utmost importance to prevent countless deaths. Yet, aid is not a long-term solution. In order to protect populations from atrocity crimes and climate vulnerabilities, the international community must provide support for holistic peacebuilding and political processes that can lead to sustainable peace and equip populations with the capacity to tackle environmental factors and build resilience to climate change.”
One in every 78 people around the world is now a victim of forced displacement. Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, emphasized that, “every year of the last decade, the numbers have climbed. Either the international community comes together to take action to address this human tragedy, resolve conflicts and find lasting solutions, or this terrible trend will continue.”
World Refugee Day should serve as a reminder that humanitarian assistance and refugee resettlement are no substitute for investment in conflict prevention and policies that build a state’s capacity to prevent atrocity crimes and protracted conflicts before they occur. Savita Pawnday, Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, stressed that, “our response to the unprecedented displacement crisis must be grounded in non-discrimination and international refugee law, including the principle of non-refoulement. The international community must increase their collective action to better protect vulnerable populations and find solutions that enable the safe, voluntary return of all those displaced to their places of origin. Policymakers must account for the risk of atrocities when implementing conflict-sensitive strategies for combatting the consequences of climate change in order to holistically protect populations.”