On 6 January 2022, the House of Lords is due to debate Lord Alton of Liverpool’s (Crossbench) motion that:

This House takes note of (1) the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ estimate that 82.4 million people are displaced worldwide, 42 percent of whom are children, and 32 percent of whom are refugees, and (2) the case for an urgent international response to address the root causes of mass displacement.

Forcibly displaced people: numbers and causes

The UN has defined forcibly displaced persons as those who are “forced to move, within or across borders, due to armed conflict, persecution, terrorism, human rights violations and abuses, violence, the adverse effects of climate change, natural disasters, development projects or a combination of these factors”. It has categorised such individuals into the following groups:

  • Refugees: those who have been forced to flee their homes because of war, violence or persecution, often without warning, and who have rights to specific protections under international law once they obtain refugee status.
  • Asylum-seekers: those who are seeking international protection from dangers in their own country, but whose claim for refugee status has not yet been determined.
  • Venezuelans displaced abroad: those of Venezuelan origin who are likely to be in need of international protection under the Cartagena Declaration, but who have not applied for asylum in the country in which they are present (this therefore excludes Venezuelan asylum-seekers and refugees).
  • Internally displaced people (IDPs): those who have been forced to flee their homes because of war, violence, human rights violations or disasters but that remain in their own country.

In November 2021, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) published its mid-year trends report on the topic. It estimated that the number of people forcibly displaced globally exceeded 84 million by mid-2021. This was an increase from the estimated 82.4 million at the end of 2020. Armed conflicts, violence and human rights violations were a major cause of this. The report also noted that the Covid-19 pandemic, disasters, extreme weather, and the other effects of climate change had created additional challenges for displaced people.

Refugees and asylum-seekers

The UNHCR reported that, by the end of June 2021, the number of refugees under its mandate had surpassed 20.8 million, an increase of 172,000 on the end of 2020. More than half of those who were granted international protection were from five countries:

  • the Central African Republic (71,800);
  • South Sudan (61,700);
  • Syria (38,800);
  • Afghanistan (25,200); and
  • Nigeria (20,300).

In addition, there were 92,100 newly displaced Venezuelans in Latin America and the Caribbean.

As in previous years, the report found that eight out of ten people displaced across borders (based on refugees and Venezuelans displaced abroad) originated from ten countries. Syria continued to account for the world’s largest refugee population. Venezuelans were the second largest group and Afghans made up the third largest group.

Similarly, more than half of these people displaced across borders were hosted by ten countries, a pattern that the report said had remained broadly consistent over recent years. Many of these countries hosted large groups of refugees from just one or two countries of origin.

The five countries hosting the most were:

  • Turkey (3,696,800);
  • Colombia (1,743,900);
  • Uganda (1,475,300);
  • Pakistan (1,438,500); and
  • Germany (1,235,200).

The report said that people displaced across borders were mainly hosted by neighbouring countries (73%). These countries are usually developing (85%) and lower-and-middle income (83%), with the least developed countries hosting 27%.

In its report, the UNHCR said that “identifying and supporting durable solutions that enable refugees to rebuild their lives and to live in safety and dignity” is one of its strategic priorities. It explained that these solutions have traditionally included: voluntary repatriation; local integration and resettlement to a third country; and legal status in a refugee’s country of asylum. However, the report found that in the first six months of 2021, “only a small fraction of displaced populations were able to find a safe and lasting solution”. It said this continued a pattern seen in recent years.

In addition, the UNHCR reported that the number of asylum-seekers had increased to 4.4 million by the end of June 2021, compared to 4.1 million at the end of 2020. The report said the trend was concerning, as lengthy backlogs in processing asylum applications increase the risk that those in need of protection will not be able to access protection and solutions in a timely and effective manner. It also argued that if asylum-seekers wait for years without meaningful access to rights or certainty about their future, it can lead to “an erosion of public confidence in the system, increased costs, and difficulties in returning rejected applicants”.

Internally displaced persons

The report highlighted that in the first six months of 2021, the UNHCR continued to respond to situations of internal displacement in 33 countries. It found that the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) had risen to nearly 50.9 million by mid-2021, almost 5% more than at the end of 2020. It highlighted that intensifying violence had led to significant new displacements in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Myanmar, South Sudan and countries in the Sahel region, amongst others.

Covid-19 pandemic

The UNHCR said that the Covid-19 pandemic had created challenges for countries and displaced populations. For example, it found that travel restrictions were continuing to limit access to asylum in the first half of 2021, although asylum-seekers were able to access more countries than in the previous year. In addition, while the number of returnees (refugees and IDPs) increased compared to the same period in 2020, the UNHCR reported that it remained below pre-pandemic levels. Unresolved and escalating conflicts in many countries of origin, as well as travel restrictions related to the pandemic, were said to be having an impact.

It noted that almost all countries had included refugees, asylum-seekers, and others in need of international protection in national vaccination plans. However, it also highlighted “a substantial vaccine equity gap” between wealthier and low resource countries.

In addition, the UNHCR reported that many people in countries with situations of internal displacement faced food insecurity. It expected the situation to have deteriorated further by the end of 2021. It said the pandemic had exacerbated the problem: 30 million more people are estimated to be facing hunger in 2030 than if the pandemic had not occurred.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees response

Commenting on the findings, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said that the international community “is failing to prevent violence, persecution and human rights violations, which continue to drive people from their homes”. He stated that “it is the communities and countries with the fewest resources that continue to shoulder the greatest burden” in caring for the forcibly displaced. To address these issues, he called on the international community to “redouble its efforts” to make peace, whilst ensuring that resources are available to displaced communities and their hosts.

Action by the UK Government

Overarching policy

In March 2021, the UK Government published its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, which set out its high-level vision for the UK’s role in the world. It said that it would “remain sensitive to the plight of refugees and asylum-seekers”, stating that “our resettlement schemes have provided safe and legal routes for tens of thousands of people to start new lives in the UK”.

In 2018, the Government signed up to an international agreement on support for refugees and reforming the global humanitarian system. The Global Compact for Refugees agreement provided the basis for a coordinated international response to improve support for refugees and share the responsibility for hosting them more fairly amongst wealthy and poorer nations. However, the agreement is not legally binding and internally displaced persons are not represented in it.

Resettlement schemes

The Home Office published new policy guidance on UK refugee resettlement in August 2021, following plans to consolidate previous resettlement schemes. It explained that the UK operates three resettlement schemes: the UK Resettlement Scheme (UKRS), the Community Sponsorship Scheme; and the Mandate Resettlement Scheme. In addition, it highlighted that there are “other safe and legal pathways to the UK which are not covered [by the] document”. These included family reunion applications, and schemes to provide support to current and former locally employed staff in Afghanistan. The Government said that these resettlement schemes “play a key role in the global response to humanitarian crises”. It also said that it works closely with the UNHCR to identify those living in formal refugee camps, informal settlements, and host communities “who would benefit most from resettlement to the UK”.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, resettlement schemes were put on hold from March to December 2020. Home Office statistics on the number of people the UK granted asylum or protection to showed the impact of this. The statistics showed that the Home Office had granted protection to 353 people through resettlement schemes in the year ending March 2021, 93% fewer than in the previous year. Some have argued that the Government could have resumed resettlement earlier; for example, Kate Osamor (Labour MP for Edmonton) highlighted that the Government had earlier restarted other aspects of the UK’s asylum-system, including removals of unsuccessful applicants.

The Government has also introduced the Nationality and Borders Bill, which would reform the UK’s asylum system and impact on resettlement. Some commentators, including the UNHCR, have argued that it will restrict access to asylum. The bill has completed its stages in the House of Commons and is scheduled for second reading in the House of Lords on 5 January 2022. Further information on the bill is available in the House of Lords Library’s briefing.


James Cleverly, Minister for Middle East and North Africa, and Ambassador James Kariuki, Deputy Permanent Representative of the UK Mission to the UN in New York, have outlined some of the UK’s funding for displaced people.

In December 2021, Mr Cleverly addressed the virtual Global Compact on Refugees high-level officials meeting. He stated that a “nightmare combination of conflict, Covid-19 and the climate crisis means the number of people forced from their homes is set to pass 100 million next year”. He said that the UK has continued to play its part in delivering the Global Compact. As part of this, Mr Cleverly said the UK had given significant support to the world’s largest refugee crises, including:

  • providing £732 million since 2011 to support Syrian refugees and host communities;
  • creating small business opportunities and jobs for Syrians and Jordanians through a £216 million programme in Jordan;
  • providing £320 million in response to the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh for lifesaving food, health support and sanitation for refugees since 2017; and
  • supporting refugees and host communities in Uganda with a 6-year £210 million programme.

Mr Cleverly said the UK had helped 300,000 children to continue their education in ten countries, and had resettled more than 25,000 people seeking refuge since 2015. In addition, he stated that the Government had issued more than 39,000 visas under family reunion scheme—around half to children.

Looking forward, he said the UK would resettle up to 20,000 people through the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme. The Government’s press release on the scheme said it aimed to resettle 5,000 Afghan nationals in the first year and that it would be “kept under further review for future years, with up to a total of 20,000 in the long-term”.

The Government has explained that refugees and displaced people are also some of the most vulnerable to Covid-19, because they are often in conditions where social distancing, regular handwashing and self-isolation are difficult. To help with these issues, Mr Cleverly told the House of Commons in January 2021 that: “UK funding is helping to install handwashing stations, isolation and treatment centres, providing protection and education services and improved access to clean water for displaced people”.

In December 2021, Ambassador Kariuki made a statement on “the devastating” impact of conflict, climate and Covid for refugees and displaced people. Ambassador Kariuki said that the UK is committed to “a longer term, holistic approach to refugee assistance and protection that restores dignity and offers refugees a viable future”. He said that the UK had contributed over $570 million “to the vital work of the UNHCR over the last five years”. This included $970 million to support refugees in Lebanon since 2011 and $23 million in Myanmar since the military coup in February 2021.

In November 2020, the Government announced that it would spend 0.5% of gross national income (GNI) on Official Development Assistance (ODA) in 2021, rather than 0.7%. The International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015 set the target of spending 0.7% of GNI on ODA annually. However, the Government has said new legislation was not needed for the revised target because it is “strictly temporary” and therefore “in line with the spirit and framework of the [2015] act, which envisages situations in which departure from the 0.7% may be necessary”. It explained that the temporary reduction was necessary due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on public finances and said the UK would remain “one of the largest overseas donors in the world”.

Many individuals and organisations were critical of the Government’s decision, arguing that various programmes would be affected. Charities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), many of which work with displaced people, have since submitted evidence to the House of Commons International Development Committee setting out the cuts they’d likely have to make because of the reduction. For example, the Norwegian Refugee Council said that the reduction would mean that over 65,000 displaced people from Syria “will no longer receive aid” and would be unable to obtain documents including birth certificates. Press reports also cited a letter sent to the Government from a group of aid agencies in June 2021, which warned that the decision would leave about 70,000 people without health services and 100,000 without water in Cox’s Bazar, the world’s largest refugee settlement.

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Cover image by Julie Ricard from Unsplash.