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 across borders due to persecution, conflict or violence
According to UNHCR, the number of forcibly displaced people both within countries and across borders as a result of persecution, conflict, or generalized violence has grown by over 50 per cent in the last 10 years; there were 43.3 million forcibly displaced people in 2009, and the figure was 70.8 million by the end of 2018 (UNHCR, 2019). Today 1 out of every 108 people in the world is displaced (ibid.).
Of the 70.8 million people forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence or human rights violations, 42 per cent comprised 25.9 million refugees and 3.5 million asylum-seekers (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 forced displacement that occurred between 2009 and 2018 was concentrated between 2012 and 2017 mainly due to the Syrian conflict, other conflicts in the region, conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa and the inflow of Rohingyan refugees to Bangladesh (ibid.).
More than two-thirds (67%) of refugees in 2018 came from five countries: the Syrian Arab Republic (6.7 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million), South Sudan (2.3 million), Myanmar (1.1 million) and Somalia (0.9 million) (ibid.).
In 2017, there was a decrease in the number of refugees and other vulnerable persons assisted under the auspices of IOM for resettlement, relocation and humanitarian admissions; 204,937 individuals in 2016 and 137,839 in 2017 (IOM, 2018). Individuals assisted in 2017 travelled to 42 countries. The top 5 countries of departure in 2017 by the number of individuals assisted for resettlement, relocation and humanitarian admissions were Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Afghanistan and Italy (ibid.).
In 2018, UNHCR submitted 81,300 refugees for resettlement and recorded 92,400 admissions for resettlement (UNHCR, 2019). 664,700 and 593,800 refugees returned to their countries of origin in 2017 and 2018 respectively (ibid.).
Forced displacement within countries due to conflict, violence and disasters
At the end of 2019, the number of people displaced internally by conflict, violence and disasters had reached 50.8 million (IDMC, 2020). Of this total, 45.7 million people in 61 countries were internally displaced by conflict and violence and 5.1 million people in 95 countries were internally displaced by disasters (ibid.).
Conflict, violence and disasters triggered 33.4 million new internal displacements across 145 countries and territories in 2019 (ibid.). Of this total, conflict and violence triggered 8.5 million new displacements while disasters accounted for 24.9 million new displacements; the later statistic is the highest figure recorded since 2012 and three times the number of displacements caused by conflict and violence (ibid.). The five countries with the highest number of new internal displacements due to conflict and violence were the Syrian Arab Republic (1.8 million), the Democratic Republic of Congo (1.7 million), Ethiopia (1.1 million), Burkina Faso (513,000) and Afghanistan (461,00) (ibid.). The five countries with the highest number of new internal displacements due disasters were India (5 million), the Philippines (4.1 million), Bangladesh (4.1 million), China (4 million) and the United States (916,000) (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 Summary of IOM Statistics 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 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.