Published on Development for Peace

65 million people displaced by conflict – a challenge for development actors

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The publication of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' global trends in forced displacement for 2015 report this week made the headlines. For yet another year in a row, the number of forcibly displaced persons has been increasing, reaching an estimated 65 million people worldwide. 

If all these people were living in a country, it would be more populated than the UK. This is a clear development challenge, given that the displaced are often among the most vulnerable of the poor . Their presence also transforms the environment in which host countries and communities are designing and implementing their own poverty reduction efforts.  

Behind such statistics there is an immense amount of human suffering. The personal story of each forcibly displaced person is often heart-breaking. Multiplied by 65 million it makes for a global tragedy.  

But who exactly are the 65 million? In fact, the aggregate total masks substantial differences across at least three distinct groups.

Syrian refugees in Zouq Bhanin Village, Lebanon
Syrian refugees in Zouq Bhanin Village, Lebanon
There are about 20 million refugees and asylum seekers under UNHCR’s mandate: These are people who have crossed an international border to flee violence and persecution. They often live "in limbo" with limited rights and uncertain prospects for an extended period of time. They largely originate from a small number of conflicts which have been going on for a long time: Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, etc.

There is an additional 5 million Palestinian Refugees. They are defined in a specific way, and in particular they are likely to remain refugees until the Palestine situation is resolved, even if they acquire new citizenship in a third country: Their number is deemed to increase with demographic growth until that point.

And there are about 40 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), who have fled their homes as a result of violence or persecution, but are still citizens in their own country. In a way, aggregating IDPs and refugees is akin to adding internal migrants to international economic migrants, something we rarely do.

From a development perspective, each of these groups requires a distinct type of support , and of course within each group there are degrees of vulnerability.

It is also critical to underline that forced displacement is primarily a challenge for developing countries, especially in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. Although the headlines focus on OECD countries, the 10 countries which host the largest number of refugees are all in the developing world: Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Chad. Between them, these 10 countries including five in Africa host almost 60% of the world’s refugees. The number is even higher for all middle- and low-income countries. For three years in a row, they have hosted 86% of the global total of refugees.

By comparison, high-income countries host 14% of the total, with the largest hosts (according to UNHCR’s numbers) being Germany (316,100), the Russian Federation (314,500), France (273,100), the United States (273,000), Sweden (169,500), Canada (136,000), the United Kingdom (123,100), and Italy (118,000). The reality is that responsibilities are not shared equally.  

It’s important to note that while this data is valuable, it still remains incomplete. For the development community, more evidence is needed if we are to provide an adequate response. We need to better understand who the displaced are, and what kind of vulnerabilities they have . We need to have a better sense of the communities they live in. We need to think through what would help achieve durable solutions in each situation.

Getting an accurate picture of the scale of forced displacement is challenging, but a better understanding of available information, and efforts to improve data are necessary to focus development assistance and help the displaced more effectively. The urgency of the forced displacement crisis has inspired greater collaboration  on this front as well, where the World Bank is working to make a contribution, with partners including the UN, multilateral development banks and the European Commission


Xavier Devictor

Co-Director, World Development Report 2023

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