World Economy

A record 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced in 2017. It's predicted to get worse

Key Points
  • The global displacement crisis is more pressing than ever, according to a report by the United Nations Refugee Agency.
  • A record 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced at the end of 2017, the agency said.
  • Experts say the responsibility of hosting refugees is disproportionately borne by developing countries, and they're calling for a greater sharing of the burden.
Thousands of people displaced from Afrin line up to receive bread in the village of Fafin, South of Tall Rafat on March 25, 2018.
Afshin Ismaeli | Sopa Images | Getty Images

The global refugee crisis is more pressing than ever, according to a report out last month from the United Nations Refugee Agency.

A record 68.5 million people were found to have been forcibly displaced at the end of 2017, the agency said. The causes of the issue are primarily conflicts in a handful of countries, experts said.

“To add to that, conflicts are not being resolved sufficiently quickly,” Adrian Edwards, spokesman for UNHCR told CNBC.

The total global displacement figures have been rising steadily for almost 20 years now, with initial figures approximately doubling since that time. Based on the current trend, the number is likely to continue rising, Edwards said. An increase in the ease of international travel has also allowed people to relocate more readily when threatened.

For now, however, the problem remains relatively localized: About two-thirds of the world refugee situation remains focused in five countries, Edwards said. What that implies is that a viable solution in any of those countries would dramatically change the global displacement situation.

“It’s important that people get real about what’s happening. This is not something that can be stopped without stopping conflict itself. People need to recognize where this is actually happening,” Edwards said.

Countries experiencing conflicts are also caught in a vicious cycle, as a mass exodus poses a disastrous effect on its economy by diminishing its workforce, its economic development and its opportunity for foreign investment, according to Pal Nesse, senior advisor at the Norwegian Refugee Council.

“With more international cooperation, the crisis can be solved,” Nesse said, adding: “We need to recognize that the total number is going up globally, and we need a division of responsibilities.”

Meanwhile, the responsibility of hosting refugees has been disproportionately borne by developing countries, Keane Shum from the UNHCR Regional Office for Southeast Asia in Bangkok told CNBC.


“85 percent of all refugees are hosted in developing countries, and these countries usually face significant environment and/or political challenges that are compounded by the refugee situation,” Shum said, adding that more equitable solutions should be implemented.

Global compact

In 2016, the UN General Assembly agreed that refugee crises should be an international responsibility. That agreement will be furthered later this year when the international body's High Commissioner proposes the text of a new global compact.

The global compact is an international response to support refugees and share responsibilities with the goal of either assimilating them into new societies or to eventually help them to return home safely. About nine out of 10 people being displaced want to return home when the situation is resolved, according to Edwards.

Currently, less than 1 percent of all refugees have the opportunity to resettle in another country, Shum pointed out.

Global political division on the subject has also been a factor, Edwards added: “We can arguably say that there is more division in the international community in dealing with forced displacement now compared to the Cold War period.”

“The global environment is not a healthy one at the moment for asylum seekers,” Edwards said. “This is why it is crucial for countries to work together to provide an international framework to protect the people.”

Anti-refugee and anti-immigrant sentiment has been increasing globally, Shum said. However, the bulk of such attitudes still remain in developed countries, which are not hosting nearly as many refugees as some developing ones.

“It is a worrying trend in certain countries, but we hope that the sheer scale of issues, as well as the positive benefits that we argue can accrue from a global solidarity approach will sway policymakers to change their attitudes,” Shum said.

Rebuilding and reconciliation for the refugees takes much longer in the absence of political solutions. Often, host countries are not sufficiently funded to deal with the sudden influx of people, which creates opportunities for criminal networks and human trafficking to flourish.

Funding gap

Host countries typically experience a strain on their economies, as a lot of infrastructure, health care, and education support is needed for their refugee populations. At the same time, international institutions are providing less funding, experts said.

Pierre Krahenbuhl, commissioner general for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said Monday that the agency could run out of money to help support Palestinian refugees in Gaza and Syria because of a $250 million shortfall.

As most of the spending by the UNRWA comes from voluntary contributions by UN member states, the U.S.'s cut in funding from $360 million to about $60 million has left the agency in dire need of financing, Krahenbuhl reportedly said.

“In recent times, half of all new refugees went to only three countries: Bangladesh, Uganda, and Turkey,” said Nesse, adding that the funding gap could increase the already-burdened economies of those countries, leading to hostility toward the refugees.

Even if host countries open up their economy to welcome the refugees, a sudden surplus in the local labor market may lead to resentment and negative sentiments toward the refugees, some have warned.