The number of people forced to flee their homes in 2015 could fill New York, London and Jakarta combined

To escape airstrikes, these Yemeni kids had to leave their homes behind.
To escape airstrikes, these Yemeni kids had to leave their homes behind.
Image: AP Photo/Hani Mohammed
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More people have been forced from their homes by war and violence than at any time since World War II. But while the 20 million refugees in that group tend to attract a lot of attention, another segment is often overlooked.

They’re called ”internally displaced people”—people who, like refugees, are driven from their homes by violence or natural disasters but who remain within their countries’ borders. In 2015, conflict alone internally displaced nearly 9 million people, according to a new report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and Norwegian Refugee Council. That brings the number of conflict-displaced people in the world today to 40.8 million—the highest figure ever recorded, and twice the number of refugees worldwide (as of mid-2015).

“If you look at international attention nowadays, it’s very much focused on refugees and migrants and the European ‘crisis,'”says Alexandra Bilak, director of IDMC. ”But what people don’t seem to understand is that the majority of refugees started off their journey as IDPs. Only a fraction of the total number of displaced people ends up crossing a border and leaving their country.”

For instance, while more than 4 million refugees have left Syria, that’s just a fraction of the 6.6 million Syrians who have fled their homes but remain in the country. ”Not very many people are talking about that,” says Bilak.

Why do IDPs tend to be even more vulnerable than refugees? Since they haven’t left their countries’ borders, they generally aren’t protected by international law the way refugees are. And oftentimes, it’s their own government that has forced them from their homes. This leaves many outside the reach of humanitarian workers.

Countries with fewer refugees also tend to attract less attention. The conflagration of violence in Yemen, for instance, has sent around 260,000 refugees from the country (pdf, p.19). However, at the end of 2015, some 2.2 million people in Yemen—about 8% of the total population—had been displaced. Without a boost in aid or a resolution to fighting in sight, Yemen could wind up like Colombia, Iraq, Sudan, and South Sudan, where millions have been displaced for years or even decades.

War isn’t displacement’s only culprit, though. Storms, floods, earthquakes and other natural hazards displaced around 19 million people in 2015—twice as many people as conflict did.

Rich countries get hit, too. A trio of typhoons put Japan in the Top 10 countries for displaced residents. The US was the 23rd, with some 63,000 people forced from their homes in 2015 by flooding, wildfires, and other calamities. And those numbers don’t count people still displaced by, say, Fukushima, or Hurricane Katrina. “Even after Hurricane Sandy,” says Bilak, “in New Jersey, there are still people who haven’t received housing assistance to this day.”

Twenty-three extended members of the Linen Family evacuate via a SC National Guard cargo vehicle in Georgetown, South Carolina October 9, 2015. Concerns about additional inundation in four coastal counties and more rain had officials on guard Friday, nine days after a state of emergency was declared because of historic rains that washed out roads, swamped hundreds of homes and killed 17 people in the state. Emergency management officials in several areas were encouraging residents to leave their homes as a precaution as floodwaters flow south into already-swollen rivers and tributaries toward the Atlantic Ocean. REUTERS/Randall Hill
The National Guard evacuates a South Carolina family after historic rains swamped their home.
Image: Reuters/Randall Hill

In El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, drug trafficking and gang activity resulted in at least a million people fleeing their homes, according to the report. But as in Syria, those in Central America who have managed to escape across a border attract disproportionate attention from the media, the public, and politicians (most notably, Donald Trump).

“[The report] makes the case that crises generally should be tackled at the outset—that the root causes should be addressed,” says Bilak. ”The refugee influx [from Syria and elsewhere] is simply the endpoint of a crisis that started a long time ago.”