FOR MANY years Ethiopia struggled with drought and starvation, creating a population that moved frequently in search of food and water. Now it is violence that millions of Ethiopians are fleeing. Last year it topped the list of countries with displaced people, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), an NGO.
There are nearly 70m forcibly displaced people in the world. Refugees and asylum-seekers have rights and protections, but the roughly 40m who are “internally displaced” do not. Two-thirds are in African and Middle Eastern countries. And 2018 was another awful year, with an additional 10.8m newly-displaced people.
Ethiopia was at the top of the list. The 2.9m people who were forced from their homes there last year amounted to a fourfold increase on the previous year; it was the fourth-biggest displacement of people in a single year in the world since 2008.
The main factor, perhaps surprisingly, was Ethiopia’s move towards democracy in April last year. As the state loosened its grip, communal strife erupted and violence broke out over land and resources. More than one million Gedeo, an ethnic group from southern Ethiopia, were displaced after clashes with rival Gujis in Oromia. In Jijiga, a previously calm city in the Somali region of the country, 140,000 people were displaced in a matter of days in August. In the past, ethnic conflicts in Ethiopia were eventually pacified and many of those forced out managed to return to their homes. But if they cannot return, the IDMC says, there is a risk that large and seemingly permanent displaced populations will in turn cause friction elsewhere.
Meanwhile in Syria, the United Nations has called for a halt in the renewed fighting between the government and opposition in Idlib province. In addition to the 5.5m people who have fled the country, 6.2m of the country’s 18.2m population are now internally displaced because of its eight-year civil war. Not only do airstrikes destroy property and infrastructure, but unexploded bombs make it difficult for people to return to areas devastated by the war.
There are some glimmers of hope in the latest data release. In 2018, there were 665,000 fewer internally displaced people than in 2017, although the total is still an appalling 6.2m. In Congo, too, the number fell, from 4.4m to 3.1m. These are small consolations in the grim accounting of misery.