Here are seven key trends likely to leave millions of people in need of food, medical care, shelter, or other humanitarian aid over the next year; plus, some ideas on what governments, aid groups, or individuals might do differently so 2025 looks a little better.
We publish this list against a backdrop of ongoing conflicts and violence – in Gaza, Ukraine, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo; in Sudan, Haiti, and Myanmar; and in so many other places where humanitarian needs are growing or have become a way of life for many. We also publish it with the knowledge that women and children, as always, will bear the brunt of the impacts.
This random-order list draws from our reporting around the globe; interviews with researchers, aid workers, and policymakers; and, most importantly, from our discussions with people working to rebuild lives in the midst of conflicts and disasters.
For a geographic take of humanitarian hotspots, look out – on 8 January – for our list of 10 crises that should demand your attention in 2024.
Efforts to deter migrants will drive up deaths and abuses
Despite abundant evidence that “prevention through deterrence” isn’t working, the United States, the EU, and many others are doubling down on this strategy and increasingly trying to export it to the countries that refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants come from and transit through. The result in 2024 will almost certainly be a rise in the already staggering number of deaths in the Mediterranean and in the US-Mexico border desert; more and more people languishing in dismal camps along US and European frontiers; expanded human rights violations and humanitarian suffering in countries of origin and transit; and the increasing instrumentalisation of migration as a tool to exert political pressure on the United States and European countries. We’ve seen this all already in Tunisia, Mexico, Morocco, Türkiye, Libya, Niger, the Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama, the Poland-Belarus border, the Russia-Finland border, and more. A better approach? Recognise that migration is both inevitable and frequently beneficial, especially when well managed.
Information warfare – with an AI twist – will put civilians at increasing risk
Misinformation and disinformation have always factored into conflicts and crises. But today’s tech, including easily accessible and rapidly evolving artificial intelligence – think image creators like Midjourney and insta-text tools like ChatGPT – multiplies the risks. Generative AI may be the equivalent of the next, big, mass-producible weapon, some analysts warn. Look at Gaza or Ukraine for snapshots of how information is weaponised. Examples of real-world harms are mounting elsewhere. In Sudan, both the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces have waged an information war on social media – endangering civilians fleeing conflict with false information about safe areas. Smartphone surveillance has also targeted asylum seekers; it’s pushed by countries seeking to limit their numbers. Tigrayan massacre survivors say Facebook algorithms amplified hate and led to killings in Ethiopia. Myanmar’s Rohingya know the consequences: Hate speech demonised an entire community, adding fuel to their genocide. Former tech CEOs are pushing for guardrails. Governments from the US to the EU are rushing to try and regulate AI. But change may happen more organically. Citizen sleuths and professional fact-checkers are debunking disinformation from Ukraine to Indonesia, and the skills they employ can be fostered.
Water scarcity and drought will spur displacement
The Middle East and North Africa may be considered the worst-affected region, but water scarcity has become a global scourge, with droughts affecting everywhere from Peru to Kenya, from Syria to Afghanistan, from Honduras to Somalia. These events are only expected to proliferate as climate change worsens, with millions of people in fast-drying settings being pushed to cities for jobs that don’t exist. Children are particularly vulnerable to water scarcity, which is one of the main factors in preventable infant deaths. UNICEF says 739 million children – one in three globally – live in areas of high or very high water scarcity. Save the Children recently pointed out how water shortages linked to climate change increased the risks for children in Gaza. Conflict greatly worsens the situation, as in Yemen, where warring parties have both weaponised water and extorted citizens desperate for it. A lack of water can also cause crises in peaceful countries. A first-ever UN conference in 2023 dedicated to water security was a start to addressing the issue. But attendees left underwhelmed by the lack of concrete action and pondering why the next one won’t be until 2028.
Sieges will collectively punish civilians and cut off aid access
Siege tactics are as old as war itself, but an uptick in their use is leaving millions of people hungry and complicating relief efforts. Israel turned its two-decade blockade of Gaza into a total siege in October, using electricity, food and water, and medical supplies as tools of war. The siege and accompanying bombardment will likely create humanitarian needs for decades to come. In Burkina Faso and Mali, jihadist groups have encircled dozens of villages and towns, leading to mass hunger and deaths from curable diseases. Elsewhere, Yemen’s Houthis are still laying siege to Taiz; while Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports continues to threaten global food security. In Myanmar, the ruling junta is routinely blocking aid and commercial supplies and may impose full sieges as armed resistance movements make major gains. Negotiating access into besieged areas is complex but still possible. Communities in besieged areas have also developed adaptation and coping mechanisms that aid groups might try to support.
El Niño will magnify hunger, displacement, and health risks
Already hotter than usual Pacific Ocean temperatures are heating up even more due to the El Niño weather pattern, which drives even fiercer floods, droughts, wildfires, and heat waves across the globe, climate scientists warn. After the hottest year on record, the humanitarian toll for millions will be all too familiar: magnified hunger in parts of an already hungry world; displacement; and health risks. As with most climate-induced crises, communities already grappling with conflict or with economies and healthcare systems upended by the pandemic will be least prepared to cope. A shift from aftermath response towards anticipation and preparation could save lives and money. The Peruvian government has said it will allocate more than $1 billion to prevent and contain climate-induced damage. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization is prioritising early response and anticipatory action, such as reinforcing river embankments and distributing drought-tolerant seeds. But it warns that “the available financial resources are extremely limited compared to the expected effects of this phenomenon”.
The shunning of ‘pariah’ states and groups will deepen humanitarian crises
Aid organisations are grappling with how to provide assistance without appearing to legitimise governments and groups accused of wide-scale abuses. It’s not a new dilemma, but it is poised to take on a new urgency in 2024 as humanitarian needs spiral upward in Afghanistan, Myanmar, the Sahel, and in many other settings around the globe where donor governments and international aid groups are tested by political, ethical, and legal constraints. A mindset shift may be under way. The UN and the government of Venezuela have agreed to a plan to use millions of dollars of Venezuelan assets frozen by sanctions for emergency aid. In Latin America and the Caribbean, lessons learned by peacebuilders are being offered to aid groups that have to engage with gang leaders. And calls from within Afghanistan for greater engagement with the Taliban in order to bolster aid efforts are getting more of a hearing from international leaders: As the head of the UN mission there told the Security Council: “Dialogue does not legitimise.”
‘Transitional’ regimes in the Sahel will put aid access and funding at risk
The aftermath of a spate of recent coups in the Sahel – driven by poor governance and dysfunction, but also by legacies of colonialism – is worsening already significant humanitarian crises. Juntas in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger have left the violence of militant groups unchecked and failed to turn around dwindling economies. 2024 is likely to be rougher still, as debt distress, stumbling growth, climate emergencies, and tighter aid budgets further test the solidity of constitutional rule elsewhere. Sanctions by Africa’s regional organisations have been the standard – and ineffective – reaction to military takeovers. In Niger, they have been particularly blunt, hurting both people and aid operations. “Transitional” military regimes are now entrenched as political players. A more nuanced international approach is required. It needs to both recognise the conditions that have led to interventions and work to solve them – while at the same time encouraging punctuality in the return to civilian rule.