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Ten humanitarian crises and trends to watch in 2021

These 10 crises and trends will help shape our coverage in 2021. 

Our aim is to offer a forward-looking view of current and emerging issues that are likely to drive new humanitarian needs. While we point to some geographically specific crises, we also look at cross-cutting trends, from growing food insecurity to faltering peace deals.

This list is informed by our reporting from humanitarian hotspots around the globe — more than 70 countries in 2020 — and our editors’ research and discussions with analysts, aid workers, and those affected by conflict and disasters. 

Here’s why the crises and trends listed below (in random order, as this is not a ranked list) have our attention — and should demand yours.

TAKE THE CONVERSATION FORWARD

This is our list. What’s yours? Be sure to also watch the recording of our Crises to Watch event with leading thinkers from across the humanitarian space, check out The people’s edition: 10 crises to watch in 2021, and get involved in the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #CrisestoWatch. 

At a glance: The crises we're watching in 2021

Fraying deals: Who will keep peace on track?

Siegfried Modola/REUTERS

Monitoring and oversight is important for peacebuilding to succeed, but there may be less money and international bandwidth available as a result of COVID-19 and the global recession. Peace agreements from South Sudan to Colombia to Central African Republic are already faltering; political transitions in Sudan, Mali, and potentially Afghanistan look equally wobbly. While each situation is unique, they all share the need for guarantors to keep what peace there is on track. The African Union is one – but it is cash-strapped and will have its work cut out to deliver on all its commitments in 2021. The return of a more multilateral-focused United States may help, but it has many priorities back home as it tries to unite a fractured country.

Why we’re watching

The UN secretary-general made conflict prevention and resolution a central pillar of his agenda. But it’s hard to find much evidence of lasting progress. In South Sudan, the unification of rival armies has stalled, as has the appointment of officials to a rung of local government that is key to nipping intercommunal violence in the bud. There’s international exhaustion over Juba’s political shenanigans and growing fears the agreement – the second since 2011 – could unravel before scheduled elections in 2023. It doesn’t help that Ethiopia, the main player in a weak regional grouping overseeing the peace, is itself convulsed by internal crisis. In neighbouring CAR, elections in December supposed to set the troubled country on a path to recovery instead triggered widespread fighting when armed groups broke a 2019 peace deal. The immediate priority of the AU, the guarantor of the agreement, is to ensure – along with the UN, the EU and Russia – that the rebels don’t capture the capital, Bangui. In Colombia, a groundbreaking 2016 agreement was opposed by the subsequent government, which is accused of turning a blind eye to the killing of former guerrillas and rights activists. There are now calls for Joe Biden’s incoming US administration to help rescue the deal. Sudan’s fragile transition to civilian rule, brokered by the AU, is meanwhile threatened by deep economic problems that will also require generous international aid – and a wary eye kept on the military’s intentions. Renewed unrest in the western region of Darfur, following the start of a phased withdrawal of UN and AU peacekeepers, is also a concern. In Mali, hopes are on pause that the soldiers behind last year’s coup will swiftly introduce promised governance reforms before handing power back to the politicians. The AU and the UN may need to nudge that process along – especially as the reforms are seen as key to responding to the challenge of violent extremism. In Afghanistan, it’s unclear if the new US government will stick to a deal inked with the Taliban over the withdrawal of American forces. The concern is that it’s just a means to get US troops to leave so the Taliban can overthrow the Afghan government. It’s also the sort of elites’ pact that risks serving politicians a lot better than the people actually affected by conflict.

Keep in mind

Conflict accounts for 80 percent of humanitarian needs, and failure to address the root causes of fighting – or to properly reconcile opposing sides – can lead to repeat cycles of violence. Peace deals tend to exclude women, but a growing body of research shows that women’s participation is key to delivering lasting solutions. Local organisations are also calling for more recognition as key players in building lasting peace. Big UN-mediated peace deals may no longer be the answer.

Ethiopia: From turbulent transition toward civil war

Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/REUTERS

The war in Tigray is grabbing headlines, but the northern region is just one of several in the country experiencing violent unrest amid a fraught political transition. The UN says 20 million people are in need of assistance – twice as many as in 2019. As Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed struggles to hold his country together, things could get even worse. Some fear a Yugoslavia-style breakup in Africa’s second most populous nation.

Why we’re watching

A little more than a year after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Abiy faces simmering unrest across the country. The prime minister says he had no choice but to quash an armed insurrection by the ruling party in Tigray. But the fighting has triggered a humanitarian disaster, with tens of thousands fleeing abroad and more than two million people internally displaced. A drawn-out conflict now looks likely, as the chaos impacts neighbouring countries – Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia among them. Elsewhere, activists in Oromia are demanding more power for their region – Ethiopia’s largest – and militia are launching deadly attacks on civilians. In the south of the country, violence is also rising as different ethnic groups seek regions of their own. Running through these and other conflicts is a fierce debate about the kind of country Ethiopia should be: a federation of ethnically based regions – as it currently is – or a more centralised state transcending the country’s more than 80 ethnic groups. Abiy’s critics believe he belongs to the latter camp and is trying to dismantle the constitution; his supporters say he just wants to build national unity. Compounding the violence is a desert locust invasion – East Africa’s worst in decadeswidespread flooding, and challenges in delivering humanitarian aid

Keep in mind

The country is a regional heavyweight. Its capital city hosts the headquarters of the African Union, and thousands of its troops are serving on peacekeeping missions in South Sudan and Somalia. As the war in Tigray has shown, what happens in Ethiopia can quickly have wider knock-on effects in a fragile region.

Overlapping disasters: The climate change ripple effect

Seth Berry/TNH

Climate-linked threats are stacking one on top of the next, locking communities in a perpetual rebuild. Fused with COVID-19’s economic fallout, it seems likely that recovery will take longer, existing emergencies will worsen, and national budgets and aid funds will be drained fast – all while global action on climate change takes a backseat during the pandemic. On top of this, the La Niña phenomenon could supercharge risks through the first quarter of 2021, amplifying weather extremes and even raising global grain prices.



Why we’re watching

Thirteen of the 20 countries most vulnerable to climate change also have a global humanitarian appeal in 2021, and the majority have an active conflict. We said it last year: Climate change is a risk multiplier driving unpredictable weather extremes. But what might normally be short-term crises are becoming increasingly drawn out as repeat disasters multiply in quick succession. Years of hard-won disaster preparedness lessons may minimise casualties from a single storm or flood, but the world’s most exposed areas are seeing a pile-up of disaster after disaster. Southeast Asia, for example, faced an unusual typhoon barrage in 2020 that hit 32 million people and laid the groundwork, the Red Cross says, for a long-term crisis that will have repercussions well into this year. Fiji emerged from December’s Category 5 Cyclone Yasa with few casualties, but hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. This will add to the bill from April’s Cyclone Harold – which reaped even heavier losses in neighbouring Vanuatu, totalling nearly half of its GDP. These chains of disasters inflict hidden costs long after. Twin storms and long-term drought, for example, are driving migration from Honduras. In parts of coastal India and Bangladesh, May’s Cyclone Amphan followed two punishing storms a year earlier. The combined impacts of all three – plus months of monsoon floods – are pushing some families to abandon their eroding land, and magnifying pressures on women and girls. Climate change is now firmly entrenched in the humanitarian lexicon, reflecting what frontline communities have known for years. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, calls it “the defining crisis of our time”. 

Keep in mind

The world’s most disaster-vulnerable countries aren’t always the ones getting the most in adaptation funding, while compensation for climate loss and damages remains a political roadblock. Much of the push to prepare for climate disasters comes from countries and communities on the front lines. Pacific nations have created national policies on climate displacement, and multiple groups are exploring ways to press the issue – including suing for disaster losses to offset inadequate climate financing and campaigning to make “ecocide” a crime under international law.

Venezuela: Nowhere left to turn

The once-wealthy Venezuelan economy already lies in ruins, but with oil revenues set to deteriorate further, most of those left within the country face an even deeper humanitarian crisis in 2021. Predictions of a renewed exodus are growing, yet opportunities in the region have dried up due to the pandemic, exit routes are more dangerous, and xenophobia is rising. All this as President Nicolás Maduro tightens his repressive and allegedly criminal grip on power, having taken the Congress in December elections boycotted by the opposition.

Why we’re watching

A 30 December report prepared by the Organization of American States (OAS) warns that the number of Venezuelan refugees and migrants could swell to more than 7 million in 2021 – from a previous high of around 5.4 million. Yet pre-pandemic commitments to help tackle the unprecedented regional migration crisis by making it easier for Venezuelans to work and integrate have long since evaporated. Countries close to Venezuela have instead adopted harsher regulations – their once-welcoming attitudes hardened against the backdrop of COVID-19 pressures and growing xenophobia. More than 140,000 Venezuelans returned home through Colombia and Brazil between March and September 2020, as COVID-19 inflicted an estimated 8.1 percent contraction on the region’s economy. For Venzuelans who face tighter borders and enter other countries illegally – or who lack expensive-to-obtain official documents and passports – jobs and public services will remain out of reach and they’ll be unable to regularise their status. Colombian President Iván Duque has said undocumented Venezuelan migrants (more than half the estimated 1.8 million Venezuelans in Colombia are undocumented) won’t receive coronavirus vaccinations, and immigration officials are threatening to step up deportations. Meanwhile, those who return to Venezuela face abuse and stigmatisation by the authorities, while needs back home are ever more desperate. Gasoline shortages hamper the ability to get what food is produced to market and disrupt the delivery of the scant humanitarian assistance to those in need.

Keep in mind

Armed criminal groups and ELN guerrillas have defied lockdowns to consolidate their control of the Venezuela-Colombia border regions where migrants move in both directions, increasingly on illegal routes. The squalid encampments that have sprung up along the border, including in La Guajira – an arid Indigenous region in northeastern Colombia – largely lack assistance. And in spite of the risks, Venezuelans are also likely to continue fleeing on rickety smuggling boats to Caribbean islands where the authorities may be less than willing to welcome them.

Food insecurity: Price rises and pandemic fallout

Hans Lucas/REUTERS

As 2021 begins, there’s a risk of famine in Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Yemen. In South Sudan, “famine-like” conditions are already under way in a remote eastern part of the country. Southern Madagascar is also a cause for concern after its third consecutive drought. Responses to these long-standing food security “hotspots” have been complicated by COVID-19, which has made it harder for aid workers to reach those in need. Global food commodity prices hit a six-year high in December 2020 and look set to increase, with potentially wide-ranging impacts. Job losses and slowing economies as a result of coronavirus lockdowns will likely create more poverty and more hunger around the globe – even in some middle-income countries – and may also threaten aid funding.

Why we’re watching

Violence and displacement are likely to force more people into hunger in parts of Afghanistan, Cameroon, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, and Niger. Economic troubles will make matters a whole lot worse for the poor in Haiti, Lebanon, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe, according to the UN. A La Niña event is also likely to trigger droughts in Ethiopia and Somalia, and a resurgence of locust swarms is expected across East Africa and Yemen, threatening harvests once more. The easing of COVID-19 lockdowns in the middle of last year – particularly in many African countries – saw tentative recoveries in people’s standards of living. But the second COVID wave could threaten that rally. Latin America, like much of Africa, was already facing rising rates of hunger, but the pandemic has made it a good deal worse. Global humanitarian needs increased in 2020 – much of it related to food security – yet attracted only 46 percent of required funding. It's yet unclear how donors will react in the year ahead – Britain has cut its aid spending, while Germany has a record-high humanitarian response budget. The much-needed good news has been the arrival of effective vaccines, which is beginning to lift fears of a long-running recession. The OECD – the club of the wealthiest nations – is predicting global recovery by the end of 2021.

Keep in mind

While the World Food Programme has warned repeatedly of famines of “biblical proportions” as a result of COVID-19, our reporting has found such claims overstated. The current crises are pre-existing disasters long in the making, often due to conflict and poverty. To date, the informal sector that employs most people in Africa and in many developing countries has proven largely resilient to lockdown shocks, and government social safety schemes have certainly helped lessen the blow. That’s as evident in state-centred economies like Ethiopia as it is in arch-capitalist ones like the United States

Central African Republic: A new rebellion

Adrienne Surprenant/TNH

Violence reduced in CAR after armed groups signed a peace deal with the government in 2019. But a disputed election has triggered a new rebel offensive that threatens to derail the agreement and drag the country – which has some of the highest humanitarian needs per capita of any state in the world – back into civil war.

Why we’re watching

It may be a mainstay on lists of neglected crises, but CAR’s outlook for the year ahead looks increasingly bleak. More than 100,000 people have fled their homes following December polls that saw President Faustin-Archange Touadéra win five more years in power. Some of CAR’s biggest rebel groups believe the election was fraudulent and have formed a coalition to oust the 63-year-old. Major towns have already fallen to the group, which has also launched attacks on the outskirts of the capital city, Bangui. Known as the CPC, the rebels are supported by CAR’s former president, François Bozizé, whose ouster in 2013 saw the country descend into years of shifting civil war. The new offensive highlights the weakness of international stabilisation efforts, in particular a peace agreement signed in February 2019 in Khartoum by 14 armed groups, including those involved in the CPC. Key parts of the deal have not been implemented, and rebel abuses have continued across the country despite their leaders receiving government posts and various other perks. Thousands of UN peacekeepers deployed in the country since 2014 now face a major test, as does CAR’s army, which is backed by Rwandan soldiers and Russian military contractors. While the CPC’s next moves are hard to predict – coalitions like this often fall apart in CAR – more suffering seems certain in a country where one in four are already internally displaced or living as refugees in neighbouring states.

Keep in mind

CAR may draw little international media attention, but it attracts plenty of interest from foreign powers. Touadéra is allied to Russia and to the Wagner Group, a mercenary organisation linked to President Vladimir Putin, while France, CAR’s former colonial ruler, had hoped a change in power last month would help restore its waning influence in the country. Russia and France have both built links to rebel groups to further their objectives, according to a recent report from The Sentry, a Washington-based NGO.

Yemen: Needs mount as aid funding falls

Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS

Yemen is back on our list for the third year in a row, and for good reason: Aid funding for what the UN still labels “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis” is down, and violence – even in some parts of the country that had been fairly quiet – is up. Combine that with widespread hunger, stalled peace talks, and the recent designation by the US of the Houthi rebels as a “terrorist group” – expected to further complicate aid delivery – and there’s plenty to worry about. 

Why we’re watching 

With six years of war coming up in March, game-changing ceasefire deals and peace talks – as mentioned in last year’s 10 crises to watch, and 2019’s too – are starting to feel like little more than a whole lot of talk. There has been some hard-won progress on prisoner exchanges – 1,056 detainees were freed in late October in the largest swap of the war. But while the December 2018 deal that ended a government-coalition offensive on Houthi rebels in Hodeidah is still technically in place, many parts of the so-called Stockholm Agreement have still not been implemented. And an already shaky deal to stop discord in the south was put in further peril at the very end of 2020, as a bombing at Aden’s airport appeared to target the arrival of a newly-formed cabinet. Meanwhile, fighting and forced displacement has escalated in the southern province of Marib, once a bastion of stability, not to mention Taiz and Hodeidah. At the same time, general economic decline (worsened by COVID-19) and a serious currency crash are forcing more and more people to cut down on what, and how often, they eat. Again, there are warnings of famine. But much like two years ago, the threshold for an official declaration is high, while good data is hard to come by. Another threat sits offshore: A decaying tanker could spill a million barrels of oil into the Red Sea, causing an environmental disaster. Yemen is becoming a crisis where everything is going wrong, and where it’s harder and harder to see how things can be turned around.

Keep in mind

In 2019, the UN appealed for $4.2 billion for the aid effort it leads in Yemen. It received over $3.6 billion; more than 85 percent of the ask. In 2020, even though needs were slightly up, it asked for less: $3 billion (plus extra for COVID-19 relief), of which it has seen only $1.9 billion, or 56 percent. Some donors are frustrated by aid diversion and obstruction, while others simply may not have as much money to give. Either way, aid agencies and NGOs say the result is that key programmes will be cut, and more of Yemen’s 30 million people will suffer.

Infectious diseases: Losing gains in the shadow of COVID-19

Akhtar Soomro/REUTERS

The coronavirus has stalled routine immunisation and vaccination campaigns and made delivering healthcare more complex. Preventable diseases are worsening in the shadows, sidelined by COVID-19 precautions, conflict, mistrust, and, sometimes, poor health policy. Our 2019 list warned of healthcare as a casualty of conflict and disasters, and last year we focused on vaccine hesitancy and blocked access as worrisome trends. It’s all still relevant in 2021 – but now completely upended by the pandemic. 

Why we’re watching

Before there was a coronavirus pandemic, there was an entirely preventable wave of measles outbreaks that killed at least 207,000 people around the world in 2019. Figures for last year won’t be available for months, but public health experts fear the worst: Vaccination campaigns for measles, polio, and other preventable diseases were cancelled as COVID-19 erupted – coverage dropped to 50 percent in some areas, and at least 94 million children have missed out. Immunisations have resumed in some countries, but UN agencies warn of “explosive outbreaks”. Left unchecked, polio continues to fester. Dangerous strains of vaccine-derived polio – rare mutations found in under-immunised populations – are leaping over borders. New outbreaks were reported in countries like Sudan and Yemen in 2020; emerging hotspots in Burkina Faso, Chad, and Côte d’Ivoire recorded dozens of cases each. The wild poliovirus continues to spiral in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The disease seemed on the brink of eradication only a few years ago; now the board monitoring the donor-funded Global Polio Eradication Initiative calls the response an “epidemiological debacle”. 

Keep in mind

The same issues that thwarted immunisation programmes and healthcare before the pandemic will also be hurdles to ensuring COVID-19 vaccines reach the world’s most marginalised – insecurity, poor access to healthcare, and trust. Governments and aid groups have a long road ahead in countering mistrust. Look no further than the dangerously militarised Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo, clouded by aid fraud and sexual abuse scandals; or attacks on polio vaccinators in Pakistan; or even Bangladesh’s Rohingya camps, where distrust of healthcare providers saw health visits halved last year.

Central American migration: US promises hard to keep

William Martin III/TNH

The economic effects of the pandemic are a powerful intensifier of the existing drivers of migration in Central America and Mexico. Biden’s promises to end many of the Trump administration’s harsh migration policies, combined with the re-opening of borders post-COVID – and continued drought and violence – may also encourage a lot more people in the region to attempt to enter the United States. But will the United States be ready or willing to receive them, especially amid the pandemic?

Why we’re watching

Endemic gang violence, spiralling gender-based violence, the increasing intensity and frequency of storm-related disasters, and stagnant economies have been driving displacement and migration in Central America and Mexico for years. But levels of GBV have soared during the COVID-19 pandemic, gangs have flourished during lockdowns (expanding their territory and control), and all the region’s economies are expected to contract hugely this year. After a dip during lockdowns in March and April, the number of people apprehended while irregularly entering the United States over the last four months of 2020 already returned to similar – even slightly higher – levels than in the same period of 2019. And in a possible forerunner of what’s to come, after a series of disastrous hurricanes late last year, a caravan of thousands of migrants formed in Honduras in January and started making its way towards the US border before being broken up violently by Guatemalan troops. Fearing a political crisis from a potential rush of asylum seekers and migrants to the US-Mexico border, Biden advisers have been trying to temper expectations about how much of the Trump administration’s immigration legacy will be reversed, and how quickly it can be done, especially with the pandemic still raging. A dramatic uptick of people travelling to the US-Mexico border while many of Trump’s policies are still in place could exacerbate the already dire humanitarian situation for asylum seekers and migrants in northern Mexico.

Keep in mind

Migration of Mexicans to the United States is on the rise again, reversing a 15-year trend and outpacing Central Americans for the first time in years. For the second year in a row, Mexico recorded more than 34,000 homicides in 2020, many of them related to cartel violence, and the already-lagging Mexican economy has been further battered by the pandemic. Continued economic struggles and high levels of violence will likely push many more Mexicans towards the United States, compounding the problems on the border.

Hardships for women and girls: COVID’s added toll

Pu Ying Huang/TNH

Women and girls, who are disproportionately impacted by conflicts and disasters, face an even harder time in crisis settings this year due to the knock-on effects of the pandemic. The UN (and others) have warned that generations of progress for the rights and health of women and girls risk being lost due to COVID-19, and violence against women increased 25 percent during lockdowns. Already, aid groups say health services for women, including vital maternal health, have been “deprioritised” in fragile countries around the world.

Why we’re watching

Gender-based violence has increased in camps for displaced people in countries from Greece to South Sudan to Mexico, with women sometimes forced into lockdown with their abusers, and safe houses shut down. In places like Venezuela and Haiti, among other fragile states and conflict zones, unwanted pregnancies and maternal mortality increased as clinics closed – either for sanitary reasons or for lack of funding. Child marriages rose in places like Bangladesh and Cameroon as schools closed and families struggled financially under the weight of lockdown measures. COVID-19 lockdowns have also curtailed women’s access to shelter and the courts. In Afghanistan, where cononavirus has ravaged the economy, caused food prices to skyrocket, and increased GBV, added pressures due to the pandemic have pushed some women to suicide. It may be too early to tell how girls’ education levels have suffered due to school closures surrounding the pandemic, but the impact of past emergencies paints a worrying picture for the road ahead, most notably in conflict areas and other fragile environments. There have been some commitments to provide more emergency aid funding – particularly for the prevention of gender-based violence – and commitments to a more “feminist humanitarian system”. But there has also been plenty of criticism that the amounts pledged are far from adequate. 

Keep in mind

Numbers only tell half the story. The pandemic has been a stark reminder that there is still a blind spot when it comes to data on women and girls. Only a fraction of governments around the world have collected statistics that fully consider them when it comes to the impact of COVID-19, a gap that makes it hard to determine just how much help they will need. Pregnant women, for example, were left out of recent COVID-19 vaccine trials. There is also a lack of data on specific humanitarian funding for the needs of women and girls because many of the numbers are not aggregated by sex.

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