8 of the Worst Humanitarian Crises to Know in 2021

December 22, 2020
Written by Olivia Giovetti

Updated and expanded from our 2020 list, here’s what to know in the world of humanitarian response for 2021.

At the end of 2019, we presented 5 of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Most of these are complex crises that have been going on for years, if not decades. However, new crises emerge and an existing humanitarian crisis can turn complex if additional challenges come up. 

2020 was not short on these kinds of challenges, with ongoing climate change events like droughts, a massive locust crisis, political instability, and the domino effects of the COVID-19 pandemic

“Ranking” humanitarian crises is a tricky business, but based on humanitarian data from the European Commission Joint Research Centre and UNOCHA’s 2021 Global Humanitarian Overview, here are 8 that we think should be on your radar. 

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1. The Syrian Crisis

What began as a response to peaceful protest in 2011 quickly became a protracted conflict and a complex humanitarian crisis. An exodus of 5.5 million refugees has ensued, along with over 6 million Syrians displaced within the country. As of December, 2020, 13 million Syrians still in-country are in need of humanitarian assistance, including 4.8 million children. The European Commission Joint Research Centre’s INFORM Severity Index ranks Syria as the most severe humanitarian crisis as of December, 2020. 

Learn more about the humanitarian impact of this conflict in our Syria crisis explainer

How did it get so bad? 

Much like Yemen, Syria has spent much of the last century in and out of conflict. The latest influx began during the country’s own Arab Spring protests in 2011, which gave way to an ongoing civil war. The involvement of multiple nations and factions has further complicated the situation. Regardless of allegiance, so much violence means that civilians are paying the ultimate price, either with their lives or by abandoning their homes for life in exile. 

What’s being done

Concern has been responding in Syria since 2013, and also has programs active in LebanonTurkey, and Iraq. In and outside of Syria, we also are heavily focused on supporting children, many of whom suffer from exposure to violence and/or multiple displacements. 

2. Conflict in Yemen

The Yemeni Civil War has, according to one UN estimate, left nearly 80% of the country’s population in need of some form of assistance, and has damaged food systems, local infrastructure, the economy, and education prospects. 

Yemen’s complex crisis sits at the crossroads of ongoing conflict, international displacement, and public health. While civilian casualties in the country peaked in October of 2020, a study by the Food and Agriculture Organization, World Food Programme, and UNICEF indicates that famine-like conditions are once again present in some areas of the country after two years of progress. The FAO, WFP, and UNICEF also warn that these conditions could increase threefold in the first six months of 2021 (and that emergency levels of food insecurity could rise from affecting 3.6 million to 5 million Yemenis). 

How did it get so bad? 

Violence in Yemen escalated sharply in March 2015 between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels, escalating unemployment, food insecurity, and insecurity for civilians. The destabilizing effects of this conflict has also made it that much harder to get humanitarian aid into the country.  

What’s being done

Concern doesn’t have a formal program in Yemen. However, in response to the growing needs in the country, we recently partnered with fellow NGO ACTED (Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development) to design a program that focused on providing water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services, along with some economic support to help with immediate needs. 

3. Democratic Republic of Congo

The 2017-20 Ebola outbreak in the DRC was the second-largest in history, and just one of the many aspects of the current state of humanitarian affairs in the country. A polio outbreak that began in 2018 is now an even bigger threat, as are the ongoing Horn of Africa locust invasion, regional drought, and devastating floods. 19.6 million Congolese require humanitarian assistance, nearly a 60% increase in need compared to last year’s report. 

How did it get so bad? 

Like Syria and Yemen, the timeline for the Democratic Republic of Congo is full of oppression, neglect, and unrest. The country suffered especially under the colonial rule of Belgium, and was set up for failure when it gained independence in 1960. Even with peace officially declared, violence has not gone away. Outbreaks of armed conflict have been triggered by land, natural resources, and ethnic disputes. 

What’s being done

Concern has worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo longer than it’s been called that — when we first entered the country, it was still known as Zaire. Since the late 1990s, we’ve focused much of our efforts on long-term development, building schools and health centers, training teachers and health volunteers, and supporting agriculture and livelihood projects. We’ve also led efforts to roll out new water and sanitation infrastructures, especially in provinces that have struggled to recover from 2 civil wars. 

Recently trained care providers at the Nyamilima workshop, DRC (April 2019)

Recently trained care providers at the Nyamilima workshop, DRC (April 2019)

4. Tigray, Ethiopia

In November 2020, conflict broke out in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region fueled by political tension and risking international involvement (Ethiopia is a large host community to refugees from Eritrea). As of this writing, over 50,000 Ethiopian refugees fleeing violence have crossed into neighboring Sudan. 

How did it get so bad? 

The humanitarian situation in Tigray is compounded by additional challenges that Ethiopia has faced in recent years, including a hunger crisis, drought, locusts, and the COVID-19 pandemic. This is especially worrisome as, before 2020, Ethiopia had been on track to meeting its goal of less than 3% of residents living below the national poverty line by 2029 (a first in sub-Saharan Africa). 

The financial impact of COVID-19 combined with ongoing droughts and locust attacks affecting the Horn of Africa will continue to threaten both livelihoods and food security. While this latest development is still in its early stages, repatriation for refugees displaced by violence is never a short process. 

What’s being done

Concern has flown in its emergency team to respond to the rapidly growing number of refugees arriving into Sudan from Ethiopia and is working in the border town of Hamdayet and in the Um Rakuba refugee camp erecting tents, distributing supplies and promoting health and hygiene in the crowded conditions. “Having worked in the same area during the Ethiopian famine in the mid-80s, Concern has an excellent reputation among locals and the Sudanese government officials,” said Mark Harper who led the initial emergency response team.

5. The Afghanistan Conflict

Afghanistan has been caught in conflict since 1978, meaning that several generations of Afghans have never known life without instability and insecurity. In the second half of 2020, the number of people in Afghanistan requiring humanitarian assistance rose more than 30%, a total that includes 5.1 million children. Over 11.1 million Afghans are living with some degree of food insecurity, an issue only exacerbated in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic.

How did it get so bad? 

Setting political considerations aside, conflict invariably stresses a nation’s infrastructure and economy. As the Afghanistan conflict is now well into its fourth decade, so too have these stresses — with the greatest burdens felt by the most vulnerable communities. Repeated displacement leaves many families unable to access basic needs like clean water and education. The economic impacts of conflict and crisis mean that job opportunities are low while debts are high. Earthquakes and the impacts of climate change have both created added shocks that erode coping mechanisms. 

6. Sudan

In 2019, a transitional government formed after months of civilian protest, which has given many hope for economic and societal reform. However, such transitions don’t happen overnight, even in the best of circumstances. The additional challenges of 2020 make this a fragile time in Sudan, especially for its most vulnerable citizens and residents. 

How did it get so bad? 

Sudan is an example of the crisis that can remain after progress towards peace. The country continues to face conflict and violence which, combined with high inflation and the effects of a global pandemic, threaten famine-levels of food insecurity in some regions. Additionally, Sudan is a large host community in the current refugee crisis, which now includes a recent influx of people from Ethiopia, leaving over 1 million people vulnerable. 

What’s being done

Historically, Concern has focused on refugees and internally-displaced people in Sudan to ensure that their basic needs are met and to help them build lives and livelihoods while in displacement. We’ve renewed this effort following the November 2020 conflict in Ethiopia. We pair emergency relief with longer-term development programs in West Darfur, as well as West and South Kordofan.

South Sudanese woman and young child

Leylo* (30) with her youngest child six month old, Dit*. Leylo* is a member of Concern’s Targeted Supplementary Feeding Programme in Payam Ariath area in Aweil, South Sudan. (Photo: Abbie Taylor-Smith/ Concern Worldwide; Names changed to protect the identity of individuals)

7. South Sudan

Over the last decade, violence has forced people to flee their homes and plunged South Sudan into chaos and famine. As of December 2020, 6.5 million South Sudanese require humanitarian assistance, and over 63% of the country faces food insecurity.

How did it get so bad? 

Since gaining independence in 2011, South Sudan has faced constant turbulence. There have been various agreements in an effort to find a peaceful solution, the most recent of which was in late 2018. While the country has extensive oil fields that form its economic backbone, the country is also landlocked which means that international negotiations have resulted in unpaid labor and ballooning inflation prices. Women and children have been hit hardest by these shocks, resulting in issues around maternal and child health, hunger, and malnutrition

What’s being done

50 years of experience has taught us that one of the most effective ways to get work done — especially in conflict-affected countries — is to work through local partners. Our focus in South Sudan with these partners is on nutrition, livelihoods, and water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) programs. We provide therapeutic nutrition services in remote communities with a mobile version of our Community Management of Acute Malnutrition programs. We also support 49 health facilities to deliver life-saving interventions around malaria, pneumonia, and diarrhea. Concern also works in the Protection of Civilian site in Bentiu with WASH programming to provide access to safe water, proper sanitation, and hygiene promotion services.

8. Somalia

Political instability and civilian insecurity have combined with some truly devastating effects of climate change to form a complex humanitarian crisis in Somalia. In the last two years, the number of Somalis requiring humanitarian assistance has increased by 40% and now exceeds 5 million — nearly half of the country’s population. 

How did it get so bad? 

Decades of conflict have made it difficult for many Somalis to keep a steady life and livelihood. As of 2020, nearly 15% of Somalia’s population is displaced. Those who are internally displaced within Somalia live tenuously, with persistent threats of eviction and marginalization within Somalia’s social structure. Job loss due to displacement can, as we see with the cycle of poverty, be exacerbated if one family relocates to an area where they may face greater inequality. All of this is combined with a decade-long drought in the country, floods, and one of the most devastating locust crises on record, leaving Somalia’s majority-agrarian population facing additional economic and food insecurity. 

What’s being done

Concern has been in Somalia for nearly 35 years, responding to both the challenges of climate change and population displacement. We focus on nutrition support in the areas we work, as both of these circumstances can lead to acute malnutrition and famine, but we also work to build long-term systems and solutions for livelihoods and disaster risk reduction.

Displaced families collect SIM cards for emergency cash phone transfers from Concern Worldwide at a displacement camp in Mogadishu, Somalia. (Photo: Kieran McConville)

Concern’s emergency response and humanitarian crises

Last year, Concern responded to 82 emergencies in 21 countries, reaching over 11 million people. Not each of these emergencies was a full humanitarian crisis, but in each context our goal remains the same: fulfill our humanitarian mandate.

When an emergency strikes, we seek out the poorest and hardest-to-reach communities to meet their immediate needs, and work with them to design innovative, fast and effective responses. We stay with them to help rebuild their lives and to ensure that they are better able to cope with future crises. Your support allows us to do this vital work.

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World's Worst Humanitarian Crises