The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has released its 2021 Emergency Watchlist, a global list of humanitarian crises that are expected to deteriorate the most over the coming year. The triple threat of conflict, climate change and COVID-19 is driving the crises in nearly all Emergency Watchlist countries, threatening famine in several in 2021.
Displaced families, and in particular women and girls, are disproportionately affected by humanitarian crises—and the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception.
“2020 will go down as one of the most turbulent years in history, but the next year will be remembered for how we either helped or turned away from those suffering the most,” says IRC president and CEO David Miliband. “Watchlist 2021 should serve as a wake-up call for policymakers, government leaders, and concerned citizens around the world about the cost of neglecting humanitarian crises—and how they urgently need international attention.”
Learn more about the world's worst crises:
10. Mozambique: Humanitarian needs rise rapidly as insurgency intensifies
Population: 31.3 million
People in need of aid: 1.3 million
2020 Emergency Watchlist position: Unlisted
The number of people in need in Mozambique has nearly doubled as an insurgency grips a country still struggling to recover from two powerful cyclones that struck in 2019. The rapidly escalating conflict in the northern Cabo Delgado province has pushed Mozambique not just onto the Emergency Watchlist for the first time, but straight into the list’s top ten countries of most concern.
Humanitarian risks in Mozambique in 2021
- Attacks on civilians that force them from their homes will continue to rise as the insurgency grows.
- The conflict and COVID-19 are likely to continue to harm livelihoods and drive up levels of hunger in 2021.
- Ongoing violence, poor roads, and restrictions imposed by the security forces are limiting efforts to reach people in need.
- Climate change is compounding the risks facing Mozambique.
9. Venezuela: COVID-19 compounds years-long economic crisis
Population: 28.7 million
People in need of aid: 7 million
2020 Emergency Watchlist position: 5
The collapse of Venezuela’s oil industry has been a key factor in a deepening economic crisis that has devastated the country’s health system and caused widespread hunger and displacement. COVID-19 restrictions have left Venezuelans stuck in limbo, unable to leave the country to seek safety and services—while lockdowns elsewhere are forcing those who had already left Venezuela to return.
Humanitarian risks in Venezuela in 2021
- COVID-19 is deepening Venezuela’s economic and hunger crises, while restrictions aimed at controlling the virus have eliminated many people’s livelihoods.
- Food shortages, high food prices and lack of jobs are forcing Venezuelans to leave their homes. Humanitarian needs are certain to rise as borders remain closed.
- Social unrest is likely to continue to grow because of these crises, and criminal violence is also rising.
- The already strained humanitarian response is likely to face further administrative restrictions as well as rising costs driven by growing fuel shortages.
The IRC's crisis response in Venezuela
Launched: 2018. Where we focus with local partners: Maternal health care; sexual and reproductive health care; provision of masks and other COVID-19 protective gear; child malnutrition services; child protection services; gender-based violence prevention and response; cash assistance.
8. Nigeria: Conflict and famine risk in the northeast
Population: 206.1 million
People in need of aid: 8.9 million
2020 Emergency Watchlist position: 4
Even after a decade of conflict that has uprooted nearly 3 million people and left millions more facing a hunger crisis, violence is still growing in northeast Nigeria. Civilians are bearing the brunt of the conflict; Nigeria was the deadliest crisis for civilians in 2020 out of all 20 Emergency Watchlist countries. It remains a challenging place for aid workers to provide humanitarian assistance.
Humanitarian risks in Nigeria in 2021
- Conflict in the northeast is escalating, driving greater humanitarian needs.
- Conflict involving criminal groups and community self-defense groups is growing in northern and northwest Nigeria.
- All sides in the conflict are, at times, acting in ways that increase harm for civilians and constrain humanitarian access.
- The COVID-19 pandemic is pushing the country toward potential famine in the northeast in 2021.
The IRC's crisis response in Nigeria
Launched: 2012. Where we focus: Primary health, nutrition and reproductive health care; educational support services for out-of-school youth, women’s protection and empowerment; water and sanitation services; economic recovery and development.
7. South Sudan: Recovery from civil war at risk
Population: 11.2 million
People in need of aid: 7.5 million
2020 Emergency Watchlist position: 7
South Sudan’s high Emergency Watchlist ranking is driven by widespread humanitarian needs and a fragile peace deal that could unravel under the additional strain of COVID-19. A new unity government took office in early 2020. It faces the challenge of leading the country’s recovery from civil conflict amid unrelenting violence, an economic crisis, and now an unprecedented pandemic in one of the world’s weakest health systems.
Humanitarian risks in South Sudan in 2021
- The 2018 peace deal remains fragile and even if it holds, localized conflict will continue.
- Civilians and aid workers continue to face harm.
- Persistent conflict, desert locust swarms, an economic crisis, recurrent flooding and COVID-19 are increasing the risk of famine in 2021.
- The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to exacerbate the country’s health crises.
The IRC's crisis response in South Sudan
Launched: 1989. Where we focus: capacity building in state health clinics; training local health workers; nutrition programs; sanitation services; support to survivors of sexual violence; child protection services; human rights training; cash assistance; job and livelihoods training.
6. Burkina Faso: The world’s fastest-growing displacement crisis
Population: 20.9 million
People in need of aid: 3.5 million
2020 Emergency Watchlist position: 8
Just two years ago, Burkina Faso faced virtually no mass conflict or displacement. It entered the Emergency Watchlist for the first time last year and is now ranked at six. The escalating conflict is driving steep increases in humanitarian need and—with the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis—the risk of famine. Over 1 million people are now internally displaced in Burkina Faso, more than double the number at the start of 2020.
Humanitarian risks in Burkina Faso in 2021
- Conflict involving an array of government forces, local militias and militant groups may spread, affecting more of the population.
- The conflict is increasingly deadly for civilians and disruptive to health services and education.
- There is a risk of famine due to the conflict and disruption to markets from COVID-19.
The IRC's crisis response in Burkina Faso
Launched: 2019. Where we focus: clean water; sanitation service support; primary health care, including reproductive health care and child health care.
5. Ethiopia: New conflict threatens the region
Population: 115 million
People in need of aid: 21.3 million
2020 Emergency Watchlist position: Listed, unranked
On the Emergency Watchlist for the third year running, Ethiopia enters 2021 with a major confrontation underway in the northern Tigray region between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). At the same time, climate change, the biggest locust outbreak in living memory, and the COVID-19 pandemic all drive up the number of people in need to the second highest in the world.
Humanitarian risks in Ethiopia in 2021
- Conflict in the Tigray region is driving a rapid rise in humanitarian needs, including refugee movements into Sudan, amid allegations of violence against civilians.
- The conflict in Tigray and enduring political tensions increase the risk of greater conflict and instability in other parts of Ethiopia.
- The COVID-19 pandemic is also driving a massive increase in humanitarian needs. Ethiopia is second only to Yemen for the total number of people in need in 2021.
- Ethiopia is the epicenter of the largest locust outbreak in decades, with a real risk of further disruption to agriculture in 2021.
The IRC's crisis response in Ethiopia
Launched: 2000. Where we focus: cash and basic emergency supplies; safe water and sanitation facilities; women and girls’ protection; primary health care; education; livelihoods-related training and job opportunities for youth and vulnerable households.
4. Democratic Republic of Congo: Unprecedented hunger crisis
Population: 89.6 million
People in need of aid: 19.6 million
2020 Emergency Watchlist position: 2
There are now more people facing a severe hunger crisis in the Democratic Republic Congo than has ever been recorded in any country. Congo ranks in the emergency Watchlist top five for the third year in a row, reflecting persistent volatility in a country that is now in its fourth decade of a major humanitarian crisis. On top of large-scale violence, Congo also has had to grapple with outbreaks of Ebola and COVID-19.
Humanitarian risks in Congo in 2021
- Local armed groups in eastern Congo, often vying for control of natural resources, will continue to make the country one of the most dangerous for civilians and aid workers.
- Conflict, economic collapse and the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to famine
- Multiple diseases will continue to spread due to weak health infrastructure—including low vaccination coverage in many areas.
- Needs are growing rapidly yet humanitarian funding is falling.
The IRC's crisis response in Congo
Launched: 1996. Where we focus: Health care: containing Ebola and COVID-19 outbreaks, health worker training, rehabilitation of hospitals and clinics, water, sanitation; support for survivors of violence; conflict reduction; economic recovery.
3. Syria: The deadliest place for humanitarians
Population: 17.5 million
People in need of aid: 13 million
2020 Emergency Watchlist position: 3
The year 2021 marks a decade of conflict in Syria, as violence, displacement and humanitarian needs continue to grow. Syria is also the deadliest country in the world for humanitarians. Attacks on aid workers, civilians, homes and hospitals remain common. Many families have been uprooted multiple times. The health system has been decimated, undermining Syrians’ ability to cope with the challenges of COVID-19.
Humanitarian risks in Syria in 2021
- The conflict in the northwest is the most likely trigger for major instability in 2021.
- COVID-19 is compounding what was already the worst economic crisis to hit Syria since the conflict began.
- Syrian women and children will be particularly affected by the continuing impact of COVID-19.
- Humanitarians’ ability to access people in need in Syria from neighboring countries is increasingly restricted.
The IRC's crisis response in Syria
Launched: 2012. Where we focus: support for health facilities and mobile health teams with trauma, primary, reproductive, and mental health services; COVID-19 awareness, and infection, prevention, and control training; food and cash distributions; women and children’s protection; early childhood development programs.
2. Afghanistan: Stalled peace process under threat
Population: 38.9 million
People in need of aid: 18.4 million
2020 Emergency Watchlist position: 6
Afghanistan has risen to second on the Emergency Watchlist because of its high exposure to the triple threats of conflict, COVID-19 and climate change, as well as uncertainty over the stalled peace process between the government and the Taliban. Even after four decades of crises, humanitarian needs in Afghanistan are growing rapidly amid the pandemic and unrelenting violence, with the number of people requiring aid for 2021 nearly doubling compared to early 2020.
Humanitarian risks in Afghanistan in 2021
- Political uncertainty is likely to dominate 2021 and drive conflict between the Taliban and Afghan government forces.
- Civilians and humanitarians are likely to continue bearing the brunt of the conflict.
- COVID-19 has pushed Afghans at home and abroad into poverty, making food insecurity likely to continue to grow in 2021.
- Women are disproportionately affected by the crisis in Afghanistan and reports of early marriages and violence against women have increased.
- Increasing natural disasters, partly due to extreme weather resulting from climate change, are uprooting families and driving greater humanitarian needs.
The IRC's crisis response in Afghanistan
Launched: 1988. Where we focus: education; child protection; water and sanitation, including hand-washing station installation; support for health facilities; COVID-19 prevention information and training sessions; emergency response; economic recovery; women’s protection and empowerment.
1. Yemen: Unrelenting conflict and risk of famine
Population: 29.8 million
People in need of aid: 24.3 million
2020 Emergency Watchlist position: 1
Yemen tops the IRC's annual Emergency Watchlist for the third year running. Over five years of major armed conflict, severe underfunding, and now the COVID-19 crisis have pushed the humanitarian response to the brink of collapse in 2020. Eighty percent of the population is in need of aid. Yemenis tell the IRC they worry more about hunger than COVID-19: As the pandemic deepens the country’s economic crisis, and with no political resolution in sight, Yemen faces the risk of famine.
Humanitarian risks in Yemen in 2021
- Stalled peace efforts and competition for control of oil fields put Yemen at risk of escalating conflict.
- Parties to the Yemeni conflict disregard their obligations to protect civilians and facilitate humanitarian access: 40% of deaths in airstrikes since 2015 have occurred in residential areas.
- The shortfall in funding from donor countries will make it even harder for humanitarians to help in what is already one of the most challenging places to provide aid.
- An avoidable disaster on a poorly maintained oil tanker could cause catastrophic disruptions to the fishing industry and a port vital for food imports.
The IRC's crisis response in Yemen
Launched: 2012. Where we focus: primary health facilities; emergency obstetric and newborn care centers; reproductive health care; mobile health teams; a COVID-19 isolation unit; treatment for malnourished children; cash transfers; livelihood programs; women and children’s protection; water and sanitation services; education.
World crisis 2021 outlook
The world is facing unprecedented humanitarian emergencies in the coming year. The worst humanitarian crises of 2021 will be in countries failed by world leaders. The global response to the COVID-19 pandemic has left countries affected by conflict and crisis to struggle on their own—and the world’s most vulnerable people are paying the price. The international community must take action now, before decades of hard-won progress on reducing poverty, hunger and disease is lost or even reversed.
Top 3 crises we’re most concerned about in 2021 from our annual emergency watchlist:— IRC - International Rescue Committee (@RESCUEorg) December 16, 2020
Here is why we’re most concerned about these 3 countries and how you can help.
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The Emergency Watchlist draws on 85 quantitative and qualitative measures, including insights from the IRC’s 30,000 staff and volunteers in over 40 countries globally. For IRC analysis of all 20 countries in our world crisis 2021 list, along with our recommendations for global leaders, download the 2021 Emergency Watchlist report.
You can also test your knowledge of the world's worst crises with our quiz.
About the IRC’s global crisis response
In 2021, the IRC will have been working for an average of around 15 years in the 18 Emergency Watchlist countries where we have a presence.
The IRC responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises and helps people whose lives and livelihoods are shattered by conflict and disaster to survive, recover and gain control of their future. In more than 40 countries and over 20 U.S. cities, our dedicated teams provide clean water, shelter, health care, education and empowerment support to refugees and displaced people.