What is a Humanitarian Crisis? Five Things to Know

Dean Kritikos

Understanding modern humanitarian emergencies, from the staggering rise in refugeeism to the chronic health conditions faced by those living in conflict.

It can be hard for many to fathom the scope of international humanitarian crises, especially when far from the daily impacts. According to the Global Humanitarian Overview from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 274 million people worldwide need some form of humanitarian assistance—a stark increase from 235 million people one year ago.

But what is a humanitarian crisis, and how can individuals and aid organizations serve those millions in need of aid? Here are five facts worth knowing.

Displacement Impacts a Staggering Number of People

Per the UNHCR—the U.N. refugee agency—there were 108.4 million people worldwide forcibly displaced at the end of 2022. That number marks a more than 21% increase from 89.3 million people in 2021, and a 153% increase from 42.7 million in 2020. These numbers far eclipse even World War II, when an estimated 60 million people were displaced. 

Those numbers include refugees—people compelled to leave their home or country to escape war, natural disaster, or persecution—asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people: individuals and families who are forcibly displaced within their own countries or regions. On average, IDPs make up 60% of all displacements.

Between the millions of Ukrainians displaced as a result of the Russian invasion and the already-rising displacements elsewhere, more than 1 in 74 people are displaced around the world.

The needs of displaced peoples are many and include shelter, safety assurance, access to food and water, and pathways toward broader social integration and support—whether in their own country or a new one.

Conflict is the Biggest Driver of Humanitarian Crises

Not only is conflict the driving cause behind a vast majority of human suffering and humanitarian crises, it’s also one of the biggest reasons people are forcibly displaced.

A doctor and Team Rubicon volunteer provides medical care to a young boy in Ukraine. Photo by Jonathen Davis.

According to the World Bank’s estimates on fragility, conflict, and violence, or FCV, conflict is responsible for about 80% of all humanitarian needs worldwide. In addition, up to 66% of the entire human population could be living in FCV environments as soon as 2030. That doesn’t necessarily account for people forcibly displaced out of FCV countries or areas.

For those not displaced, conflict intersects with health and economic activity in impactful ways. Already, for example, COVID-19 has exposed 20 million people in FCV conditions to extreme poverty. And, the GDP in FCV-impacted environments is projected to decrease by 7.5% in 2023.

Living in Conflict Areas Severely Impacts Physical Health in the Long Term

Conflict’s immediate risks to health and safety are obvious. Living in a state of war—or an environment shaped by combat and its aftermath—creates daily hazards to physical health. What’s less obvious about humanitarian crises is the potential for long-term health conditions sustained from living in FCV.

According to joint research conducted by Imperial College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, living in conflict is associated with increased risks of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic—and often fatal—conditions. Deaths from heart attacks and strokes occurred in 228.8 per 100,000 people living in conflict, as opposed to 147.9 per 100,000 without.

To counteract these lingering effects, people living in conflict need to be supported with healthcare. That includes treatment and monitoring for indicators of long-term afflictions.

Living in Conflict Areas Makes Mental Health Disorders More Common

Living in or around conflict doesn’t just jeopardize physical health. It can also have severe, long-term impacts on mental health, as well. In particular, it makes disorders more likely.

According to a longitudinal study, approximately 22% of people who live in conflict areas have mental health disorders. Even worse, about 9% have severe forms of these conditions.

In particular, more than 1 in 5 conflict-impacted people likely have depression, an anxiety disorder, a post-traumatic stress disorder, a bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.

This contrasts sharply with general population figures. For the total world population, disorders like these are estimated to be found in about 1 in 14—or just over 7% of all people.

This is more evidence that humanitarian aid needs to consider the diverse and complex effects of conflict on people within and adjacent to conflict. Their safety, physical health, and access to basic necessities should be priorities, but mental health should never be neglected, either.

Global Conflicts Are at Their Highest Since World War II

All of the impacts of conflict detailed here—and others outside the scope of this blog—are being exacerbated by the unprecedented scale of conflict in today’s world. We’re dealing with more conflicts in more places that are impacting more people than at any other point in recent history.

In his remarks during a Peacebuilding Commission meeting, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres stated that there are more violent conflicts today than there have been since 1945.

So, what is there to do in a world increasingly subject to conflict and its effects? Humanitarian aid organizations and their supporters must continue to step up and serve those living in, or displaced because of, conflict and other crises, serving them with everything from medical care to shelter to clean water. 

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