The humanitarian challenges that lie ahead in 2020

8 January 2020

DR Congo: Preparing to give vaccinations at Butembo's Ebola Treatment Centre

Preparing to give vaccinations at Butembo's Ebola Treatment Centre in the Democratic Republic of Congo

We are living in a changing world, where humanitarian crises – whether caused by natural disasters, a changing climate, conflict or disease – are on the increase, affecting millions of people. 

According to the UN, in 2020 nearly 168 million people will need assistance, including food, shelter, clean water, medical assistance and protection: this represents 1 in about 45 people in the world, the highest figure in decades.

Sadly, this situation will continue to get worse until climate change and the root causes of conflict are addressed. Projections show that more than 200 million people could be in need of assistance by 2022.

Help us respond to emergencies as soon as they happen

Never before have so many women, children and men been displaced around the world. Over 70.8 million people have been forced to flee their homes because of conflict, persecution or climate emergencies. They are seeking safety, but often find little opportunity or hope when they reach their destination.

Matthew Carter, CAFOD’s Head of Humanitarian Programmes, said:

“For centuries, the Church has been a place of refuge and a provider of aid to those affected by disaster, so providing support to those affected by disaster and conflict had a natural place in CAFOD’s mandate from the start and continues to do so now.

“CAFOD’s strength in humanitarian work, like in our development programmes, has always been about proximity to those we are seeking to serve. In many emergencies, our local partners and aid experts are able to reach and be trusted by isolated and frightened communities that many of the big international organisations cannot get to.”

Here are eight humanitarian situations that CAFOD will be monitoring closely in 2020:

1. Zimbabwe food crisis and Zambia drought: millions face hunger

Hunger on a massive scale is looming across Zimbabwe and Zambia in 2020.

Verity Johnson, CAFOD’s Country Representative for Zimbabwe, based in Harare, said:

“Years of economic turmoil and climate change, as well as the recent Cyclone Idai, are pushing families to the brink of starvation. Last year’s harvests failed, largely due to extreme weather, from droughts that lasted for months on end, to flooding which wiped out whole villages.

“The cost of food has risen exponentially, and there are severe bread shortages across the country. Where it can be found, a loaf of bread in Zimbabwe now costs up to fifteen times more than it did a year ago. In the struggle to feed their children, parents are going without themselves.”

Through our Church network, we are already providing families in need with emergency food and safe, clean water.

Donate to CAFOD's Zimbabwe and Zambia food crisis appeal

2. Syria crisis: fighting continues into its tenth year

The second half of 2019 saw continued fighting in Syria, particularly in Idlib and in the north-east of the country.

Civilians continue to bear the brunt of the conflict. In December alone, more than 235,000 people were forced to flee their homes in Idlib province as fighting intensified.

Compounding the situation for those fleeing their homes are the ongoing restrictions for refugees seeking safety in neighbouring countries. Millions of people, the majority children and young people, are still living in limbo nine years on from the start of the conflict. 

Lebanon is home to over a million Syrian refugees, but a series of protests which began in October 2019 against corruption in the country have brought much of it to a standstill. The country’s most vulnerable populations – including refugees and poor Lebanese families – are struggling to cope.

The shutdown of many banks in Lebanon has also meant that international aid destined for Syria - usually transferred via Lebanon - has faced delays, with much-needed support to help people through the harsh winter (including blankets, warm clothing and food) not reaching those who need it.

It is unclear when the Lebanon protests will end, and what the outcomes will be for the country, including its large refugee population. 

Humanitarian crises are increasing the risk of gender-based violence. They are also having serious mental health consequences for those affected.

The number of people risking their lives to enter Europe has increased over the last few months, in spite of the worsening weather. In September 2019, more than 10,000 people arrived by boat in Greece, and the country is struggling to cope.

Learn more about how we are helping people affected by the Syrian Crisis

3. Democratic Republic of Congo: work still to be done to end the spread of Ebola

The Ebola virus broke out in August 2018 in DR Congo. Addressing stigma surrounding the disease and vaccinations remains a massive challenge. This is compounded by the ongoing conflict in the east of the country.

The country's Catholic Church networks are on the frontline of this crisis playing a critical role in dispelling myths and making sure that communities receive the hygiene information to prevent the further spread of the disease. 

CAFOD Director Christine Allen visited in 2019 and said:

“What is critical is building trust within communities. The work of local aid agencies will be essential. We must make sure that they receive the funding needed to respond in their communities, where they are dispelling myths and making sure people understand how the Ebola virus is transmitted, how it is treated and how to prevent infection.”

Find out more about Ebola in DR Congo

4. Yemen: the world’s worst humanitarian crisis

In 2020 the number of people in need as a result of the Yemen crisis – around 24 million – is likely to remain the same as in 2019.

Over four years of bloody civil war, between the Houthi ethnic group and supporters of Yemen’s government led by President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, have left thousands dead and millions of people requiring life-saving assistance.

The availability of food items in local markets remains very limited and, despite the blockade being lifted on key ports such as Hodeida, it is still a long process to deliver essential aid across the country, as the ports are not yet fully functioning.

Against this challenging environment, our local aid experts continue to work around the clock to provide food and medicine to people at high risk of malnutrition – including babies, pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers. 

Find out more about the crisis in Yemen

5. South Sudan: peace is urgently needed to end fighting and hunger

It is now over six years since civil war broke out in South Sudan. In the armed struggle for power, the death toll now stands at around 400,000 and the economy has been ruined. Over 3.6 million South Sudanese have been displaced internally or are seeking refuge in other countries, and almost seven million were facing critical food shortages in 2019. 

A ‘revitalised’ peace agreement, signed in September last year, has led to a significant reduction in violence, but a 12 November deadline to set up a new unity government was pushed back 100 days into 2020.

This is the third time Salva Kiir and Riek Machar have been pressed into a deal to share power. Both the two previous agreements collapsed in bloodshed, with catastrophic consequences for every South Sudanese, and there is a serious risk that it could happen again.

The South Sudan Council of Churches has acknowledged the challenges that persist in the country, but have hope for this new year:

“The Church is concerned about military confrontations and unresolved differences between parties (to the peace agreement) and non-signatories. We call on all these parties to cease all hostilities and use dialogue to resolve their difference.

“The Church commits to work with all of them to deliver peace to our people. We should unite to make 2020 a year of peace and hope for the people of South Sudan. Peace that will allow children go to school with joy, women live without fear, the refugees and displaced return home in dignity, and the leaders sit around the table together to dialogue on the future of our country.”

Find out more about our work in South Sudan

6. Rohingya Crisis: hundreds of thousands of lives are in limbo as support dries up

More than 700,000 Rohingya refugees are still living in limbo in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, having fled violence in neighbouring Myanmar in 2017.

As their future still hangs in the balance, their needs continue to grow. Many international funding sources for the initial emergency come to an end in 2020 and it is vital the Rohingya are not forgotten.

Attention must also be drawn towards ending armed conflicts within Myanmar, and ensuring there is peace and security for Rohingya people – many of whom are desperate to return home but cannot due to ongoing violence and persecution.

Find out more about the Rohingya Crisis

7. Venezuela crisis: more in need but goodwill of neighbours at risk

The ongoing economic and political crisis in Venezuela will force thousands more people to leave the country and seek food, shelter and employment elsewhere. But despite the increasing numbers, some neighbouring countries are also likely to tighten entry restrictions.

Colombia continues to host the highest number of Venezuelans.

Monsignor Héctor Fabio Henao, director of Caritas Colombia, said: 

“The Catholic Church has been on the frontline supporting Venezuelans who arrive by providing food, shelter and emergency aid while working alongside governments across Latin America to do more.

“We try to give the migrants as many services as we can, but they need so many other things, like jobs, education and medicines.”

According to the UN the number of Venezuelan migrants in Colombia is set to increase sharply to 2.4 million, with a possible increase of total Venezuelan migrants to 6.5 million by the end of 2020.

Find out more about the Venezuela crisis

8. Central America: climate crisis and poverty force thousands more from their homes

Poverty, exploitation and violence in the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador continue to rise, and have been exacerbated by the impacts of climate change over the last few years.

As crops fail and gang violence fuels a climate of fear, people are left with little alternative than to flee their homes and communities in search of work and security in the United States. Some take their families with them in search of better opportunities, and others leave them behind, all taking massive risks by travelling to or through countries where they can fall victim to kidnap, exploitation or murder.

In 2019 the US signed a ‘safe third country’ agreement with the three governments of the so-called ‘northern triangle’ of Central America. This would require asylum-seekers heading towards the United States to seek protection in their first country of exile, rather than travel on to the United States. The agreement has caused massive concern as none of the countries in Central America can provide the safe haven and security that is so vital.

The Catholic Church network CLAMOR – which works to defend and protect refugees and migrants across Latin America – is providing direct support to thousands of asylum seekers as well as campaigning for their rights to safety and security.

Hope for 2020

CAFOD has installed solar street lighting and distributed solar lamps for Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

CAFOD has installed solar street lighting and distributed solar lamps for Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

Protecting the most vulnerable

We are supporting our local experts to ensure protection of the most vulnerable people - including women, children and those with disabilities - is at the heart of their response during emergencies.

Innovative and effective aid

We are being innovative in the ways we help families during emergencies, for example by:

  • Providing cash allowing refugees to buy what they really need.
  • Using green energy approaches, such as solar-powered street lamps to make refugee camps safer at night – especially for women and children.
  • enabling farmers in Central America to use technology and mapping techniques to monitor changing weather patterns and their impact on crops. This helps them mitigate the impacts of the changing climate and avoid the need to migrate due to lack of food or income. 

Taking action on climate change

As we move into a new decade, Catholic parishes in England and Wales are at the forefront of answering Pope Francis’ call in Laudato Si’ to listen and act on the ‘cry of the earth and the cry of the poor’.

Individuals and parishes are changing their ways to help reduce our carbon footprint and ensure we do all we can to help those whose lives are already being devastated by the impacts of climate change.

Campaign for Our Common Home


We continue to be amazed by CAFOD supporters in England and Wales who respond to the plight of their sisters and brothers suffering in other countries. Your donations help us work with local experts to alleviate suffering and reach people who need to build back their lives.

Your support has helped us improve the lives of millions of people impacted by conflict, economic crises, climate change and environmental disaster in 2019.

Please pray for people affected by conflict, persecution and climate change

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