This information about the region in 2021 is an extended version of the regional chapter in the Global Report 2021, which you can download here. The Global Report also contains information on funding and thematic chapters on UNHCR's work to achieve its Global Strategic Priorities and other initiatives.
Two crises dominated the region in 2021. Violence and political turmoil displaced over 1 million people internally in Afghanistan and Myanmar, and at least 158,000 Afghans fled Afghanistan, while over 31,000 people fled Myanmar during the year, 19,700 of whom remained displaced outside Myanmar by year-end.
In Afghanistan, UNHCR stayed throughout the Taliban takeover and rapidly scaled up its operation, assisting almost 1 million individuals. UNHCR provided 293,000 Afghan IDPs with core relief items, assisted 10,000 persons with specific needs with either cash and/or in-kind assistance, and reached 263,000 vulnerable Afghans with winterization support. UNHCR monitored and supported survivors of gender-based violence and women at risk, offering counselling and referral services and meeting their basic needs.
In Myanmar, working through the cluster system, UNHCR reached some 287,000 vulnerable IDPs, which includes new IDPs and the 130,000 displaced in Rakhine state since 2012. Core relief items and COVID-related equipment reached tens of thousands of IDPs, and UNHCR-UNDP quick impact projects benefited more than 20,000 individuals.
Other emergencies included Typhoon Rai in the Philippines, where UNHCR’s emergency response team provided protection, technical expertise and core relief items to severely affected and hard-to-reach communities.
To support children, UNHCR focused on preventing harm and on addressing each child’s specific needs, established by best interest procedures. In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, such programmes reached 2,500 children at risk and provided psychosocial support for 48,800 children. Humanitarian services and education returned to the camps as COVID-19 subsided, allowing UNHCR and partners to launch a project to introduce the Myanmar school curriculum.
COVID-19 affected asylum services, livelihoods, and solutions. UNHCR’s response sustained essential protection, targeted cash assistance and enhanced digital inclusion via help.unhcr.org sites across the region. Refugees and asylum seekers were generally included in vaccination and social protection schemes. In Bangladesh, nearly 80% of those eligible among 890,000 Rohingya received a vaccination. Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal and Pakistan also vaccinated high proportions of people of concern. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, refugees could freely access primary health care but required insurance for secondary and tertiary care, a cost that UNHCR covered for 120,000 of the most vulnerable.
UNHCR urged States to share responsibility for rescuing refugees undertaking risky journeys at sea and developing safe and legal pathways. In 2021, almost 800, mostly Rohingya refugees, attempted movements by sea. Twenty-nine perished.
UNHCR signed a memorandum of understanding with the Government of Bangladesh that outlined protection principles in respect of 19,000 Rohingya refugees relocated to Bhasan Char Island to alleviate overcrowding. To improve access to asylum, UNHCR supported Thailand’s introduction of a national screening mechanism and agreed a memorandum of cooperation with Japan. Steps to eradicate statelessness resolved nearly 38,000 cases in Central Asia alone, mainly in Uzbekistan.
Despite the crises in Afghanistan and Myanmar and the complications of COVID-19, 1,400 Afghan refugees returned home, as did at least 791,000 Afghan IDP returnees recorded by UNHCR in the last four months of 2021, according to rapid assessments conducted among 153,700 households in 333 districts, in all 34 provinces. UNHCR engaged with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other regional actors in pursuit of solutions for refugees from Myanmar and sought partnerships to broaden support for complementary pathways through labour mobility, education and family reunification.
UNHCR submitted resettlement requests for 4,900 individuals, mainly from operations in India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, and 2,400 departed to third countries.
Of 126 pledges to the region, 52 were in progress, six were fulfilled and seven were in the planning stage at the end of 2021. Forty-five official updates were submitted in preparation for the High-Level Officials Meeting and some States offered new pledges or commitments. After the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan in August 2021 the Support Platform for the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees bolstered support for the main refugee-hosting countries, the Islamic Republics of Iran and Pakistan, while reinforcing investments and efforts toward stability and eventual return and sustainable reintegration. In the spirit of burden- and responsibility-sharing, Japan and the Republic of Korea progressed on pledges relating to resettlement and development.
The Japan International Cooperation Agency expanded refugee and host community-related support and dispatched an adviser to its project in Uganda, while the Korea International Cooperation Agency developed guidelines and allocated $17 million to support refugees, host communities and other vulnerable groups in its multilateral projects. New Zealand helped strengthen the Philippines’ capacity on country-of-origin information in the asylum process, under the auspices of the Asylum Capacity Support Group, while Thailand took steps towards establishing an asylum screening mechanism. Several countries progressed on their pledges to reduce statelessness through improved access to birth registration (Tajikistan, Turkmenistan), an inclusive census (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan), and naturalization procedures (the Philippines).
Key results and trends in 2021
UNHCR'S programmatic results
UNHCR'S COVID-19 response
Consequences of underfunding
The regional budget of $896.9 million was 35% underfunded, hampering vital work including shielding vulnerable people from the impact of COVID-19. Most were not covered by national social protection systems and, although cash assistance helped mitigate the pandemic’s impact, 54,000 families did not receive the cash assistance they needed.
Funding shortfalls forced UNHCR to focus on the most urgent life-saving assistance. Operations in Central Asia, South Asia and South-East Asia (beyond the Myanmar situation) struggled to attract funds. Central Asia relied heavily on flexible funding, which provided two thirds of its funds in 2021. Without this, UNHCR could not have scaled up its response to displacement from Afghanistan to Central Asia nor sustained recent gains in countering statelessness.
The Afghanistan and Myanmar emergencies required UNHCR to reprioritize further. In Myanmar, funding shortfalls were acute, particularly in shelter, with more than 35,000 vulnerable people exposed to deteriorating living conditions and natural disasters.
UNHCR’s Afghanistan situation response had been critically underfunded for over a decade (inside Afghanistan and in neighbouring countries). A significant increase in contributions in 2021 was welcome but the legacy of previous underfunding was still felt, and UNHCR was unable to construct or improve six health facilities and three education facilities in Afghanistan.
In Bangladesh, underfunding weighed on the water, sanitation and hygiene sector in particular, preventing the construction of over 3,000 community sanitary facilities and latrines in the Cox’s Bazar camps. A UNHCR groundwater project began in the Teknaf area, benefiting both refugee and host communities, but still needed funding for testing and evaluation in 2022.
In South Asia and South-East Asia, limited resources for cash assistance restricted UNHCR’s programmes. In Malaysia, UNHCR increased cash assistance for cases of extreme need, but only 25% of the overall cash needs could be met and 3,000 families could not be assisted. Underfunding prevented cash assistance reaching 1,500 refugee and asylum seeker households in urban areas in Indonesia and 500 people with specific needs in Thailand. After Typhoon Rai hit the Philippines, underfunding limited UNHCR’s emergency response to mostly operational and coordination support to the Government and humanitarian partners.
Budget by pillar
Budget and expenditure
Key achievements and impact
Inclusive protection and assistance to empower and build resilience and self-reliance of people of concern, while easing pressure on host communities
UNHCR focused on protection-sensitive and inclusive policies across the region, responding swiftly when emergencies displaced over 1 million people in Myanmar and Afghanistan. UNHCR delivered life-saving protection and assistance to 5 million people affected by the Myanmar and Afghanistan situations – 3.4 million in the Afghanistan situation and 1.6 million in the Myanmar situation – and urged neighbouring countries to maintain open borders and strengthen access to asylum, including by implementing pledges made at the Global Refugee Forum. In Pakistan, UNHCR and the Government completed a data verification and biometric documentation exercise, facilitating programming for resilience and solutions for some 1.28 million Proof of Registration cardholders.
UNHCR scaled up psychosocial support for over 7,000 children across the region and worked to reduce barriers to their access to education, civil registration and other basic services. With new crises hampering prospects for voluntary repatriation, UNHCR sought greater inclusion in host communities and opportunities in third countries. The Afghan Situation Refugee Response Plan included in-situ populations, facilitating support for communities and public services that have generously hosted Afghans.
All countries in the region included people of concern in their national COVID-19 responses including vaccination programmes. Resettlement submissions across the region almost doubled to 4,900. Partnerships with development actors aimed to build a foundation for eventual sustainable return and reintegration. At least 791,000 Afghan IDPs returned home between August and December 2021 as the situation in the country stabilized, according to household-level rapid assessments conducted by UNHCR in 333 districts, in all 34 provinces. UNHCR also supported countries’ efforts to reduce statelessness, including through capacity-building and policy advocacy for universal birth registration, and individual legal assistance to help people of undetermined nationality. In Central Asia alone, over 46,000 cases were resolved in 2021.
Agility in the face of protection and socioeconomic risks amplified by COVID-19
In 2021, 17 operations in the region used cash transfers to support protection and solution strategies. Cash assistance nearly doubled to $47.3 million. 77% was disbursed as unrestricted grants to address basic needs and reduce protection risks, including support to winterization and reintegration programmes. Cash also supported shelter (13%) and livelihoods, health, and education. The 2021 increase primarily stemmed from UNHCR’s response to the Afghanistan situation and the $7.9 million targeted at easing the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Afghanistan, Central Asia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Thailand and elsewhere. Most operations will not be able to sustain their COVID-19 cash assistance in 2022 and financial support to some of the most vulnerable will return to pre-pandemic levels.
To overcome pandemic-related disruption to registration and documentation, which are essential for refugee inclusion and solutions, UNHCR implemented innovative approaches and conducted remote registration across the region, including online self-service portals and video conferencing. As a result, UNHCR registered over 86,000 individuals in 2021, more than double the number of individuals registered in 2020. 25% were registered through safe and secure remote modalities employed to ensure continuity of critical protection services during the pandemic.
Innovative solutions for different populations, based on their diverse profiles and needs, in both protracted situations and emergencies
The continued insecurity in Afghanistan and Myanmar – the places of origin of more than 95% of the region’s people of concern – limited opportunities for voluntary repatriation. Similarly, longstanding policies by many host countries served to restrict possibilities for local inclusion and local integration. In 2021, 4,900 individuals were submitted for resettlement consideration and 2,400 departed from the region. Efforts continued to create complementary pathways, by establishing new opportunities in Asia and working more closely with organizations focused on labour mobility and family reunification. Almost 1,000 individuals departed on complementary pathways from Asia in 2021, including protracted and sensitive cases arising from the Afghan and Myanmar emergencies. Voluntary repatriation programmes, as well as support to individual returns, resumed in a limited manner as some borders and flight options opened up following COVID-19 restrictions.
UNHCR continued to pursue solutions-focused advocacy and efforts for particular groups for whom specific opportunities were available. In Afghanistan, UNHCR supported returns by building resilient communities in line with the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees. The expansion in the number of priority areas of return and reintegration to 55 areas and the accompanying increase in programming in these areas helped improve access to services for 3 million people. Area-based support for health, education and livelihoods contributed to solutions for at least 791,000 IDPs who were able to return home in the last four months of 2021, according to rapid assessments conducted among 153,700 households in 333 districts, in all 34 provinces. This figure may continue to increase as household-level assessments are ongoing. Elsewhere, 181,000 IDPs returned to their areas of origin in the Philippines, mostly from short-term localized displacement in Mindanao, while 130,000 IDPs returned home in Myanmar.
Diversified partnerships for multi-stakeholder approaches, with a focus on operational synergies, joint strategy development, advocacy and resource mobilization
UNHCR expanded its engagement with development actors, seeking strategic partnerships and support for solutions. The Office secured large-scale development finance including multi-year funding from BMZ (2021-2023) for UNHCR in the Islamic Republics of Iran and Pakistan, and funding from the Korea International Cooperation Agency for a multi-year project (2022-2025) in Pakistan. Collaboration with UN agencies included a joint action plan with UN Women, implementation of the Blueprint with UNICEF, and joint efforts with UNDP, including in the core group of the Support Platform for the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees. The first regional UNHCR-NGO consultation was organized with the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network and the International Council of Voluntary Agencies. UNHCR engaged on inter-agency regional coordination structures (including the Regional Collaborative Platform and regional Inter-agency Standing Committee) and established inter-agency regional meetings on the Myanmar and Afghan regional situations. In response to the deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan, UNHCR led the development of the Refugee Preparedness and Response Plan for countries neighbouring Afghanistan, followed by an RRP 2022 in consultation with host governments and 40 partners. UNHCR continued its engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as part of the UN-ASEAN plan of action 2021-2025 on advocacy on Myanmar, and with the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on protection and capacity-building. This included workshops organized by UNHCR’s Regional Centre for Emergency Preparedness. Working with partners, UNHCR also continued to engage on ASEAN’s Regional Plan of Action on the Rights of the Child in the Context of Migration.
Harmonized and strengthened data collection and analyses to drive evidence-based protection and solutions strategies
In 2021, 32 joint needs assessments and several socioeconomic surveys spanning ten operations strengthened evidence-based and data-informed decision-making. In Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal and Thailand, comprehensive consultations with Rohingya refugees demonstrated that the majority wanted to return home, but that desire dissipated the longer they were in exile. While they waited to return, they hoped for education and livelihood opportunities. Harmonized Kobo forms — an open-source mobile data collection tool — were used in Afghanistan and Pakistan to strengthen border monitoring, while a standardized household emergency assessment tool was rolled out across Afghanistan to assess the needs of displaced people, returnees and host communities, and to facilitate situational analysis and identification of beneficiaries eligible for assistance. 17 post-distribution monitoring assessments in 15 operations allowed UNHCR to understand how its assistance was used and whether it met the needs of recipients. UNHCR’s proGres V4 registration and case management system was rolled out in India, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand to strengthen coherent regional data analysis and improve regional data reporting. Deployment of PRIMES proGres v4 in the region meant almost 2.8 million individuals were registered in progGres v4 across 16 countries by the end of 2021, up from 1.8 million across 12 countries in 2020. The total included 1.2 million individuals (5 years and above) who were biometrically registered, with slower growth due to remote registration.
2021 Year-end population figures
- Refugees and asylum seekers: 2.3 million, 25% women and 48% children
- IDPs: 3.5 million, 21% women and 58% children
- New IDPs in 2021 alone: 777,000, 57% children and 21% women
- IDP returns: 791,000
2021 Situation overview
The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan worsened significantly in 2021. Prior to the Taliban’s takeover of power in August, UNAMA had reported the highest number of conflict-related casualties on record and a striking decline in the security and human rights situation in large parts of the country. The displacement of 777,000 people (57% children and 21% women) brought the total number of people displaced by conflict inside Afghanistan to 3.5 million as of December 2021. The conflict diminished and humanitarian access to many parts of the country improved after the Taliban takeover and the announcement of an interim government, but there was deepening poverty, exacerbated by drought, COVID-19 and food insecurity. With ongoing restrictions and systematic exclusion, women and children faced heightened protection risks including intimate partner violence and child marriage. Since August 2021, women have largely been excluded from the workforce both as a result of the economic crisis and restrictions imposed by the de facto authorities. In the public sector, exceptions were made in some cases for women working in health care and primary schools, as well as for a very small number of civil servants. Limitations on freedom of movement negatively impacted other aspects of women’s lives, including access to health services. The closure of many women’s protection shelters left women at risk. Justice systems established to deal with cases of gender-based violence were largely non-functional.
In the last quarter of 2021, UNHCR significantly expanded operations countrywide and rapidly scaled up its staffing and field presence in response to dramatically increasing needs, while also assisting IDPs who began returning to their areas of origin as soon as the conflict calmed. Psychosocial support-focused activities were introduced based on the findings of the “Whole of Afghanistan assessment 2021” conducted by REACH in the context of the 2021 Humanitarian Programme Cycle, which showed a high level of needs for mental health and psychosocial support (PSS) services (66% of men and 61% of women in assessed households reported at least one behavioural change in 2021). In response, UNHCR scaled up its PSS response and assisted 14,000 people with psychosocial counselling either in person or remotely, of which 65% were female, while 47,000 women and girls received dignity kits. UNHCR expanded its area-based approach to 55 Priority Areas of Return and Reintegration (PARRs) to meet middle- to long-term development objectives in the areas of health, education and livelihoods. UNHCR constructed, rehabilitated or expanded 37 schools across the country, supporting 44,000 primary, middle and high school students. 10 health centres and clinics were also constructed in the country, benefiting 364,000 individuals, while 16,000 people received livelihoods support. Overall, 791,000 Afghan IDPs returned home between August and December 2021 as the situation in the country stabilized, according to rapid assessments conducted among 153,700 households in 333 districts, in all 34 provinces.
In Central Asia and the Islamic Republics of Iran and Pakistan, together hosting 2.2 million registered Afghan refugees, UNHCR and partners supported preparedness activities via the Regional Refugee Response Plan. Some 158,000 newly arrived refugees in these countries approached UNHCR in 2021, although the true figure of those in need of international protection is likely to be much higher. At the invitation of the Government of Uzbekistan, UNHCR established a humanitarian and logistics hub in the town of Termez, bordering Afghanistan, and made it available to other humanitarian agencies. Serving the entire region, the hub enhanced pre-positioning and rapid delivery of core relief items to Afghanistan.
In line with the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees, UNHCR continued to support inclusive policies by channeling investment into national public service delivery systems, especially in health and education. The Government of Pakistan successfully implemented the Documentation Renewal and Information Verification Exercise (DRIVE) with the support of UNHCR, verifying the data of Proof of Registration (PoR) cardholders in Pakistan and issuing new PoR smartcards to all eligible refugees. Some 1.28 million refugees were verified during the exercise (including previous PoR Card Holders and new birth registrations) but there were also 238,000 people in a refugee-like situation in Pakistan (including unregistered members of registered families and newly arrived Afghans). Across the Afghanistan Situation in 2021, UNHCR provided $35 million in cash assistance to 836,000 people of concern and assisted 64,300 households with core relief items and 6,600 households with emergency shelter.
2021 Year-end population figures
- Refugees and asylum seekers: 1.2 million, 25% women and 47% children
- IDPs: 671,000, 27% women and 49% children
- New IDPs in 2021 alone: 430,000
- IDP returns: 130,000
- Stateless persons in Myanmar (Rohingya): 600,000
2021 Situation overview
The situation in Myanmar was characterized by growing violence and insecurity and resulted in significant forced displacement within the country and into neighbouring countries (over 30,000 refugees between 1 February 2021 and 17 January 2022). Some 430,000 people were internally displaced in Myanmar after the military takeover on 1 February, more than doubling the 2020 IDP figure of 370,000. However, some 130,000 IDPs also returned to their places of origin in 2021, leaving a total of 671,000 IDPs at the end of 2021. As a result, humanitarian needs grew exponentially and were further compounded by new waves of COVID-19 and the resultant economic impact. Humanitarian access in many parts of Myanmar was restricted by insecurity, roadblocks and challenges in obtaining access approvals. In this challenging operating environment, UNHCR engaged host communities and local responders as well as partners who played a leading role in assisting displaced populations.
UNHCR reached 44,000 households (including IDPs and stateless persons) with core relief items, distributed $2.6 million in cash assistance to 17,000 people of concern, and delivered emergency shelters to 47,000 people of concern. Meanwhile, legal assistance was vital in addressing housing, land and property concerns.
In Rakhine state, UNHCR worked to create conditions conducive to the voluntary repatriation of refugees and IDPs, and undertook 95 quick impact projects with UNDP, benefiting more than 20,000 people. UNHCR continued to advocate for the implementation of the 2017 recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.
Outside Myanmar, UNHCR led efforts to protect and assist Rohingya refugees in the region, including those undertaking dangerous journeys at sea, and engaged with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other regional actors in pursuit of solutions for Rohingya and other refugees from Myanmar, while also advocating for access to territory and protection. In Bangladesh, COVID-19 measures constrained humanitarian services in the refugee camps and UNHCR adapted its response to ensure continuity of protection and assistance. An inclusive national COVID-19 response resulted in nearly 80% of those eligible among the 890,000 Rohingya refugees receiving a vaccination. UNHCR also piloted a cash assistance programme in Cox’s Bazar town for vulnerable members of the host community who were hit hardest by the pandemic. Inside the camps, UNHCR and partners addressed critical protection issues and responded to fires and the effects of natural disasters. Schooling came to a halt during the height of the pandemic. However, once the situation improved, UNHCR and partners were able to launch a project to introduce the Myanmar curriculum, training teachers in the skills required. UNHCR also expanded work with refugees and partners to reduce environmental degradation and ensure a more environmentally sustainable response.
In 2021, 19,000 Rohingya refugees were relocated to Bhasan Char, an island where the Government of Bangladesh has made substantial investments to provide a temporary alternative measure for hosting refugees to alleviate overcrowded camp conditions. UNHCR, on behalf of the United Nations, signed a memorandum of understanding that provides a protection and policy framework for the island. UNHCR has also worked with the Government to ensure the voluntariness of relocations and freedom of movement.