Refugees are people who must leave their home area for their own safety or survival. A refugee’s home area could be a countrystate, or region. People become refugees for many reasons, including  war, oppression,  natural disasters, and climate change.

Most refugee laws are based on a 1951 United Nations document, the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The Convention was created to deal with the large number of people displaced by World War II. According to the Convention, refugees are people who leave their home countries “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of racereligionnationality, or membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

The Convention originally limited this definition to refugees from war-torn Europe. In 1967, the UN expanded it to include refugees from any conflict or disaster.

Today, refugees can seek asylum in any of the 147 countries that have signed the Convention. Asylum is the protection from oppression or hardship offered by another country. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is an international resource for refugees and countries offering asylum.

Refugee status is an official decision made by the country providing asylum or an international agency. A person who is seeking asylum but has not yet received refugee status is called an asylum-seeker. Countries that have signed the Convention have agreed not to deport asylum-seekers to places where their lives or freedom may be in danger. Once an asylum-seeker is approved for refugee status, the host country is expected to provide civil rights, the right to work, and access to social services.

Refugees in History

History is filled with stories of people forced to leave their homes. For example, in 1685, France outlawed the Protestant religion, forcing hundreds of thousands of Protestants to flee the country. Most of these refugees, known as Huguenots, moved to other European countries, such as the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany. Some traveled as far as South Africa and British colonies in North America. Intolerance of this kind is repeated throughout history, forcing many from their homes due to their religious views.

Refugees posed a global crisis after World War II. The end of the war didn’t end the suffering of millions of people whose homes were destroyed, who were released from prison camps, or who had been expelled from their home countries. For example, resentment of Germany after the war was so strong that many countries drove out ethnic Germans, even if those people had spent their entire lives in their adopted country. About 11.5 million Germans living in Eastern Europe were expelled or voluntarily left their homes after the war.

Jews who had survived Nazi concentration camps throughout Europe often returned home to find that their property and businesses had been taken over by other people. Most of these Jews could no longer survive in their hometowns. They had no home, few possessions, and little hope of finding work. Even though the war was over, anti-Semitism was still a strong force in Europe. Many communities and groups worked to drive Jews from their homes and places of business. Often, returning Jews were even met with violence. In some countries, such as Poland and Slovakia, pogroms—organized massacres—forced those who survived to flee for their lives.

After World War II, the Soviet Union and the United States engaged in a conflict called the Cold War. The Cold War was a conflict between the communist political system of the Soviet Union and the democratic political system of the U.S. The Cold War involved dozens of countries in the sphere of influence of each of the world’s two “superpowers.” It ended in 1991 with the breakup of the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, thousands of refugees fled Soviet territory to seek asylum elsewhere, primarily in Western Europe and the U.S.

The Cold War involved so-called “proxy wars.” Proxy wars are conflicts where countries oppose each other by supporting different sides in another conflict. Conflicts in Lebanon, Korea, Afghanistan, and Angola were proxy wars of the Cold War. During the conflict in Korea, the south was supported by the U.S. and the north by China and the Soviet Union. After the Korean War, thousands of North Korean refugees streamed into South Korea.

Proxy wars in Southeast Asia during the 1970s led to large numbers of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. More than two million Southeast Asians fled their homes during this time, many of them on boats, which earned them the nickname “boat people.” The journey was brutal and often deadly. Traveling in flimsy, overcrowded boats, many people were lost at sea, attacked by pirates, or devastated by illness and dehydration.

Refugees Today

In 2017, the number of refugees rose to 19.9 million and 3.1 million asylum-seekers around the world, according to the UNHCR.

Refugees from Afghanistan, South Sudan, and the Syrian Arab Republic account for the most refugees worldwide. Wars and oppression in each of these regions force refugees to flee their homes. About 2.6 million people from Afghanistan have relocated to 69 different asylum countries, and half of those have been forced to flee more than once. Civil war, drought, and flooding have displaced about 2.4 million people from South Sudan, mostly to neighboring asylum countries.  Over 6.3 million refugees have left Syria, the source of the most refugees worldwide.

About 85 percent of the world’s refugees are from developing countries. Most refugees from developing countries seek asylum in other developing countries. Refugees from the conflict in Afghanistan, for instance, often immigrate to Pakistan, Iran, or also Europe. Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees worldwide—about 3.5 million.

Over half of all refugees live in urban areas. Refugees tend to settle in urban areas for a number of reasons. The legal facilities available to asylum-seekers—including lawyers, consulates, and diplomats—are often clustered in cities. Nongovernmental organizations, such as religious groups, can respond to refugees more quickly in urban areas. Most importantly, however, is the community of other immigrants in cities.

About one-third of the world’s refugees live in refugee camps. Refugee camps are temporary communities built to provide shelter and resources to refugees. UNHCR works with the asylum country to provide tents or other temporary shelters, emergency medical facilities, communications equipment, and security.

Most refugees remain near their home regions, moving to neighboring countries. For example, refugees from Afghanistan are likely to move to Pakistan. Refugees fleeing conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan settled in Chad. The UNHCR estimates that over 80% of refugees live in a country that borders the one they fled.

Internally Displaced Persons

Not everyone who has to leave home ends up leaving their country. Refugees who move within their national borders are called “internally displaced persons,” or IDPs. Today, about 40 million people around the world are internally displaced by conflict or violence. That is the highest number recorded since 1994. International refugee laws do not provide protection and support for IDPs, rather, IDPs have to rely on their own government for protection.

Sudan, in eastern Africa, has one of the largest internally displaced populations in the world. From 1983 through 2005, civil war between north and south Sudan forced millions of people from their homes. By the end of 2017, around 4.4 million people were displaced throughout the country, particularly in Darfur.

According to nongovernmental organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, most IDPs in Darfur live in “prison-like” camps, crammed inside makeshift shelters and constantly at risk of violence. Overcrowding causes illness to spread quickly, and malnutrition can occur when food deliveries are reduced or delayed.

Other countries with large numbers of IDPs are Colombia, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, and Pakistan. Refugees from Colombia flee internal conflict associated with the illegal drug trade. Iraq is the site of a major international conflict. Political conflict between rebels and the government have driven Congolese and Somalis from their homes. Pakistan, asylum for thousands of refugees from other countries as well as IDPs, is tied to the international conflict in neighboring Afghanistan. The government of Pakistan must also deal with militias and rebel groups. 

Environmental Refugees

Environmental refugees are people who must leave their homes because of environmental disruption. Natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods often force people to flee. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius, Italy, in 79 A.D. forced surviving residents of the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum to become refugees. Toxic volcanic ash and pumice stone entirely buried the towns. Residents of the towns had to find shelter and work elsewhere in the Roman Empire. In January 2010, a magnitude-7.0 earthquake devastated the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. Many of the city’s residents became IDPs and fled to other parts of the country. Still more sought asylum as refugees in the neighboring Dominican Republic.

Environmental disruption can also be man-made, such as a nuclear accident or pollution. The World Bank estimates that 100 million people were displaced by dam-building projects in the 1990s. This generally happens when the reservoir of water held behind the dam floods towns and villages where people once lived. In addition, people who live downstream from dams may be unable to support themselves through fishing or farming once the water dries up. Construction of the massive Three Gorges Dam in China, for example, flooded dozens of towns and displaced 1.3 million people.

In 1986, a nuclear reactor exploded in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. The disaster released a lethal amount of radiation. More than 350,000 people were permanently evacuated from the area and had to resettle elsewhere.

The effects of climate change can also lead to environmental refugees. During the last Ice Age, for example, people living near glaciers were forced to migrate to warmer climates as the glaciers and ice sheets spread across the land.

Today, human activity contributes to the current instance of climate change, called global warming. Activities, such as burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests, add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, trapping the sun’s heat. The rising temperature causes glaciers and ice caps to melt, making sea levels rise. It also leads to droughts, floods, and desertification—the transformation of arable land to desert.

Environmental refugees impacted by climate change are often called climate refugees. Climate refugees may be forced to seek asylum because of changes in their ecosystem, such as major portions of Maldives being underwater. Climate refugees may also seek asylum as their economic livelihood vanishes, as farmers bordering the Gobi Desert in China lose their land to desertification.

Even though environmental refugees are not protected by international law, they often receive a great deal of help. Sudden, major disasters are reported in newspapers and on TV around the world. In 2011 for instance, when a devastating earthquake and resulting tsunami occurred in northeastern Japan, countries from around the world offered aid to assist in the relief efforts.

Other environmental refugees can be difficult to identify. The gradual changes that happen due to global warming are harder to see. People don’t often rally to help the victims of these changes. But they can be as devastating as an earthquake or storm. Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya each lose more than 1,000 square kilometers (386 square miles) of productive land per year to desertification. The farmers, merchants, and families who depend on these lands are losing their ability to survive and support themselves.

The International Red Cross estimates that there are more environmental refugees today than refugees from wars. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees stated that 36 million people were displaced by natural disasters in 2009, and about 20 million of those were forced to move for climate change-related issues. Between 15 million and 42 million people have been displaced by natural disasters each year since 2008.

Like IDPs, environmental refugees are not protected under international refugee laws. In fact, most of them are IDPs as well. They are not entitled to the same protection and assistance as other refugees.

Many international organizations recognize that environmental disruption is a growing problem, one that we need to address. The problem may also increase the numbers of traditional refugees. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has noted, “Climate change can enhance the competition for resources—water, food, grazing lands—and that competition can trigger conflict.”

 

Refugee
In the 1970s, refugees from Cambodia fled to neighboring Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand, as well as the United States, Canada, and Australia.

Peace Out
Many U.S. citizens who opposed the Vietnam War and wished to avoid being drafted into fighting sought political asylum in Canada. After the war, President Jimmy Carter issued a pardon to these conscientious objectors, allowing them to return to the U.S. without punishment.

City of Refuge
Puuhonua o Hnaunau, a national park on the Big Island of Hawaii, marks an ancient City of Refuge. The site, on the islands western coast, was a place where people who fled the law could seek asylum and refuge. Asylum-seekers could be absolved by a priest and freed to leave.

Puuhonua o Hnaunau accepted refugees from the 15th through the 19th centuries.

Refugees
Countries of origin of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced persons, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees:
Colombia: 3,758,127
Iraq: 3,565,375
Afghanistan: 3,279,471
Pakistan: 3,040,845
Democratic Republic of Congo: 2,662,821

Places of Refuge
Nations with the most refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced persons in their borders, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees:
Pakistan: 4,744,098
Thailand: 3,615,552
Colombia: 3,304,362
Democratic Republic of the Congo: 2,362,295
Iraq: 2,026,798

anti-Semitism
Noun

hatred and hostility toward Jews.

arable
Adjective

land used for, or capable of, producing crops or raising livestock.

asylum
Noun

a safe place. People persecuted by their own country often seek asylum in another.

asylum-seeker
Noun

immigrant who has applied for, but not yet received, refugee status.

Noun

layers of gases surrounding a planet or other celestial body.

boat people
Plural Noun

refugees who have fled an area by boat, usually with few supplies.

brutal
Adjective

extreme, harsh, or cruel.

capital
Noun

goods or funds used to increase production or wealth.

Catholic
Adjective

having to do with the Christian denomination with the Pope as its leader.

charity
Noun

organization that helps those in need.

civil war
Noun

conflict between groups in the same country or nation.

climate
Noun

all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

Noun

gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.

Noun

person forced to leave his or her home and community because of climate change.

Cold War
Noun

(1947-1991) conflict between the Soviet Union (and its allies) and the United States (and its allies). The two sides never confronted each other directly.

colony
Noun

people and land separated by distance or culture from the government that controls them.

compassionate
Adjective

having to do with sympathy and a desire to help others.

concentration camp
Noun

enclosed, guarded area where political prisoners are kept. Concentration camps are most associated with Nazi work and extermination camps during World War II.

conflict
Noun

a disagreement or fight, usually over ideas or procedures.

consulate
Noun

place that represents the interests of a nation or state in another nation, but lacking the presence of an ambassador.

country
Noun

geographic territory with a distinct name, flag, population, boundaries, and government.

dam
Noun

structure built across a river or other waterway to control the flow of water.

Darfur
Noun

region in western Sudan.

dehydration
Noun

illness in which the body loses too much water.

delay
Verb

to put off until a later time.

deport
Verb

to send away from a country or region.

Noun

area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.

desertification
Noun

rapid depletion of plant life and topsoil, often associated with drought and human activity.

devastate
Verb

to destroy.

diplomat
Noun

person who negotiates important political and economic agreements, usually for a government.

displace
Verb

to remove or force to evacuate.

Doctors Without Borders
Noun

(Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) nonprofit organization that provides medical care and facilities in war-torn and developing countries.

downstream
Noun

in the direction of a flow, toward its end.

Noun

period of greatly reduced precipitation.

earthquake
Noun

the sudden shaking of Earth's crust caused by the release of energy along fault lines or from volcanic activity.

economic
Adjective

having to do with money.

Noun

community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.

emigrate
Verb

to move from one's native land to another.

enhance
Verb

to add to or increase in worth.

Noun

person who has been forced to flee his home and community due to changes in the environment, such as drought.

equipment
Noun

tools and materials to perform a task or function.

eruption
Noun

release of material from an opening in the Earth's crust.

ethnic
Adjective

having to do with characteristics of a group of people linked by shared culture, language, national origin, or other marker.

evacuate
Verb

to leave or remove from a dangerous place.

Noun

overflow of a body of water onto land.

forest
Noun

ecosystem filled with trees and underbrush.

fossil fuel
Noun

coal, oil, or natural gas. Fossil fuels formed from the remains of ancient plants and animals.

Noun

mass of ice that moves slowly over land.

Noun

increase in the average temperature of the Earth's air and oceans.

greenhouse gas
Noun

gas in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, and ozone, that absorbs solar heat reflected by the surface of the Earth, warming the atmosphere.

Hindu
Noun

religion of the Indian subcontinent with many different sub-types, most based around the idea of "daily morality."

Huguenot
Noun

French follower of a Protestant religion in the 16th-17th centuries.

hurricane
Noun

tropical storm with wind speeds of at least 119 kilometers (74 miles) per hour. Hurricanes are the same thing as typhoons, but usually located in the Atlantic Ocean region.

ice age
Noun

long period of cold climate where glaciers cover large parts of the Earth. The last ice age peaked about 20,000 years ago. Also called glacial age.

Noun

area of fewer than 50,000 square kilometers (19,000 square miles) covered by ice.

Noun

thick layer of glacial ice that covers a large area of land.

illegal
Adjective

forbidden by law.

immigrate
Verb

to move to a new place.

internally displaced person
Noun

someone forced to leave their local area, who has not left the country.

Noun

unit made up of governments or groups in different countries, usually for a specific purpose.

intolerance
Noun

unwillingness or refusal to respect another opinion, way of life, or point of view.

Jew
Noun

person who practices the Jewish religion.

lethal
Adjective

deadly.

livelihood
Noun

ability to economically support oneself.

magnitude
Noun

intensity of an earthquake, represented by numbers on a scale.

malnutrition
Noun

lack of a balanced diet.

massacre
Noun

mass killing of large number of people.

massive
Adjective

very large or heavy.

medical
Adjective

having to do with the study of medicine or healing.

merchant
Noun

person who sells goods and services.

migrate
Verb

to move from one place or activity to another.

militia
Noun

group of armed, ordinary citizens who are called up for emergencies and are not full-time soldiers.

Muslim
Adjective

having to do with Islam, the religion based on the words and philosophy of the prophet Mohammed.

nationality
Noun

status of a person's citizenship to a nation or country.

natural disaster
Noun

an event occurring naturally that has large-scale effects on the environment and people, such as a volcano, earthquake, or hurricane.

Nazi
noun, adjective

(1919-1945) (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) having to do with the National Socialist German Workers' Party.

NGO
Noun

non-governmental organization.

nuclear reactor
Noun

machinery that can control nuclear fission, usually producing electricity.

oppress
Verb

to unjustly discriminate against, torment, or persecute.

persecute
Verb

to harass or discriminate against, sometimes violently, on the basis of race, religion, or social and political beliefs.

pirate
Noun

thief who steals from ships or ships' crews while at sea.

pogrom
Noun

organized, mass killing of Jews.

Noun

introduction of harmful materials into the environment.

Pompeii
Noun

city in southwest Italy that was buried by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE.

property
Noun

goods or materials (including land) owned by someone.

Protestant
Noun

Christian who is not a follower of Catholic or Orthodox faiths.

proxy war
Noun

conflict where countries indirectly oppose each other by supporting different sides in another conflict.

pumice
Noun

type of igneous rock with many pores.

race
Noun

arbitrary grouping of people based on genetics and physical characteristics.

radiation
Noun

energy, emitted as waves or particles, radiating outward from a source.

rebel
noun, adjective

person who resists the authority of government.

Red Cross
Noun

international organization focused on humanitarian aid and disaster relief. Formally called the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

reduce
Verb

to lower or lessen.

Noun

person who flees their home, usually due to natural disaster or political upheaval.

refugee camp
Noun

temporary shelters built for immigrants who have fled their homes due to environmental or social conflict.

refugee status
Noun

official legal status of a person who has fled their home region for asylum in a host country, which is expected to provide civil rights, the right to work, and access to social services.

Noun

any area on Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.

religion
Noun

a system of spiritual or supernatural belief.

resent
Verb

to reject or dismiss due to a sense of injury or insult.

Noun

natural or man-made lake.

resource
Noun

available supply of materials, goods, or services. Resources can be natural or human.

Roman Empire
Noun

(27 BCE-476 CE) period in the history of ancient Rome when the state was ruled by an emperor.

Noun

base level for measuring elevations. Sea level is determined by measurements taken over a 19-year cycle.

security
Noun

safety or stability.

shelter
Noun

structure that protects people or other organisms from weather and other dangers.

social services
Plural Noun

programs and projects that support the development of individuals and communities.

Soviet Union
Noun

(1922-1991) large northern Eurasian nation that had a communist government. Also called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the USSR.

sphere of influence
Noun

area or region where a nation or cultural group has cultural, economic, military, or political influence.

state
Noun

nation or national government.

superpower
Noun

extremely powerful nation or country.

Noun

degree of hotness or coldness measured by a thermometer with a numerical scale.

temporary
Adjective

not lasting or permanent.

Three Gorges Dam
Noun

electrical power plant along the Yangtze River in China.

toxic
Adjective

poisonous.

United Nations
Noun

international organization that works for peace, security and cooperation.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
Noun

United Nations agency whose goal is to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another country, with the option to return home voluntarily, integrate locally, or to resettle in a third country.

Noun

developed, densely populated area where most inhabitants have nonagricultural jobs.

Noun

fragments of lava less than 2 millimeters across.

Noun

large-scale armed conflict.

World Bank
Noun

United Nations organization that loans money to poor and developing nations.

World War II
Noun

(1939-1945) armed conflict between the Allies (represented by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union) and the Axis (represented by Germany, Italy, and Japan.)