Refugees are people who must leave their home area for their own safety or survival. A refugee’s home area could be a country, state, 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 race, religion, nationality, 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.
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 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.”
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.
Countries of origin of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced persons, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees:
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:
Democratic Republic of the Congo: 2,362,295
hatred and hostility toward Jews.
land used for, or capable of, producing crops or raising livestock.
a safe place. People persecuted by their own country often seek asylum in another.
immigrant who has applied for, but not yet received, refugee status.
layers of gases surrounding a planet or other celestial body.
refugees who have fled an area by boat, usually with few supplies.
extreme, harsh, or cruel.
goods or funds used to increase production or wealth.
having to do with the Christian denomination with the Pope as its leader.
organization that helps those in need.
conflict between groups in the same country or nation.
all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.
gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.
person forced to leave his or her home and community because of climate change.
(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.
people and land separated by distance or culture from the government that controls them.
having to do with sympathy and a desire to help others.
enclosed, guarded area where political prisoners are kept. Concentration camps are most associated with Nazi work and extermination camps during World War II.
a disagreement or fight, usually over ideas or procedures.
place that represents the interests of a nation or state in another nation, but lacking the presence of an ambassador.
geographic territory with a distinct name, flag, population, boundaries, and government.
structure built across a river or other waterway to control the flow of water.
region in western Sudan.
illness in which the body loses too much water.
to put off until a later time.
to send away from a country or region.
area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.
rapid depletion of plant life and topsoil, often associated with drought and human activity.
person who negotiates important political and economic agreements, usually for a government.
to remove or force to evacuate.
Doctors Without Borders
(Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) nonprofit organization that provides medical care and facilities in war-torn and developing countries.
in the direction of a flow, toward its end.
period of greatly reduced precipitation.
the sudden shaking of Earth's crust caused by the release of energy along fault lines or from volcanic activity.
having to do with money.
community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.
to move from one's native land to another.
to add to or increase in worth.
person who has been forced to flee his home and community due to changes in the environment, such as drought.
tools and materials to perform a task or function.
release of material from an opening in the Earth's crust.
having to do with characteristics of a group of people linked by shared culture, language, national origin, or other marker.
to leave or remove from a dangerous place.
overflow of a body of water onto land.
ecosystem filled with trees and underbrush.
coal, oil, or natural gas. Fossil fuels formed from the remains of ancient plants and animals.
mass of ice that moves slowly over land.
increase in the average temperature of the Earth's air and oceans.
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.
religion of the Indian subcontinent with many different sub-types, most based around the idea of "daily morality."
French follower of a Protestant religion in the 16th-17th centuries.
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.
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.
area of fewer than 50,000 square kilometers (19,000 square miles) covered by ice.
thick layer of glacial ice that covers a large area of land.
forbidden by law.
to move to a new place.
internally displaced person
someone forced to leave their local area, who has not left the country.
unit made up of governments or groups in different countries, usually for a specific purpose.
unwillingness or refusal to respect another opinion, way of life, or point of view.
person who practices the Jewish religion.
ability to economically support oneself.
intensity of an earthquake, represented by numbers on a scale.
lack of a balanced diet.
mass killing of large number of people.
very large or heavy.
having to do with the study of medicine or healing.
person who sells goods and services.
to move from one place or activity to another.
group of armed, ordinary citizens who are called up for emergencies and are not full-time soldiers.
having to do with Islam, the religion based on the words and philosophy of the prophet Mohammed.
status of a person's citizenship to a nation or country.
an event occurring naturally that has large-scale effects on the environment and people, such as a volcano, earthquake, or hurricane.
(1919-1945) (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) having to do with the National Socialist German Workers' Party.
machinery that can control nuclear fission, usually producing electricity.
to unjustly discriminate against, torment, or persecute.
to harass or discriminate against, sometimes violently, on the basis of race, religion, or social and political beliefs.
thief who steals from ships or ships' crews while at sea.
organized, mass killing of Jews.
introduction of harmful materials into the environment.
city in southwest Italy that was buried by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE.
goods or materials (including land) owned by someone.
Christian who is not a follower of Catholic or Orthodox faiths.
conflict where countries indirectly oppose each other by supporting different sides in another conflict.
type of igneous rock with many pores.
arbitrary grouping of people based on genetics and physical characteristics.
energy, emitted as waves or particles, radiating outward from a source.
person who resists the authority of government.
international organization focused on humanitarian aid and disaster relief. Formally called the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.
to lower or lessen.
person who flees their home, usually due to natural disaster or political upheaval.
temporary shelters built for immigrants who have fled their homes due to environmental or social conflict.
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.
any area on Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.
a system of spiritual or supernatural belief.
to reject or dismiss due to a sense of injury or insult.
natural or man-made lake.
available supply of materials, goods, or services. Resources can be natural or human.
(27 BCE-476 CE) period in the history of ancient Rome when the state was ruled by an emperor.
base level for measuring elevations. Sea level is determined by measurements taken over a 19-year cycle.
safety or stability.
structure that protects people or other organisms from weather and other dangers.
programs and projects that support the development of individuals and communities.
(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
area or region where a nation or cultural group has cultural, economic, military, or political influence.
nation or national government.
extremely powerful nation or country.
degree of hotness or coldness measured by a thermometer with a numerical scale.
not lasting or permanent.
Three Gorges Dam
electrical power plant along the Yangtze River in China.
international organization that works for peace, security and cooperation.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
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.
developed, densely populated area where most inhabitants have nonagricultural jobs.
fragments of lava less than 2 millimeters across.
large-scale armed conflict.
United Nations organization that loans money to poor and developing nations.
World War II
(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.)