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.


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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 earthquakeshurricanes, 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.”

Fast Fact

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

Fast Fact

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

Fast Fact

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.

Fast Fact

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.

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Diane Boudreau
Melissa McDaniel
Erin Sprout
Andrew Turgeon
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society
Tim Gunther, Illustrator
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
Educator Reviewer
Nancy Wynne
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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