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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Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, World History

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Refugees are people who must leave their home. They go somewhere else for safety and protection. A refugee's home area could be a countrystate, or region.

People become refugees for many reasons. Some of the most common are war, natural disasters, and climate change. People may also become refugees if they are persecuted or oppressed. They might be oppressed because of their race, religion, nationality, social activities, political views, or for belonging to a certain group.

The United Nations (UN) is an international group. It helps countries work together. In 1951, the group wrote a document about the rights of refugees. At the time, many people were refugees because of World War II. The UN made rules for helping them settle in other countries.

When a refugee travels to a new country, they seek asylum. Asylum is protection for refugees. Today, 147 countries offer asylum.

Refugees in History

History is filled with stories of refugees. One of the most famous examples is from France. In the 1600s, most French people were Catholics. In 1685, the country made a law against the Protestant religion. Hundreds of thousands of Protestants were forced to flee the country. This kind of mistreatment has been repeated throughout history. Many people have had to move because of their religion.

After World War II, there were many refugees. Millions of people had lost their homes. Others had been forced out of their home countries. Life was especially difficult for Jews who had survived Nazi concentration camps. During the war, people stole their property. These Jews could not return to their homes. They had little hope of finding work. As a result, many became refugees. They had to look for help elsewhere.

After World War II, there were two powerful countries in the world. They were the Soviet Union and the United States. The two had a conflict called the Cold War. It wasn't an actual war, just a war of words and threats. Each country wanted to be the most powerful in the world. During the Cold War, thousands of refugees left the Soviet Union. They went to seek asylum in Europe and the U.S.

Refugees Today

In 2017, there were 19.9 million refugees around the world.

Most of these refugees come from just three countries. They are Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Syria. These regions have been hurt by war and conflict. Many people have been forced to flee their homes.

Most refugees are from poor countries. They often seek asylum in other poor countries. Turkey has taken in the largest number of refugees in the world.

Over half of all refugees live in cities. They usually settle there for a number of reasons. For one, legal help for refugees is often found in cities. Cities also have large immigrant communities.

Internally Displaced Persons

Not every refugee ends up leaving their country. Some refugees move within their country. These refugees are called "internally displaced persons." They are also known as IDPs. Today, about 40 million people around the world are IDPs.

Sudan is a country in eastern Africa. It has one of the largest IDP populations in the world. From 1983 to 2005, there was a war between north and south Sudan. Millions of people were forced out of their homes. Many of them became IDPs.

Other countries have many IDPs, too. They include Colombia, Iraq, Somalia, and Pakistan.

Environmental Refugees

War is not the only reason for refugees. Another reason is environmental disruption. This includes natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods. These events force people to leave their homes. In 2010, a giant earthquake hit Haiti. Many people had to leave the country.

Today, human activity causes climate change. Burning fossil fuels, like coal and oil, creates greenhouse gases. These gases are released into the air. They trap the sun's heat in the atmosphere. This makes Earth warmer. The rising temperature causes glaciers to melt. That makes sea levels rise. It also leads to droughts and floods. Many people are now forced to move because of climate change. They are known as climate refugees.

Climate change is a growing problem. It makes it harder for people to get food and water, the UN says. That can cause more fighting between different groups. As a result, there are more refugees.

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.

Media Credits

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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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