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 for their own safety or survival. 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 due to their race, religion, nationality, social activities, political views or membership in a certain group.

The United Nations (UN) is a group of countries that meet regularly to promote peace and cooperation between nations. In 1951, the group wrote a document describing the rights of refugees. At the time, many people had become refugees because of World War II. The UN established rules for helping these people settle in other countries. The group originally limited its definition of refugees to include only those from Europe. In 1967, it expanded the definition to include refugees from any conflict or disaster.

Today, refugees can seek asylum in 147 different countries. Asylum is the protection from oppression or hardship offered by another country. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is part of the UN. It helps refugees and countries offering asylum.

Refugee status is an official decision made by a country providing asylum. Many people who are seeking asylum have not yet been approved. Until they receive refugee status, they are known as asylum-seekers. After they are approved, they are welcomed into their host country. It is expected to provide them with civil rights and access to social services.

Refugees in History

History is filled with stories of people forced to leave their homes. One example is France, where in the 1600s most people were Catholics. In 1685, France outlawed the Protestant religion. Hundreds of thousands of Huguenots, a French Protestant group, fled the country. Most of these refugees moved to other European countries. Some traveled as far as South Africa and North America. Intolerance of this kind is repeated throughout history, forcing many from their homes due to their religion.

Refugees posed a global crisis after World War II. Millions of people had lost their homes or were expelled from their home countries. Life was especially difficult for Jews who had survived Nazi concentration camps. They often returned home to find that their property had been taken 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. As a result, many became refugees and had to look for help elsewhere.

After World War II, the Soviet Union and the United States engaged in a period of tension and threats called the Cold War. The two countries competed for power and influence. Each wanted to be the most powerful country in the world. The Cold War ended in 1991 when the Soviet Union broke apart. During the Cold War, thousands of refugees fled Eastern European countries that were part of Soviet territory. They went to seek asylum elsewhere, primarily in Western Europe and the U.S.

The Cold War involved several "proxy wars." In proxy wars, countries oppose each other by supporting different sides in another conflictProxy wars in Southeast Asia led to large numbers of refugees. More than two million Southeast Asians fled their homes during this time. Many of them were forced to leave on boats. The journey was dangerous and often deadly.

Refugees Today

In 2017, the number of refugees rose to 19.9 million around the world.

Refugees from Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Syria account for the most refugees worldwide. Each of these regions has been devastated by war and oppression. Many people have been forced to flee their homes.

More than eight out of 10 of the world's refugees are from poor countries. Most refugees from poor countries seek asylum in other poor countries. Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees worldwide.

Over half of all refugees live in cities, and they tend to settle there for a number of reasons. For one, legal resources for asylum-seekers are often found in cities. Most importantly, however, is the community of other immigrants.

Internally Displaced Persons

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

Sudan is a country in eastern Africa. It has one of the largest IDP populations in the world. From 1983 to 2005, war between north and south Sudan forced millions of people from their homes. By the end of 2017, around 4.4 million Sudanese people were IDPs.

Other countries with large numbers of IDPs are Colombia, Iraq, Somalia, and Pakistan.

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. In 2010, a giant earthquake hit the city of Port-au-Prince in Haiti. Many of the city's residents fled to other parts of the country. Still more went looking for asylum in the neighboring Dominican Republic.

Environmental disruption can also be man-made. In the 1990s, about 100 million people were forced to move because of dam-building projects. Disruption usually happens when the water held behind the dam floods towns and villages.

Today, human activity contributes to climate change. Activities such as burning fossil fuels (like oil and gas) and cutting down forests add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. This traps the sun's heat, making Earth warmer. The rising temperature causes glaciers to melt, making sea levels rise. It also leads to droughts and floodsEnvironmental refugees affected by climate change are often called climate refugees.

The International Red Cross is a group that helps refugees. It estimates that there are more environmental refugees today than refugees from wars. The UN stated that 36 million people were forced to move because of natural disasters in 2009. About 20 million of those had to move because of climate change.

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

Many international groups see that environmental disruption is a growing problem. It may also increase the number of traditional refugees. Climate change makes it harder for people to access food and water, the UN says. That can cause more fighting between different groups.

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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