From the Field

Forced to flee: Top countries refugees are coming from

Around the world, 79.5 million people have been forcibly displaced. That’s the most since World War II, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Since most people remain displaced within their home country, how many refugees are there in the world? About 26 million people worldwide have fled to other countries as refugees. Another 4.2 million people have applied for refugee status, but not received it yet. More than half of refugees are children.

In 2018, 11 million people were newly displaced, either as refugees or internally displaced people. Now, it’s unknown how border closings and travel restrictions due to COVID-19 will affect the number of new refugees in the world.

79.5 million people worldwide have been forced to flee their homes due to violent conflict.

Udai was 6 when the Syrian civil war began in 2011. His little sister, Rana, was 2. They hardly remember life before the violence, chaos, and strife.

Their family of eight remained in their home in eastern Aleppo as long as they could. But they were finally forced to flee when the fierce battle between government and rebel forces in late 2016 literally hit home.

“We had dinner and were getting ready for bed when we heard a ‘booooooom,’” Udai recounted that December. “And we started looking for each other. I was shouting, ‘Dad!’ No one was answering. People came in with flashlights, and they found us.”

By the time Udai, Rana, and their three siblings escaped the city in mid-December, they had lost both of their parents and their 7-year-old sister in bomb attacks. The orphaned children relied on relatives and caring strangers to usher them to relative safety in Idlib, Syria.

Udai and his siblings are among the nearly 13.2 million Syrians who have been forced to flee their homes because of the civil war. More than 6 million people are displaced within Syria. UNHCR counted 6.7 million Syrian refugees and asylum-seekers during 2019, plus more who had applied for asylum.

Conflict and insecurity in other countries, including Iraq, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Myanmar have also caused millions to flee their homes.

Here are top seven countries of origin that account for the most refugees in the world today. About two-thirds of today’s refugees (68%) come from the top five of these countries.

1. Syria — 6.7 million refugees and asylum-seekers

Most Syrians who are refugees because of the Syrian civil war remain in the Middle East. Turkey hosts 3.6 million, the largest number of refugees hosted by any country in the world. Syrian refugees are also in Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. During 2018, 1.4 million refugees returned home to Syria. Returnees face a daunting situation, including lack of infrastructure and services and danger from explosive devices. About 6.2 million Syrians remain displaced inside the country.

Since the crisis began, World Vision has helped more than 2.5 million people in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Serbia.

2. Venezuela — 4.5 million refugees, asylum-seekers, and people displaced abroad

Years of economic and political instability in Venezuela caused millions of Venezuelans to leave the country between 2014 and the end of 2019. They migrate to seek food, work, and a better life, most of them to nearby countries. Many Venezuelans on the move lack legal status and need international protection and aid.

World Vision provides assistance to Venezuelan migrants in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. In Venezuela, we are working through partner organizations to make life better for children and families.

3. Afghanistan — 2.7 million refugees

About 2.7 million people from Afghanistan are living as refugees, representing the second-largest refugee population in the world. Pakistan hosts nearly 1.4 million, including some second- or third-generation Afghan refugees who have never lived in their home country. Some have been forced to return home from neighboring countries, but increased violence in Afghanistan since 2015 has led to a new surge of asylum-seekers. More than 4 million Afghans are displaced within the country due to conflict, drought, and other natural disasters.

4. South Sudan — 2.3 million refugees

The protracted conflict in South Sudan is in its eighth year.  About 1.5 million people have been displaced within the country, in addition to 2.3 million who fled to neighboring countries. An estimated 80% of the refugees are women and children. And about 50,000 of the children are orphaned or unaccompanied.

During 2018, World Vision helped more than 1.5 million children and families in South Sudan.  We also helped South Sudanese refugees in surrounding countries with aid, including food, a special nutrition treatment for malnourished children and breastfeeding mothers, livelihood training, seeds and farming supplies, household items like bed nets and blankets, and water and sanitation services.

5. Myanmar – 1.1 million refugees

About 1.1 million people who identify as members of the Rohingya ethnic group have fled their homes in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state. About 700,000 have relocated to Bangladesh since August 2017. Aid agencies are struggling to adequately serve people who are dependent on aid, including those in local communities.

World Vision works in all 34 Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh serving more than 400,000 refugees with food, water, sanitation facilities, shelter, and other humanitarian aid.

6. Somalia — 948,000 refugees and asylum-seekers

Most Somali refugees have settled in Kenya, Ethiopia, or Yemen. Some have lived in massive refugee camps for years. About 85,000 have returned to the country since 2015, largely due to the Kenyan government’s intent to eventually close Dadaab, which at one time was the world’s largest refugee camp. But the widespread humanitarian need continues as a result of conflict and recurring and severe drought inside Somalia. Within Somalia, an estimated 2.6 million people are displaced because of insecurity.

7. Democratic Republic of the Congo — 900,000 refugees and asylum-seekers

Many people from the DRC have fled conflict and food insecurity. About 5 million are internally displaced, and more than 900,000 people live in neighboring countries as refugees and asylum-seekers. Violence also hampered the containment of an Ebola outbreak that started in May 2018.

As COVID-19 has reached the DRC, it has become an added burden to a health system already stretched to the breaking point by Ebola infections and a measles outbreak starting in early 2019 that sickened more than 300,000 people and killed at least 6,000.

World Vision has reached more than 600,000 people in the DRC with humanitarian assistance since August 2017. In Uganda, where many of the DRC refugees have gone, World Vision is providing life-saving aid.

How you can help refugees:

  • Pray  for mothers, fathers, and children who struggle to survive as refugees. 
  • Give  to World Vision’s Refugee Children’s Crisis Fund to help provide for their needs. 


Chris Huber of World Vision’s U.S. staff contributed to this article.


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