Ukrainian refugees in Moldova. Dressed in winter gear, the father embraces his two children while the mother holds a baby.

What is a refugee?

Globally, the refugee crisis is a pressing humanitarian challenge. According to a 2022 analysis from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 34.6 million people have fled their home countries due to conflict, violence, persecution, or human rights violations.

The war in Ukraine has led to the fastest outflow of refugees in Europe since World War II. Additionally, rising food insecurity, climate shocks, and new and protracted conflicts in countries including Syria, AfghanistanSouth SudanSudanMyanmar, and Venezuela continue to force people to leave their homes.

Each year, the United Nations and people worldwide recognize the plight of refugees on June 20, World Refugee Day.

Refugees: Facts, FAQs, and how to help

Fast facts: Refugees

  • 108.4 million people ­— refugees, asylum-seekers, internally displaced people, and other individuals in need of international protection ­— have been forced to flee their homes.
  • 52% of the world’s refugees and other displaced people come from these three countries: Syria, Ukraine, and Afghanistan.
  • Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees (3.6 million) of any country in the world.
  • Low- and middle-income countries host 76% of the world’s refugees and other displaced people.
  • 5.4 million people are asylum-seekers (seeking refugee status), and an additional 62.5 million people are displaced within their own countries.
  • 41% of all forcibly displaced people are children.
  • 1.9 million children were born as refugees between 2018 and 2022, according to UNHCR estimates.
  • 48% of all refugee children remain out of school, and accessing education becomes harder as they get older.

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Open the door to hope for refugee children.

A mother glances wearily to the side as she and her three children sit under a makeshift tent in South Sudan.
When conflict broke out in Sudan in April 2023, Fatha and her children fled to South Sudan seeking safety and protection. Ongoing fighting has caused the displacement of over 2 million people within Sudan while forcing hundreds of thousands to seek refuge in neighboring countries, including South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Chad, and Ethiopia. (©2023 World Vision/photo by Scovia Faida Charles)

What is the definition of a refugee?

Refugees are people who have been forced to flee their home country because of feared persecution, conflict, violence, or other circumstances that place them in need of international protection. Under international law, anyone who meets these criteria is a refugee, although a host country may require asylum seekers to establish a well-founded fear of danger before formally granting them refugee status. The 1951 Refugee Convention outlines refugees’ rights, including the right to non-refoulement — not to be returned to a country where they may be persecuted. People who have committed serious crimes or people who might pose a security threat are specifically excluded from refugee protection.

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How are refugees different from asylum-seekers, internally displaced people, and migrants?

Refugees flee their homes because of credible threats of danger or persecution and because they are not protected by their own country. In contrast:

  • Asylum-seekers are people who’ve applied for protection — refugee status — on arrival in a country besides their own.
  • Internally displaced people (IDPs) are displaced by conflict, violence, or natural disasters within their own country.
  • Migrants are people who move from their usual place of residence, whether internally or internationally, regardless of their legal status or reasons for moving, Although there is no formal legal definition, experts agree on this classification.

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Voices of Rohingya refugees

Rohingya refugee families face food insecurity in Bangladesh

Never expecting to be called "refugee"

A little girl looks at dry ice in a cup her grandmother holds. Behind her is a World Vision banner in the child-safe play area.

Voices of Ukraine war: Praying through the crisis

Displaced by Ukraine's conflict, a refugee volunteers at a shelter to return the kindness she received while fleeing to safety in Romania.

Who decides who is a refugee?

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, formed in 1950 to help people displaced by World War II, plays a significant role in helping determine if a person qualifies as a refugee. They work closely with national authorities to offer expertise and guidance in making refugee determinations. For refugees in the United States, the UNHCR, a U.S. embassy, or an approved humanitarian aid organization identifies and refers the majority of refugees for resettlement through the U.S. refugee submissions program. The U.S. has traditionally welcomed refugees and is one of the world’s major resettlement countries.

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How many people are displaced in the world?

The number of people forcibly displaced due to conflict, violence, human rights violations, and persecution has reached 108.4 million, including refugees and people who are displaced within their own countries, according to 2022 figures from UNHCR.

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What are the top refugee crises in the world?

The war in Ukraine stands as one of the largest current displacement crises. UNHCR’s analysis reveals that three countries — Syria, Ukraine, and Afghanistan — account for 52% of the world’s refugee population.

Read more about the world’s top refugee crises.

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There are more refugees than ever before. Learn more about their plight.
Having fled the war in Ukraine, women and children reach the border in Palanca, Moldova, where more than 476,200 refugees have arrived since May 27, 2022. Millions have now left Ukraine, making this the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. In Moldova and Eastern Europe, the majority of Ukrainian refugees are women and children. (©2022 World Vision/photo by Vasile Voicu)

What rights and obligations do refugees have under international law?

Refugees have the right to safe asylum and not to be returned to possible persecution in their country of origin. According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, they are entitled to the basic rights of any other foreigner in the host country, especially the right to practice their religion, pursue education, and move about freely. They must follow and respect the laws of the country that accepts them.

Sometimes an influx of refugees is sudden and immense. Refugee camps are set up to provide temporary shelter and safety for them. Aid groups can deliver food, water, and other services in these camps. As time goes on, they sometimes become thriving communities.

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How many children have become refugees?

The number of children among the world’s refugees is disproportionately high. Although children make up less than a third of the global population, they accounted for more than 40% of displaced people in 2021. In 2020, nearly 1 in 3 children living outside their country of birth were a refugee, according to UNICEF.

Read World Vision’s reportInvisible and forgotten: Displaced children hungrier and at more risk than ever.

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How does World Vision work in refugee contexts?

In refugee contexts, World Vision coordinates humanitarian activities with national governments and other aid organizations to achieve the best outcomes for people affected by crises. Because we have a presence in nearly 100 countries, we are well-positioned to meet the needs of displaced people, whether they are in their own country or living as refugees.

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What is World Vision doing to help refugees?

In response to the refugee crises around the world, World Vision helps support refugees with the following:

  • Emergency relief, including food, access to clean water, shelter, and other essentials refugees need when displaced by conflict or disaster
  • Child protection programs and Child-Friendly Spaces where kids can play, learn life skills, and experience everyday childhood interactions while also receiving psychosocial support to help them and their families navigate the difficulties of displacement
  • Access to quality education for refugee children, ensuring they have the opportunity to learn in safe environments during displacement

Livelihoods training and cash-for-work are other features of World Vision’s work with refugees. Our work goes beyond immediate assistance, as we scale our programming to focus on long-term development. We do this by partnering with local communities and governments, international organizations like United Nations agencies — including the World Food Programme (WFP) and the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF ) — and local churches to help bolster the impacted community’s response to the crisis. By working together, we help empower communities to thrive and become self-sufficient.

Here are some of the groups of refugees and displaced people that World Vision supports:

Syrian refugees and displaced people

According to the United Nations, the 12-year conflict has displaced approximately 6.8 million people within the country, with an estimated 15.3 million people in Syria requiring humanitarian aid in 2023. Of the approximately 6.5 million Syrian refugees and other displaced people, the majority currently reside in the Middle East, particularly in Turkey, which hosts approximately 3.6 million refugees, according to UNHCR’s annual report.

World Vision is working in Syria and has also supported more than 7.8 million children in the surrounding region — in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. The recent earthquake in Syria and Turkey has further complicated the situation, impacting internally displaced Syrians and Syrian refugees living in Turkey at the time of the earthquake. We aim to support 1 million people affected by the earthquake in both countries, including 605,000 by September 2023.

An instructor smiles as she supervises children during an art activity in a classroom environment.
In Vulcanesti, southern Moldova, a Child-Friendly Space run by World Vision’s local partner, Ave Copiii, provides a safe and nurturing environment for Ukrainian and Moldovan children. Facilitators like Natalia Petrioglo use arts-based activities to help the children express their emotions and develop resilience. The children engage in art projects, read books, and play games, benefiting from psychosocial support and education. (©2023 World Vision/photo by Christopher Lete)

Ukrainian refugees and displaced people

As the ongoing war in Ukraine persists, we’re continuing to scale our response in the region by working with our partner networks to support people in conflict-affected areas. Initially, our emergency response prioritized providing essential aid such as food, safe shelter, hygiene, and child protection services for those displaced by the conflict. Now, our focus is shifting toward long-term support, including psychosocial assistance programs and education initiatives for children and families.

We are actively supporting displaced children and families in Romania, Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine, as well as host communities that have welcomed them. Through the support of generous donors and partners, we’ve reached over 1 million people since the crisis escalated in late February 2022.

Venezuelans displaced abroad

Since 2014, millions of Venezuelans have left their country seeking food, work, and a better life. World Vision continues to support affected children and families with food and nutritional assistance, access to clean water, and essential health and education services in nearby countries such as Bolivia, Brazil, ChileColombiaEcuador, and Peru.

In Venezuela, we’re working with partner organizations to empower families and improve their children’s lives. Our efforts have supported over 1.7 million people, including 742,800 children, since 2019.

South Sudanese refugees and displaced people

Over 2 million people are internally displaced because of conflict and hunger in South Sudan, and another 2.4 million South Sudanese refugees are living in neighboring countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, and Uganda. In 2022, we reached over 2.3 million people, including 1.3 million children, with vital aid, including emergency food aid; health and nutrition support; access to clean water, improved sanitation, and hygiene behavior change support; and educational initiatives.

A woman looks at her young smiling child in a Cox’s Bazar refugee camp.
Nur, a 43-year-old mother and Rohingya refugee, sits with her daughter, Fatema, in a shelter in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. In 2017, Nur and her family fled extreme violence and persecution in Myanmar. Nur’s family has received monthly food rations through World Vision’s partnership with the World Food Programme (WFP). World Vision is the WFP’s largest implementing partner worldwide. “I am thankful for the essential food that we receive each month. It has saved our lives and the lives of thousands of other refugees like us.” (©2020 World Vision/photo by Xavier Sku)

Rohingya refugees

Since 2017, the Rohingya people have endured violence, persecution, and human rights violations in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, prompting many to seek refuge elsewhere. Presently, about 918,000 stateless Rohingya refugees live in the Kutupalong refugee camp, which is the largest and most densely populated camp worldwide. Among this vulnerable population, nearly half are children.

World Vision is active within 22 Rohingya refugee camps located in Bangladesh. From 2017 to 2022, we reached 584,724 people, ensuring they received vital provisions such as food, clean water, sanitation facilities, shelter, and other critical humanitarian aid. By working in these challenging circumstances, we strive to alleviate the suffering and address the immediate needs of the Rohingya people.

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How can I help refugees?

  • Pray  for all who have fled unsafe environments — especially children — and who struggle every day to survive as refugees.
  • Give to World Vision’s Refugee Children’s Crisis Fund to support refugee families with life-saving essentials.

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Women and children stand in a tent set up for Ukraine refugees; in the foreground, a mom holds a child’s backpack while helping her son.
A mother and her child find warmth inside a tent after crossing the border in Palanca, Moldova. Nearly 5 milllion people have fled Ukraine since the conflict escalated on February 24, 2022. (©2022 World Vision/photo by Laura Reinhardt)

Refugees: History and timeline

Displacement has long been a feature of human society since people began organizing national governments. Here are examples of refugee crises:

  • 740 B.C.: 10 of 12 tribes of Israelites are expelled from their homeland by Assyrian conquerors. Read what the Bible says about refugees.
  • 1685: Protestant French Huguenots flee from state-sanctioned persecution in France.
  • 1914 to 1918: World War I and its aftermath precipitate massive displacements of populations, including Belgians, Serbians, and Armenians.
  • 1920s and 1930s: The League of Nations and International Labor Organization institute a system for identifying refugees and issuing travel documents for them.
  • 1939 to 1945: About 60 million people are displaced by World War II.

The modern history of refugee crises begins with the post-World War II period:

  • 1950: The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees is formed to help people displaced by World War II.
  • 1951: The United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines refugees and their rights.
  • 1967: The Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees expands the scope of the refugee convention beyond European refugees.
  • 1990s: Wars in Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia lead to the displacement of millions of Bosnians and Serbs.
  • 2011: Civil protests lead to a civil war in Syria, which will go on to displace more than 13 million people, including 6.8 million refugees and asylum-seekers.
  • 2013: Civil war breaks out in the young nation of South Sudan, ultimately leading to 2.3 million people fleeing the country as refugees.
  • 2014: Venezuelans leave their county en masse to seek food, work, and a better life in Colombia and other nations.
  • 2016: With the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, all 193 U.N. Member States recognize the rights of refugees and migrants and pledge to support countries that host them.
  • 2017: Members of the Rohingya ethnic group flee violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and relocate to Bangladesh.
  • 2018: The U.N. General Assembly adopts the Global Compact on Refugees to promote self-reliance for refugees and support the developing countries that host them.
  • 2020: Forced displacement impacts more than 1% of humanity — one in every 95 people — with fewer and fewer people who flee being able to return home.
  • 2021: The number of people forcibly displaced by conflict, food insecurity, and extreme weather emergencies surpasses 84 million.
  • 2022: War in Ukraine becomes the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. The war and other conflicts forcibly displace a record 100 million people worldwide.
  • 2023: A record-breaking number of people — 108.4 million — have been forced to flee their homes. This figure encompasses refugees, asylum-seekers, internally displaced individuals, and others who require international protection.

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Central America migration: FAQs, and how to help

Learn more about 10 of the worst disasters around the world in 2021, including the Central America migration.

Iraq crisis: Facts, FAQs, and how to help

In Iraq, 12-year-old Aysha giggles while giving her cousin clean water to drink.

Venezuela crisis: Facts, FAQs, and how to help

Learn more about 10 of the worst disasters around the world in 2021, including the crisis in Venezuela.

Syria refugee crisis: Facts, FAQs, and how to help

Ten-year-old Nour is as old as the war in Syria, which her family fled. For four years, they’ve lived in an informal tent settlement in Lebanon. World Vision aims to empower children like Nour through education. Nour’s dream is to be a math teacher when she grows up.