What is a refugee?

There are more refugees in the world than ever before. About 27 million people have fled their countries because of conflict, violence, persecution, or human rights violations. And even more have been displaced within their own countries. The war in Ukraine and other conflicts worldwide have forcibly displaced over 100 million people,  according to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR).

Refugee facts

Explore frequently asked questions about refugee crises and learn how you can help.

Fast facts: Refugees

  • 100 million people have been forced to flee their homes, more than ever before.
  • More than two-thirds of the world’s refugees have fled from just five countries: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar.
  • Developing countries host about 85% of the world’s refugees.
  • 4.6 million people are asylum-seekers (seeking refugee status), and an additional 53.2 people million are displaced within their own countries.
  • 41% of all forcibly displaced people are children.
  • Almost 1 million children were born as refugees between 2018 and 2020.
  • 48% of all refugee children remain out of school, and accessing education becomes harder as they get older.


Bring hope to refugee children.

What is the definition of a refugee?

Refugees are people who have been forced to flee their home country because of war, persecution, or violence. To be granted refugee status, they must establish a well-founded fear of danger or of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social or ethnic group. 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.


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

Refugees flee their country because of credible threats of danger or persecution and because they’re not protected by their own government. In contrast, migrants may leave their country for any reason, such as employment, family reunification, or education. Migrants remain under the protection of their own government, even when abroad. While refugees are protected by international laws, migrants are subject to the particular laws of the country they move to.

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.


What is World Refugee Day?

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


Voices of Rohingya refugees

Rohingya refugee families face food insecurity in Bangladesh

Voices of Syrian war refugees

Ten Syrian refugee teens reflect on what their life is like now and their dreams for the future

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?

Refugee status is determined by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, which was formed in 1950 to help people displaced by World War II. Most refugees who enter the U.S. refugee admissions program are identified and referred for resettlement in the United States by UNHCR, a U.S. embassy, or an approved humanitarian aid organization. The U.S., one of 37 resettlement countries, has the largest refugee program in the world.


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 100 million, including refugees and people who are displaced within their own countries, according to UNHCR.


What are the top refugee crises in the world?

The Syrian civil war has led to the largest refugee crisis in our time, with an estimated 6.8 million refugees at the end of 2021. The number of people fleeing violence in Central America has increased greatly in the last few years. And the economic collapse of Venezuela has fueled massive displacement, including 6.1 million refugees and migrants, and more than 950,000 asylum-seekers.


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. Nearly 5 million 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)

War in Ukraine has sparked Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II. Since the escalation of conflict on February 24, 2022, millions have fled to neighboring countries in what is considered one of the largest refugee outflows in over 60 years, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.N. data.

Conflicts in EthiopiaSouth SudanMyanmar, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have also caused millions of people to flee in the past few years. Refugee displacements from Afghanistan and Somalia date back decades, and the humanitarian needs continue.

Read more about the world’s top refugee crises.


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 belonging to any other foreigner in the host country, especially the right to practice their religion, pursue education, and to move about freely. They are required to 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. These are places where aid groups can deliver food, water, and other services. As time goes on, they sometimes become thriving communities.


What percentage of refugees are children?

About 41% of displaced people are children under 18. In comparison, children make up 30% of the world’s population. Nearly one in three children living outside their countries of birth are refugees, according to UNICEF.


How does World Vision work 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’re in their own country or living as refugees.

Our aid to Syrian refugees, for example, began in Lebanon, where we were already working with Palestinian refugees. Now, World Vision not only helps Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, northern Iraq, and Turkey, but we’re also restoring health services in Syria and helping children continue their education by providing water and sanitation in schools.


What is World Vision doing to help refugees?

In response to refugee crises around the world, World Vision provides basic supplies refugees need for survival, such as food, access to clean water, shelter materials, blankets, and household goods. We set up and run Child-Friendly Spaces where children can play, learn, and enjoy normal childhood interactions. Our Infant and Young Child Feeding Centers give refugee moms a private place to breastfeed their babies where both mother and baby can be screened and treated for malnutrition. Healthcare, livelihoods training, cash-for-work, and educational programs are other features of our work with refugees.


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)

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

Ukrainian refugees and displaced people

As war in Ukraine continues, we’re continuing to scale up our response across the region, with the goal of reaching nearly 300,000 people in Romania, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia over the next few months. As of May 21, 2022, our staff have supported more than 129,110 people, mostly women and children, with emergency essentials and supplies.

Syrian refugees and displaced people 

After 11 years of conflict in Syria, more than 13 million people have either fled Syria or are displaced within the country. World Vision has helped more than 7.5 million children in Turkey, JordanLebanon, and Iraq and is also working within Syria 

Rohingya refugees 

World Vision assists refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh — most of whom identify as members of the Rohingya ethnic group — as well as the host communities that accommodate them. World Vision operates in all 34 Rohingya camps, providing aid for nearly 500,000 refugees.

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 Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, and Uganda. World Vision helps South Sudanese refugees in Uganda with emergency food, livelihood training, healthcare, access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene, and educational opportunities.

Venezuelans displaced abroad

Since 2014, about 6 million Venezuelans have left the country seeking food, work, and a better life. In BoliviaChileColombiaEcuadorPeru, and Brazil, World Vision is supporting children and families through programs focused on child protection, education, food security, and livelihoods. We are also providing aid to families in Venezuela through partner organizations.   

Democratic Republic of the Congo refugees and displaced people

More than 5.4 million people are displaced within the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), primarily because of conflict. An additional 524,100 people living in the DRC are refugees from other countries.


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.


Nur gazes at Fatema, who smiles shyly as her mother shares their story of hunger and hope from the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp.
Nur, a 43-year-old mother and stateless 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)

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.


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.