There are more refugees in the world than ever before. About 24.9 million people have fled their countries because of conflict, violence, persecution, or human rights violations. That’s almost as many people who live in Shanghai, China, the world’s third-largest megacity.
Many more people than that — 68.5 million — have been forcibly displaced from their homes. The previous spike in displacement occurred after World War II when 60 million people were left homeless. Today’s displaced include 3.1 million people who are seeking asylum — refugee status — and 40 million people who are displaced within their own countries because of violence, instability, or natural disasters.
Each year, the United Nations and people around the world recognize the plight of refugees on June 20, World Refugee Day.
Bring hope to refugee children.
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. — Ten 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 displaces more than 11 million people, including 5.6 million refugees.
- 2013 — Civil war breaks out in the young nation of South Sudan, ultimately leading to 2.2 million people fleeing the country as refugees.
- 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.
- 2019 — Venezuelans leave their county en masse to seek food, work, and a better life in Colombia and other nations.
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FAQs: What you need to know about the refugee crisis
Explore frequently asked questions about refugees and learn how you can help.
- Fast facts: Refugees
- What is the definition of a refugee?
- How are refugees different from migrants, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people?
- What are the biggest refugee crises in the world?
- What rights and obligations do refugees have under international law?
- How are children affected by refugee crises?
- How can I help refugees?
- How does World Vision work in refugee contexts?
- What is World Vision doing to help refugees?
Fast facts: Refugees
- 68.5 million people have been forced to flee their homes, more than ever before.
- Every minute, 30 people are newly displaced.
- Refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school.
- 6 million of the 24.9 million refugees live in refugee camps. Others are dispersed in urban areas or in informal settlements.
- Low- and middle-income countries host more than 85% of the world’s refugees.
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. They must establish a well-founded fear 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 she or he may be persecuted. Refugees are civilians, but former soldiers may apply. People who have been convicted of war crimes or crimes against humanity 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 persecution and because they are not protected by their own country. In contrast, migrants may leave their country for any reason, such as employment, family reunification, or education. A migrant is under the protection of his or her own government, even when abroad, and may return to their country of origin. 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 are the biggest refugee crises in the world?
The Syrian civil war has led to the largest refugee crisis in modern times. Conflicts in South Sudan, Myanmar, and Democratic Republic of the Congo have displaced millions of people 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.
Here are some other countries where masses of people have been displaced either internally or have fled from violence:
- Iraq — About 1.2 million Iraqis are displaced within the country. Iraq also hosts 250,000 Syrian refugees.
- Central African Republic — Nearly 600,000 people have fled from violence in Central African Republic and about 650,00 are displaced within the country.
- Central America —The number of people fleeing violence has increased tenfold in the past five years. Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have seen a spike in violence from criminal groups within that timeframe.
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. Worldwide, the U.N. estimates less than 30% of refugees live in camps.
How are children affected by refugee crises?
More than half of the world’s refugees are children. Many have undergone devastating experiences and lost everything familiar to them, including family members and friends. Child refugees from protracted crises, such as the Syrian civil war, may spend all their childhood years in exile from their home country.
How can I 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.
How does World Vision work in refugee contexts?
In its humanitarian work, World Vision coordinates activities with national governments and other aid organizations to achieve the best outcomes for people affected by crises. Because we have a continuing 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.
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, and Turkey, we are restoring health services in Syria and helping children return to education there by providing water and sanitation in schools.
In Uganda, which hosts 1.3 million refugees, World Vision provides not just basic necessities, but opportunities to earn and save money. With our help, refugees from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are able to restart their lives in Uganda and move from dependency to self-reliance. At the same time, World Vision programs in South Sudan and the DRC help families in poverty to recover and avoid displacement.
What is World Vision doing to help refugees?
In responding to refugee crises around the world, World Vision provides basic supplies refugees need for survival, such as food, 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 they can be screened and treated for malnutrition. Healthcare, livelihoods training, cash-for-work, and educational programs are other features of our work with refugees.
Here are some of the groups of refugees and displaced people that World Vision helps:
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. Since the current crisis began in 2017, we have helped about 265,000 people to meet their daily needs.
More than 4 million people are displaced because of conflict and hunger in South Sudan, including 2.2 million refugees. Uganda hosts about 800,000 refugees. World Vision helps South Sudanese with emergency food, livelihood training, healthcare, access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene, and educational opportunities.
About 3.4 million Venezuelans — 5,000 per day in 2018 — have left the country seeking food, work, and a better life. In Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil, World Vision helps them to start over and to meet their basic needs.
DRC refugees and displaced people
An estimated 4.5 million people are displaced within the Democratic Republic of the Congo, primarily because of conflict. More than 825,000 from the DRC are refugees or asylum-seekers, and that number is expected to top 1 million during 2019. World Vision carries out relief or development programs in 14 of the DRC’s 26 provinces. Since conflict began in the Kasai region in 2017, we have assisted more than 535,000 affected by the crisis, but our work in the country began in 1984.