Refugees are people who have been forced to flee their home country in order to escape conflict, violence, natural disaster, or persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political stance, or association with a particular social group. According to the United Nations, an estimated 84 million people around the world were forcibly displaced by the midway point of 2021. The highest number ever recorded, this total included 26.6 million international refugees living in a nation other than their country of birth, 48 million individuals displaced in their own country, and 4.4 million people seeking asylum in a new country (as well as several million niche cases, such as stateless individuals). Half of today’s refugees are children.
The 2022 Ukrainian refugee crisis
Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 triggered a massive exodus of refugees out of Ukraine. While precise refugee counts will likely take until 2023 to compile (and so will not appear on this page's totals), the United Nations estimates the invasion has already generated at least 4.8 million international refugees, with an estimated 7.1 million more displaced individuals still inside the country. In April 2022, the UN called the Ukraine refugee crisis "the fastest and largest displacement of people in Europe since World War II."
Top 10 Countries Hosting the Highest Number of International Refugees (mid-2021 data):
Refugee relief efforts are often complicated by the fact that 80% of international refugees are escaping one of the world's developing countries only to settle in another—usually the closest neighboring country—with limited resources and capacity to offer aid. For instance, Uganda and Sudan are two of the leading refugee host nations in the world, but also two of the UN's least-developed countries according to the Human Development Index (HDI). In fact, Sudan is also one of the world's leading generators of refugees (see list further down this page). Wealthier, developed states typically have greater capacity to aid, accept, and incorporate refugees, but often also display less motivation to do so.
While the classic image of a refugee is that of a person moving to an entirely new country, these international refugees make up only a portion of the world's total displaced people. Many refugees who are forced to evacuate their homes lack the wherewithal and/or opportunity to travel to a new country, and so become refugees in their own home nation. These internally displaced people (IDPs) are actually more common than international refugees, whom IDPs outnumbered 48 million to 26.6 million in mid-2021. Other non-typical refugee types include asylum seekers, who arrive seeking international protection, and stateless people, who are not claimed as nationals by any country.
Which countries do most refugees come from?
Because refugees seek asylum due to specific causes such as violence, war, and persecution, certain countries prone to these conditions generate far more refugees than countries that are safer and more stable. In 2021, 68% of all refugees originated from just five countries: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar. Moreover, Palestine's refugee totals are kept separate, likely due to its non-member status in the United Nations. If they were included and the percentage was adjusted to include the top six countries, it would be notably higher.
Top 10 Origin Countries of International Refugees (mid-2021 data):
- Syria — 6,761,560
- Venezuela — 3,944,279
- Palestine* — 3,372,780 (+2,373,430 IDPs)
- Afghanistan — 2,610,067
- South Sudan — 2,277,919
- Myanmar — 1,127,588
- Democratic Republic of the Congo — 864,510
- Sudan — 805,874
- Somalia — 790,022
- Central African Republic — 713,262
* Palestine is not a fully recognized member of the United Nations and as such is excluded from some totals.
Due to the Syrian Civil War, Syria generated the most international refugees in the world as of mid-2021. Most of the 6.7 million refugees to leave Syria have remained in the Middle East, hosted predominantly by Turkey (3.69 million), Lebanon (852k), Jordan (668k), and Germany (616k). Nearly 6.8 more IDPs are still displaced within the country.
Causes of refugee migration
Armed conflicts and wars are the most common reasons refugees leave their homes, as demonstrated by not only Syria, but also South Sudan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Syria, and (obviously) 2022 Ukraine. Drought and famine, primarily brought on or amplified by climate change, is another prominent cause (as is the attendant food insecurity, such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Many countries face multiple issues, such as Sudan and Somalia suffering through both drought and civil unrest, or Afghanistan enduring armed conflict, droughts, and also natural disasters.