The world’s refugee population is growing. But the countries where migration is most contentious is not where most refugees are settling.

Conflict, poverty, violence and human rights violations are driving more people to flee their homelands than at any time since World War Two.

Last year, an estimated 13.6 million people were newly displaced due to conflict or persecution, raising the total number of individuals who have been forced to flee their homes to a record 70.8 million, according to a UN report.

The number of refugees “is the highest number since we started tracking them,” said Sibylla Brodzinsky, a Washington spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Of the displaced, 28 million — or 40% — fled to another country and are considered refugees, said Kathleen Newland, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. Another 40 million fled from their homes but remained in their native country and are counted as “internally displaced.”

Who are refugees?

According to the 1951 Convention on Refugees, a refugee is someone “who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Two thirds of refugees in 2018 came from just five countries, the UNHCR report noted: Syria (6.7 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million), South Sudan (2.3 million), Myanmar (1.1 million), Somalia (0.9 million). Venezuela is likely to move into the top five in 2019.

Although 85% of refugees come from poor and middle-income countries, it is conflict rather than poverty that drives migration, according to both Newland and Brodzinsky.

Some conflicts have deep and ancient roots — in race, language or religion — while others stem from fighting over scarce resources, such as farmland or water.

In the 1980s, refugees fled the Tamil Tiger insurgency in Sri Lanka. More recently, some 700,000 ethnic Rohingya fled Myanmar to Bangladesh to escape ethnic persecution.

The causes of conflict often remain unresolved, forcing refugees to live in camps for years or even decades.

Some 350,000 Cambodians spent 13 years in camps in Thailand before finally returning to their homeland. The UN and other donors made their return possible by clearing landmines and rebuilding homes, roads and schools.

While many refugees return home, others end up resettling permanently elsewhere.

Benefits and backlashes

About three years ago, Germany and some other European countries opened their doors to resettle more than a million Syrians escaping civil war and ISIS Islamic terror.

Germany did not invite the refugees to settle merely for humanitarian reasons. The European nation knows it needs immigrants. As its population ages and its birth rate drops, it will increasingly depend on immigrants to work in factories and nursing homes.

But large refugee flows of the kind seen in the wake of the Syrian civil war can prompt popular backlashes.

Throughout much of Europe, the arrival of a million mainly young men from a different culture sparked an anti-immigrant backlash. Hungary and other Balkan nations threw up fences to bar refugees from entering their countries.

Ultimately, Europe, Turkey and Libya all agreed to introduce measures to stem the flow of refugees to wealthy nations. Their efforts were largely successful.

Turkey was paid billions of dollars to halt boats carrying refugees across a narrow strait to Greece. Other, sub-Saharan, refugees traveled to Libya and embarked on dangerous, flimsy boats towards Italy. Several European countries blocked them and tried to prevent humanitarian ships from encouraging refugee flows by coming to refugees’ aid at sea.

Migrant arrivals to Italy dropped by 98 percent in the first half of this year — to about 3,500 — from the 181,000 landed last year, the BBC reported August 12. This drop followed the government barring boats carrying refugees from landing at any Italian port.

Many of those who do reach European soil have faced long treks through snowy forests, in hopes of reaching Scandinavia, France or Britain. The Balkan states, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia all refused to accept EU quotas of refugees. And Sweden, Germany and several other countries stopped accepting most asylum seekers, Newland said.

“Their efforts were largely successful — it did work,” she said. “Europe was not stopped from taking some asylum claims, but the number accepted was greatly reduced after the March 2016 agreement with Turkey.”

Border politics around the world

The United States has seen a surge in anti-immigrant sentiment, fanned in part by President Donald Trump, who has called Mexicans and other migrants rapists and criminals who threaten Americans’ security.

In fact, UN and other officials say evidence shows migrants and refugees are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. But accusations can become durable parts of modern mythology.

The Trump Administration has made blocking refugees and undocumented migrants one of its top priorities. It has tried to force refugees to seek asylum in the “first safe country” they enter.

Host obligations

Despite intense coverage of refugees in Europe and the United States, most displaced persons seek refuge in countries that neighbor their homelands — perhaps with the hope of returning home later.

In 2018, the countries that hosted the most refugees were Turkey (3.7 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Uganda (1.2 million), Sudan (1.1 million) and Germany (1.1 million).

With no end to conflict in sight and the world’s population expected to increase in a few decades from eight billion today to 10 billion, ever larger numbers of people will likely be on the move seeking safety and a better life.

That will likely put pressure on the UNHCR. The agency supplies food, water, medicine, schools and other basics to refugees. It also provides legal protection to prevent the exploitation of stateless people.

Rising numbers of migrants will also put pressure on the nearly 150 countries that have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention. That agreement bars signatories from sending refugees back to countries considered unsafe.

(To read our decoder on refugees and migrants, click here.)


  1. What is the difference between a refugee and internally displaced person?
  2. Why is the number of people fleeing Venezuela rising?
  3. In your view, would the Refugee Convention’s definition of “refugee” protect people who flee conflict resulting from climate change?

Ben Barber has reported since 1980 from the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America.  He has written for Foreign Affairs, Christian Science Monitor, USA TODAY, Baltimore Sun, Toronto Globe and Mail, American Legion Magazine, Huffington Post and others. He was State Department Bureau Chief for the Washington Times and editor of the newsletter of USAID for seven years.

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