A new report shows that the refugee crisis hasn’t slowed down — and people don’t always end up where you think.
The flow of refugees is steadily increasing, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR). As of mid-2016, there were 16.5 million refugees globally, 5 million more than in mid-2013. More than 30 percent of all refugees as of mid-2016 came from Syria, the largest source of global refugees.
This growing refugee population brings many challenges. Because of school shortages in overcrowded camps, refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school than non-refugee children, reports the UNHCR. Preventable, treatable diseases like diarrhea, measles and malaria threaten the health of refugee children, especially those under 5. And in many cases, parents aren’t able to secure jobs outside the camps to provide an income for their families.
The latest figures from the U.N. Refugee Agency give a sense of the global numbers. They also illustrate how complicated the refugee situation is today.
First things first: Who is a refugee?
Refugees are defined by the UNHCR as people forced to flee their country because of persecution, war or violence. They are granted refugee status by the country they entered — a designation that protects their human rights by international law and makes them eligible for many types of aid. UNHCR’s figures also include people in refugee-like situations: those who’ve entered another country for the same reasons as refugees but have not been granted refugee status by the government.
Pakistan and Turkey host lots of refugees, but the story behind each country’s refugee situation is very different.
The UNHCR report, released in March, shows that Lebanon, Pakistan and Turkey hosted most of the world’s refugees as of mid-2016 — a combined total of 5.4 million.
In Turkey, 2.7 million of its 2.8 million refugees have come from neighboring Syria, pouring into the country as a result of the Syrian civil war in 2011. The majority of Pakistan’s 1.6 million refugees, by contrast, are Afghans who’ve been there for more than 30 years. In some cases, the children of those Afghans, although born in Pakistan, are considered refugees largely because Pakistan doesn’t offer a path to citizenship, says the UNCHR.
That’s not the case in Turkey. In January, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, in a television broadcast, that his government would grant citizenship to some Syrian and Iraqi refugees as long as “all the necessary checks have been carried out.”
The U.S. also provides a pathway to citizenship. After 12 months, refugees admitted to the country are required to apply for a green card, giving them the status of legal permanent resident.
Today’s new refugees do not all want to head west.
“There’s a misconception that refugees want to come to the U.S. to get jobs or go to our shopping malls,” says Chris Boian, a UNHCR spokesperson. “But they want to stay as close to their homes as possible so that they can return to their lives as soon as they are able to do so.”
That explains why the top refugee-hosting countries neighbor conflict areas like South Sudan and Syria, he says. “As long as it’s safe there and [the country] has things that people need to have a life, they’ll remain there.”
It’s only when refugees realize they may not be able to get access to basic resources and a decent quality of life in their new host countries that they attempt the often dangerous journey to the West, says Marta Foresti, managing director at the Overseas Development Institute. A new study from the Overseas Development Institute found that the main reason that Eritrean refugees decide to move on to Europe as a last resort is when they’ve been denied the right to work in neighboring Ethiopia.
Refugees often end up in poor countries and small countries that don’t have ample resources to support them.
UNHCR compared the number of refugees as of mid-2016 to the overall size of a country’s economy, measured by gross domestic product (see chart, above). The report found that low- and middle-income nations in the Middle East, Asia and Africa carry the biggest burden.
“A fairly small number of middle- or lower-income countries carry the weight for everyone else,” says Boian.
These countries do not have enough wealth to provide basic resources for newcomers — and the influx puts a strain on their economies, says Boian. Although the countries receive UNHCR aid, the agency can’t keep up, he says. “We’re one of the only agencies that starts our budget at zero every year. We rely very heavily on support of the governments of the world.”
The U.S., for example, has given $5.9 billion in humanitarian aid to Syria since their civil war started in 2011, which works to about $1 billion a year. That includes funding for relief groups assisting refugees and for refugee support in neighboring countries. Still, it’s not enough. In January, the U.N. and NGO partners appealed for $4.6 billion to aid Syrian refugees and host nations.
Smaller countries are also playing an outsize role. Looking at the proportion of refugees to national population, UNHCR found that smaller nations have some of the highest proportions of hosted refugees. For some countries like South Sudan and Chad, that’s a result of geography — they’re closest to big sources of refugees. For others, it’s a result of policy. For example, if refugees attempt to arrive to Australia by boat, they’re sent instead a detention camp on the tiny island republic of Nauru.
Palestine is not included in the U.N. Refugee Agency report.
There are over 5 million Palestinian refugees — the largest group of refugees in the world, according to the U.N. But they’re not included in the UNHCR data and are under the jurisdiction of another U.N. agency, United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
The reason for the separate category rests in their history. NPR’s Greg Myre explained, in a story from October 2015: “The 1948 Arab-Israeli War created the original Palestinian refugee population of some 700,000. Many have long since died, but their descendants are also classified as refugees and are concentrated in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the Palestinian territories.”
There are actually more internally displaced people than refugees.
IDPs, as they’re called, leave their towns, cities and villages for the same reasons as refugees but remain in their own country. Out of 63.9 million people that UNHCR calls “persons of concern” — refugees, asylum-seekers, IDPs, stateless individuals and others — 37.5 million were IDPs in 2015.
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