other refugees

The other refugees we don’t hear as much about

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Syrians—4.8 million of them–constitute the largest segment of the current world refugee population.  But there are many other refugees —16+ million — who are not getting equal media attention. We read a lot about people fleeing the war in Syria, who are taking dangerous boat trips across the Mediterranean to Europe and hoping to settle in safer parts of the world. But, worldwide, many other men, women and children are displaced outside of their countries. They’re just as desperate and just as in need. If you’re interested in the numbers, here’s a rundown of those other refugees, with data supplied by the United Nations High Command on Refugees [UNHCR].

Definitions matter: Refugee vs. migrant

Before looking at statistics, it’s important to get the definitions right. According UNHCR, politicians, news media and people in casual conversations often don’t make the proper distinction among refugees and migrants, and that can be a problem.

Refugees are persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution. There were 21.3 million of them worldwide at the end of 2015. Their situation is often so perilous and intolerable that they cross national borders to seek safety in nearby countries, and thus become internationally recognized as “refugees” with access to assistance from States, UNHCR, and other organizations. They are so recognized precisely because it is too dangerous for them to return home, and they need sanctuary elsewhere. These are people for whom denial of asylum has potentially deadly consequences Refugees are defined and protected in international law…

…One of the most fundamental principles laid down in international law is that refugees should not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom would be under threat.

Migrants choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but mainly to improve their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education, family reunion, or other reasons. Unlike refugees who cannot safely return home, migrants face no such impediment to return. If they choose to return home, they will continue to receive the protection of their government.

The distinction is important, says UNHCR, because

…conflating refugees and migrants can have serious consequences for the lives and safety of refugees. Blurring the two terms takes attention away from the specific legal protections refugees require. It can undermine public support for refugees and the institution of asylum at a time when more refugees need such protection than ever before.

Who’s fleeing, where are they, and how many are there?

After Syrians, the next largest group of refugees arriving in Europe are Afghanis fleeing Taliban rule. UNHCR reports that there are 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan, with hundreds of thousands more unregistered living in the shadows.

350,000 Somali refugees currently live in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, making it the largest refugee facility in the world. Some residents of Dadaab have been there for as long as nine years.

About 2,000 refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria are confined by Australia on an essentially uninhabited island off its coast.

Between 200,000 and 500,000 members of Myanmar/Burma’s persecuted Rohingya minority are living in refugee camps in Bangladesh. Early this year, the Bangladesh government began moving forward with a plan to move the refugees to a remote island that is underwater for much of the year.

5.2 million Palestinians are registered as refugees by the UNRWA.

Which countries are hosting the refugees?

Ten countries are taking care of more than half of the world’s 21 million refugees. The top 10 are: [in rounded numbers]other refugees

  • Jordan [2.7 million]
  • Turkey [2.5 million]
  • Pakistan [1.5 million]
  • Lebanon [1.5 million]
  • Iran [980,000]
  • Ethiopia [736,000]
  • Kenya [550,000]
  • Uganda [477,000]
  • Democratic Republic of Congo [383,000]
  • Chad [369,000]

UNHCR also maintains large refugee camps in India, Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan, Mauritania, Jordan, Gaza and Ethiopia.

Personally, as a person of first-world privilege, I admit that I find these numbers unfathomable. To make the statistics relatable, I have to resort to a rather small-minded, ethnocentric comparison with cities I’ve been to:  Lebanon, for example, is hosting as many people as currently live in San Antonio, TX. If everyone living in Cleveland OH left the city, that number would equal Chad’s refugee population.

The conditions that have forced these people to run for their lives, and for the lives of their families, are as scary as they come. Can any of us sitting comfortably in front of our computers reading this imagine ourselves on the run, or living in the conditions the refugees are enduring? I can’t. I know, too, that writing about this situation isn’t much. But at the very least, we owe it to these other human beings to know that they exist and to reach beyond ourselves to try to help.

Gloria Shur Bilchik Gloria Shur Bilchik (629 Posts)

Gloria Shur Bilchik is a freelance writer and community volunteer in St. Louis, Missouri. She is the editor of Occasional Planet. She views the preservation of democratic values and progressive programs as vital to making the US a humane, livable place for her children and grandchildren.


  • Stacy Mergenthal

    It is incredibly sad that refugees, people literally fleeing for their lives, are treated worse than the most heinous criminal prisoners. Our murderers and rapists are treated with more respect than we afford terrified families on the run from their would-be murderers. Their “crime” being what, seeking sanctuary? Being born in the wrong country at the wrong time?

    Confined in filthy conditions on undeveloped land, starving and malnourished, exposed to the elements and unchecked contagious diseases, no running water or proper waste disposal. What is the difference between a refugee camp and an internment camp?

    One’s dignity comes at a premium, it seems.

    I know Republicans have kept us focused on the home front and our own foreign policies have created much of this problem, but we progressives pride ourselves on our compassionate, more worldly perspective. This is huge–it should be near the top of our list of priorities, right up there with getting into place a progressive government that will actually address the refugee crisis.

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