Encyclopedic Entry

In the 1970s, refugees from Cambodia fled to neighboring Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand, as well as the United States, Canada, and Australia.

Photograph by Steve Raymer

Places of Refuge
Nations with the most refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced persons in their borders, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees:
Pakistan: 4,744,098
Thailand: 3,615,552
Colombia: 3,304,362
Democratic Republic of the Congo: 2,362,295
Iraq: 2,026,798

Refugees
Countries of origin of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced persons, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees:
Colombia: 3,758,127
Iraq: 3,565,375
Afghanistan: 3,279,471
Pakistan: 3,040,845
Democratic Republic of Congo: 2,662,821

City of Refuge
Puuhonua o Hnaunau, a national park on the Big Island of Hawaii, marks an ancient City of Refuge. The site, on the islands western coast, was a place where people who fled the law could seek asylum and refuge. Asylum-seekers could be absolved by a priest and freed to leave.

Puuhonua o Hnaunau accepted refugees from the 15th through the 19th centuries.

Peace Out
Many U.S. citizens who opposed the Vietnam War and wished to avoid being drafted into fighting sought political asylum in Canada. After the war, President Jimmy Carter issued a pardon to these conscientious objectors, allowing them to return to the U.S. without punishment.

Refugees are people who must leave their home area for their own safety or survival. A refugee’s home area could be a country, state, or region. People become refugees for many reasons, including war, oppression, natural disasters, and climate change.

Most refugee laws are based on a 1951 United Nations document, the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The Convention was created to deal with the large number of people displaced by World War II. According to the Convention, refugees are people who leave their home countries “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, or membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

The Convention originally limited this definition to refugees from war-torn Europe. In 1967, the UN expanded it to include refugees from any conflict or disaster.

Today, refugees can seek asylum in any of the 147 countries that have signed the Convention. Asylum is the protection from oppression or hardship offered by another country. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is an international resource for refugees and countries offering asylum.

Refugee status is an official decision made by the country providing asylum or an international agency. A person who is seeking asylum but has not yet received refugee status is called an asylum-seeker. Countries that have signed the Convention have agreed not to deport asylum-seekers to places where their lives or freedom may be in danger. Once an asylum-seeker is approved for refugee status, the host country is expected to provide civil rights, the right to work, and access to social services.

Refugees in History

History is filled with stories of people forced to leave their homes. For example, in 1685, France outlawed the Protestant religion, forcing hundreds of thousands of Protestants to flee the country. Most of these refugees, known as Huguenots, moved to other European countries, such as the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany. Some traveled as far as South Africa and British colonies in North America. Intolerance of this kind is repeated throughout history, with Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Hindus, and others being forced from their homes because of their religious views.

Refugees posed a global crisis after World War II. The end of the war didn’t end the suffering of millions of people whose homes were destroyed, who were released from prison camps, or who had been expelled from their home countries. For example, resentment of Germany after the war was so strong that many countries drove out ethnic Germans, even if those people had spent their entire lives in their adopted country. About 11.5 million Germans living in Eastern Europe were expelled or voluntarily left their homes after the war.

Jews who had survived Nazi concentration camps throughout Europe often returned home to find that their property and businesses had been taken over by other people. Most of these Jews could no longer survive in their hometowns. They had no home, few possessions, and little hope of finding work. Even though the war was over, anti-Semitism was still a strong force in Europe. Many communities and groups worked to drive Jews from their homes and places of business. Often, returning Jews were even met with violence. In some countries, such as Poland and Slovakia, pogroms—organized massacres—forced those who survived to flee for their lives.

After World War II, the Soviet Union and the United States engaged in a conflict called the Cold War. The Cold War was a conflict between the communist political system of the Soviet Union and the democratic political system of the U.S. The Cold War involved dozens of countries in the sphere of influence of each of the world’s two “superpowers.” It ended in 1991 with the breakup of the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, thousands of refugees fled Soviet territory to seek asylum elsewhere, primarily in Western Europe and the U.S.

The Cold War involved so-called “proxy wars.” Proxy wars are conflicts where countries oppose each other by supporting different sides in another conflict. Conflicts in Lebanon, Korea, Afghanistan, and Angola were proxy wars of the Cold War. During the conflict in Korea, the South was supported by the U.S. and the North by China and the Soviet Union. After the Korean War, thousands of North Korean refugees streamed into South Korea.

Proxy wars in Southeast Asia during the 1970s led to large numbers of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. More than 2 million Southeast Asians fled their homes during this time, many of them on boats, which earned them the nickname “boat people.” The journey was brutal and often deadly. Traveling in flimsy, overcrowded boats, many people were lost at sea, attacked by pirates, or devastated by illness and dehydration.

Refugees Today

At the end of 2009, there were more than 10 million refugees and about 983,000 asylum-seekers around the world, according to the UNHCR.

Refugees from Colombia, Afghanistan, and Iraq account for the most refugees worldwide. Refugees from Colombia flee internal conflict associated with the illegal drug trade. Citizens of Afghanistan and Iraq leave their homes to escape war and oppression. About 2.8 million people from Afghanistan have relocated to 69 different asylum countries. About 1.9 million Iraqis have moved, mostly to neighboring asylum countries.

About 80 percent of the world’s refugees are from developing countries. Most refugees from developing countries seek asylum in other developing countries. Refugees from the conflict in Iraq, for instance, often immigrate to Pakistan and Syria. Pakistan hosts the largest number of refugees worldwide—about 1.8 million.

Half of all refugees live in urban areas. Refugees tend to settle in urban areas for a number of reasons. The legal facilities available to asylum-seekers—including lawyers, consulates, and diplomats—are often clustered in cities. Non-governmental organizations, such as religious groups, can respond to refugees more quickly in urban areas. Most importantly, however, is the community of other immigrants in cities.

About one-third of the world’s refugees live in refugee camps. Refugee camps are temporary communities built to provide shelter and resources to refugees. UNHCR works with the asylum country to provide tents or other temporary shelters, emergency medical facilities, communications equipment, and security.

Most refugees remain near their home regions, moving to neighboring countries. For example, refugees from Afghanistan are likely to move to Pakistan. Refugees fleeing conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan settled in Chad. The UNHCR estimates that only about 16 percent of refugees live outside of their regions of origin.

Internally Displaced Persons


Not everyone who has to leave home ends up leaving their country. Refugees who move within their national borders are called “internally displaced persons,” or IDPs. Today, more than 27 million people around the world are internally displaced by conflict or violence. That is the highest number recorded since 1994. International refugee laws do not provide protection and support for IDPs.

Sudan, in eastern Africa, has one of the largest internally displaced populations in the world. From 1983 through 2005, civil war between north and south Sudan forced millions of people from their homes. By the end of 2010, between 4.5 million and 5.3 million people were displaced throughout the country, particularly in Darfur.

According to non-governmental organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, most IDPs in Darfur live in “prison-like” camps, crammed inside makeshift shelters and constantly at risk from violence. Overcrowding causes illness to spread quickly, and malnutrition can occur when food deliveries are reduced or delayed.

Other countries with large numbers of IDPs are Colombia, Iraq, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, and Pakistan. Refugees from Colombia flee internal conflict associated with the illegal drug trade. Iraq is the site of a major international conflict. Political conflict between rebels and the government have driven Congolese and Somalis from their homes. Pakistan, asylum to thousands of refugees from other countries as well as IDPs, is tied to the international conflict in neighboring Afghanistan. The government of Pakistan must also deal with militias and rebel groups.

Environmental Refugees

Environmental refugees are people who must leave their homes because of environmental disruption. Natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods often force people to flee. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius, Italy, in 79 CE forced surviving residents of the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum to become refugees. Toxic volcanic ash and pumice stone buried the towns entirely. Residents of the towns had to find shelter and work elsewhere in the Roman Empire.

In January 2010, a magnitude-7.0 earthquake devastated the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. One-quarter of the city’s residents—about 250,000 people—became IDPs and fled to other parts of the country. Still more sought asylum as refugees in the neighboring Dominican Republic.

Environmental disruption can also be man-made, such as a nuclear accident or pollution. The World Bank estimates that 100 million people were displaced by dam-building projects in the 1990s. This generally happens when the reservoir of water held behind the dam floods towns and villages where people once lived. In addition, people who live downstream from dams may be unable to support themselves through fishing or farming once the water dries up. Construction of the massive Three Gorges Dam in China, for example, flooded dozens of towns and displaced 1.3 million people.

In 1986, a nuclear reactor exploded in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, then a part of the Soviet Union. The disaster released a lethal amount of radiation. More than 350,000 people were permanently evacuated from the area and had to resettle elsewhere.

The effects of climate change can also lead to environmental refugees. During the last ice age, for example, people living near glaciers were forced to migrate to warmer climates as the glaciers and ice sheets spread across the land.

Today, human activity contributes to the current instance of climate change, called global warming. Activities, such as burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests, add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, trapping the sun’s heat. The rising temperature causes glaciers and ice caps to melt, making sea levels rise. It also leads to droughts, floods, and desertification—the transformation of arable land to desert.

Environmental refugees impacted by climate change are often called climate refugees. Climate refugees may be forced to seek asylum because of changes in their ecosystem, such as major portions of Maldives being underwater. Climate refugees may also seek asylum as their economic livelihood vanishes, as farmers bordering the Gobi Desert in China lose their land to desertification.

Even though environmental refugees are not protected by international law, they often receive a great deal of help. Sudden, major disasters are reported in newspapers and on TV around the world. A major earthquake hit northwest Pakistan in January 2011, for instance. Charitable organizations and compassionate individuals donated money and other aid packages to the affected areas.

Other environmental refugees can be difficult to identify. The gradual changes that happen due to global warming are harder to see. People don’t often rally to help the victims of these changes. But they can be as devastating as an earthquake or storm. Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya each lose more than 1,000 square kilometers (386 square miles) of productive land per year to desertification. The farmers, merchants, and families who depend on these lands are losing their ability to survive and support themselves.

The International Red Cross estimates that there are more environmental refugees today than refugees from wars. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees stated that 36 million people were displaced by natural disasters in 2009, and about 20 million of those were forced to move for climate change-related issues.

Like IDPs, environmental refugees are not protected under international refugee laws. In fact, most of them are IDPs as well. They are not entitled to the same protection and assistance as other refugees.

Many international organizations recognize that environmental disruption is a growing problem, one that we need to address. The problem may also increase the numbers of traditional refugees. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has noted, “Climate change can enhance the competition for resources—water, food, grazing lands—and that competition can trigger conflict.”

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

anti-Semitism

Noun

hatred and hostility toward Jews.

arable

Adjective

land able to produce crops.

asylum

Noun

a safe place. People persecuted by their own country often seek asylum in another.

asylum-seeker

Noun

immigrant who has applied for, but not yet received, refugee status.

atmosphere

Noun

layers of gases surrounding a planet or other celestial body.

Encyclopedic Entry: atmosphere

boat people

Plural Noun

refugees who have fled an area by boat, usually with few supplies.

brutal

Adjective

extreme, harsh, or cruel.

capital

Noun

goods or funds used to increase production or wealth.

Catholic

Adjective

having to do with the Christian denomination with the Pope as its leader.

charity

Noun

organization that helps those in need.

civil war

Noun

conflict between groups in the same country or nation.

climate

Noun

all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

Encyclopedic Entry: climate

climate change

Noun

gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.

Encyclopedic Entry: climate change

climate refugee

Noun

person forced to leave his or her home and community because of climate change.

Encyclopedic Entry: climate refugee

Cold War

Noun

(1947-1991) conflict between the Soviet Union (and its allies) and the United States (and its allies). The two sides never confronted each other directly.

colony

Noun

people and land separated by distance or culture from the government that controls them.

compassionate

Adjective

having to do with sympathy and a desire to help others.

concentration camp

Noun

enclosed, guarded area where political prisoners are kept. Concentration camps are most associated with Nazi work and extermination camps during World War II.

conflict

Noun

a disagreement or fight, usually over ideas or procedures.

consulate

Noun

place that represents the interests of a nation or state in another nation, but lacking the presence of an ambassador.

country

Noun

geographic territory with a distinct name, flag, population, boundaries, and government.

dam

Noun

structure built across a river or other waterway to control the flow of water.

Darfur

Noun

region in western Sudan.

dehydration

Noun

illness in which the body loses too much water.

delay

Verb

to put off until a later time.

deport

Verb

to send away from a country or region.

desert

Noun

area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.

Encyclopedic Entry: desert

desertification

Noun

the spread of desert conditions in arid regions, usually caused by human activity.

devastate

Verb

to destroy.

diplomat

Noun

person who negotiates important political and economic agreements, usually for a government.

displace

Verb

to remove or force to evacuate.

Doctors Without Borders

Noun

(Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) nonprofit organization that provides medical care and facilities in war-torn and developing countries.

downstream

Noun

in the direction of a flow, toward its end.

drought

Noun

period of greatly reduced precipitation.

Encyclopedic Entry: drought

earthquake

Noun

the sudden shaking of Earth's crust caused by the release of energy along fault lines or from volcanic activity.

economic

Adjective

having to do with money.

ecosystem

Noun

community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.

Encyclopedic Entry: ecosystem

emigrate

Verb

to move from one's native land to another.

enhance

Verb

to add to or increase in worth.

environmental refugee

Noun

person who has been forced to flee his home and community due to changes in the environment, such as drought.

equipment

Noun

tools and materials to perform a task or function.

eruption

Noun

release of material from an opening in the Earth's crust.

ethnic

Adjective

having to do with characteristics of a group of people linked by shared culture, language, national origin, or other marker.

evacuate

Verb

to leave or remove from a dangerous place.

flood

Noun

overflow of a body of water onto land.

Encyclopedic Entry: flood

forest

Noun

ecosystem filled with trees and underbrush.

fossil fuel

Noun

coal, oil, or natural gas. Fossil fuels formed from the remains of ancient plants and animals.

glacier

Noun

mass of ice that moves slowly over land.

Encyclopedic Entry: glacier

global warming

Noun

increase in the average temperature of the Earth's air and oceans.

Encyclopedic Entry: global warming

greenhouse gas

Noun

gas in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide and ozone, that absorbs solar heat reflected by the surface of the Earth, warming the atmosphere.

Hindu

Noun

religion of the Indian subcontinent with many different sub-types, most based around the idea of "daily morality."

Huguenot

Noun

French follower of a Protestant religion in the 16th-17th centuries.

hurricane

Noun

tropical storm with wind speeds of at least 119 kilometers (74 miles) per hour. Hurricanes are the same thing as typhoons, but usually located in the Atlantic Ocean region.

ice age

Noun

long period of cold climate where glaciers cover large parts of the Earth. The last ice age peaked about 20,000 years ago. Also called glacial age.

ice cap

Noun

area of fewer than 50,000 square kilometers (19,000 square miles) covered by ice.

Encyclopedic Entry: ice cap

ice sheet

Noun

thick layer of glacial ice that covers a large area of land.

Encyclopedic Entry: ice sheet

illegal

Adjective

forbidden by law.

immigrate

Verb

to move to a new place.

internally displaced person

Noun

someone forced to leave their local area, who has not left the country.

international organization

Noun

unit made up of governments or groups in different countries, usually for a specific purpose.

Encyclopedic Entry: international organization

intolerance

Noun

unwillingness or refusal to respect another opinion, way of life, or point of view.

Jew

Noun

person who practices the Jewish religion.

lethal

Adjective

deadly.

livelihood

Noun

ability to economically support oneself.

magnitude

Noun

intensity of an earthquake, represented by numbers on a scale.

malnutrition

Noun

lack of a balanced diet.

massacre

Noun

mass killing of large number of people.

massive

Adjective

very large or heavy.

medical

Adjective

having to do with the study of medicine or healing.

merchant

Noun

person who sells goods and services.

migrate

Verb

to move from one place or activity to another.

militia

Noun

group of armed, ordinary citizens who are callled up for emergencies and are not full-time soldiers.

Muslim

Adjective

having to do with Islam, the religion based on the words and philosophy of the prophet Mohammed.

nationality

Noun

status of a person's citizenship to a nation or country.

natural disaster

Noun

an event occurring naturally that has large-scale effects on the environment and people, such as a volcano, earthquake, or hurricane.

Nazi

noun, adjective

(1919-1945) (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) having to do with the National Socialist German Workers' Party.

NGO

Noun

non-governmental organization.

nuclear reactor

Noun

machinery that can control nuclear fission, usually producing electricity.

oppress

Verb

to unjustly discriminate against, torment, or persecute.

persecute

Verb

to harass or discriminate against, sometimes violently, on the basis of race, religion, or social and political beliefs.

pirate

Noun

thief who steals from ships or ships' crews while at sea.

pogrom

Noun

organized, mass killing of Jews.

pollution

Noun

introduction of harmful materials into the environment.

Encyclopedic Entry: pollution

Pompeii

Noun

city in southwest Italy that was buried by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE.

property

Noun

goods or materials owned by someone.

Protestant

Noun

Christian who is not a follower of Catholic or Orthodox faiths.

proxy war

Noun

conflict where countries indirectly oppose each other by supporting different sides in another conflict.

pumice

Noun

type of igneous rock with many pores.

race

Noun

arbitrary grouping of people based on genetics and physical characteristics.

radiation

Noun

energy, emitted as waves or particles, radiating outward from a source.

rebel

noun, adjective

person who resists the authority of government.

Red Cross

Noun

international organization focused on humanitarian aid and disaster relief. Formally called the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

reduce

Verb

to lower or lessen.

refugee

Noun

person who flees their home, usually due to natural disaster or political upheaval.

refugee camp

Noun

temporary shelters built for immigrants who have fled their homes due to environmental or social conflict.

refugee status

Noun

official legal status of a person who has fled their home region for asylum in a host country, which is expected to provide civil rights, the right to work, and access to social services.

region

Noun

any area on the Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.

Encyclopedic Entry: region

religion

Noun

a system of spiritual or supernatural belief.

resent

Verb

to reject or dismiss due to a sense of injury or insult.

reservoir

Noun

natural or man-made lake where water is stored.

Encyclopedic Entry: reservoir

resource

Noun

available supply of materials, goods, or services. Resources can be natural or human.

Roman Empire

Noun

(27 BCE-476 CE) period in the history of ancient Rome when the state was ruled by an emperor.

sea level

Noun

base level for measuring elevations. Sea level is determined by measurements taken over a 19-year cycle.

Encyclopedic Entry: sea level

security

Noun

safety or stability.

shelter

Noun

structure that protects people or other organisms from weather and other dangers.

social services

Plural Noun

programs and projects that support the development of individuals and communities.

Soviet Union

Noun

(1922-1991) large northern Eurasian nation that had a communist government. Also called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the USSR.

sphere of influence

Noun

area or region where a nation or cultural group has cultural, economic, military, or political influence.

state

Noun

nation or national government.

superpower

Noun

extremely powerful nation or country.

temperature

Noun

degree of hotness or coldness measured by a thermometer with a numerical scale.

Encyclopedic Entry: temperature

temporary

Adjective

not lasting or permanent.

Three Gorges Dam

Noun

electrical power plant along the Yangtze River in China.

toxic

Adjective

poisonous.

United Nations

Noun

international organization that works for peace, security and cooperation.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

Noun

United Nations agency whose goal is to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another country, with the option to return home voluntarily, integrate locally, or to resettle in a third country.

urban area

Noun

developed, densely populated area where most inhabitants have nonagricultural jobs.

Encyclopedic Entry: urban area

volcanic ash

Noun

fragments of lava less than 2 millimeters across.

Encyclopedic Entry: volcanic ash

war

Noun

large-scale armed conflict.

World Bank

Noun

United Nations organization that loans money to poor and developing nations.

World War II

Noun

(1939-1945) armed conflict between the Allies (represented by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union) and the Axis (represented by Germany, Italy, and Japan.)

Credits

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Writer

Melissa McDaniel
Erin Sprout
Diane Boudreau
Andrew Turgeon

Illustrator

Tim Gunther, Illustrator
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society

Editor

Jeannie Evers
Kara West

Educator Reviewer

Nancy Wynne

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

Sources

Dunn, Margery G. (Editor). (1989, 1993). "Exploring Your World: The Adventure of Geography." Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

User Permissions

For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service.

If you have questions about licensing content on this page, please contact natgeocreative@ngs.org for more information and to obtain a license.

If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please visit our FAQ page.

Media

Some media assets (videos, photos, audio recordings and PDFs) can be downloaded and used outside the National Geographic website according to the Terms of Service. If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the lower right hand corner (download) of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.

Text

Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.

Interactives

Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.