Refugees in numbers: what are the real, unbiased facts?

Published: Jan 17, 2024 Reading time: 7 minutes
Refugees in numbers: what are the real, unbiased facts?
© Foto: Julie Ricard

Few social issues evoke similar emotional reactions as refugees. At the same time, few topics are so often politically exploited. A closer look at the facts reveals that the scale of forced displacement is relatively modest compared to the image commonly created by politicians and the media. It is still a serious issue, but more so for developing countries where the vast majority of armed conflicts occur and are more often affected by natural disasters.

In the Czech Republic, refugees first became a major public issue in 2015-2016, when hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the war in Syria, among other groups of refugees, arrived in Europe. The topic of displaced people took on a new dimension with the mass flight of the Ukrainian population in the wake of the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022. Unfortunately, the public debate on refugees is still full of misrepresentations and inaccuracies, whether in terms of correct terminology or relevant figures. Therefore, visualising some key facts and figures is a good idea.

Who is a "refugee"?

The term "refugee" can be defined in two ways. The Refugee Convention of 1951 and its 1967 Protocol offer a narrower, legal definition. A refugee is someone outside their country of origin with a well-founded fear of being persecuted for their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. Refugee status is granted on an individual basis. In practice, it is often a rather complicated process involving a multi-stage assessment by either UNHCR or state authorities.

In the Czech Republic, the Department for Asylum and Migration Policy (OAMP) of the Ministry of the Interior is responsible for processing applications. Refugee status - more precisely, "international protection holder" - in the Czech Republic can take two forms: asylum or so-called subsidiary protection. Subsidiary protection applies in principle to persons at risk of serious harm as asylum seekers but do not fall within the narrow definition of the 1951 Convention. Typical beneficiaries include, for example, people fleeing war (sometimes referred to as 'war refugees'). Subsidiary protection provides a person with rights similar to asylum but granted for a limited period, usually one or two years. After this period, it can be extended.

The following charts show how many people have applied for international protection in the EU and the Czech Republic in recent years:

In addition to the narrow legal definition, the term refugee is often used in a broader sense. In public discourse, for example, a refugee is anyone who leaves their country of origin involuntarily. One of the consequences of this inconsistency is the frequent confusion between the terms refugee and migrant. Experts dispute whether to separate these two categories strictly. Some refrain from using the term refugee entirely because they consider it to have negative connotations. Alternative labels such as 'forced', 'vulnerable' or 'humanitarian' migrants are therefore increasingly common.

What status do the people fleeing from Ukraine hold?

People fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine are granted "temporary protection" status in EU countries. Although created as early as 2001 following the mass flight of citizens from the former Yugoslavia, it remained a dormant legal institution for a long time. The EU Council only activated it in March 2022. The primary purpose of temporary protection is to prevent overcrowding in Member States' asylum systems.

Authorities created temporary protection in case of a mass arrival of foreign nationals fleeing war, violence, or human rights violations. The maximum duration of temporary protection is three years, so in the case of Ukrainian refugees, the cut-off date is March 2025. What subsequent status the refugees will receive if the war has not ended by then remains an open question.

How many refugees are there in the world?

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates, over 117 million people were forcibly displaced globally by the end of 2023. However, this figure includes several categories of people. Recognised refugees (according to the 1951 definition mentioned above) account for roughly a quarter - 29.3 million. Other categories with separate statuses include people displaced from Venezuela, Palestine, or stateless persons. Over 5 million people are currently in asylum-seeker status. However, by far the most significant proportion of all forcibly displaced persons are internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Who are "internally displaced persons"?

The term internally displaced persons (or IDPs, for short), are people who were forced from their homes because of war, generalised violence, human rights violations, or natural or human-caused disasters and who have not crossed an internationally recognised national border. Although these internal refugees are not legally entitled to status under the 1951 Convention, other human rights standards cover them. UN agencies and others routinely provide them with aid comparable to that of refugees. The global number of internally displaced persons is roughly double that of 'conventional' refugees: in 2023, the UN registered over 61 million IDPs worldwide.

Is the current number of refugees a record?

The most frequently cited institutions, such as the UNHCR, often accompany newly published data on refugee numbers with adjectives such as "record" or "unprecedented". However, one should treat such statements cautiously, if only because they ignore history, regardless of how recent. For example, as many as 200 million people fled their countries due to the Second World War. Considering the size of the world population at the time (about 2.3 billion), nearly 10 per cent of the planet's population was on the run. According to current data, by contrast, refugees today make up "only" about 0.35 per cent of the world's population (1.4 per cent if we include all categories of the forcibly displaced), which is not dramatically out of line with the long-term post-war average.

Where do most refugees come from?

Among the most significant refugee crises of our time are the mass flight from Ukraine as a result of Russian aggression, the ongoing forced displacement of Syrians that began with the outbreak of civil war in 2011, and the exodus from Afghanistan under Taliban rule. The UNHCR registers around 5-6 million refugees from each of these countries, not including IDPs. Mass flights from South Sudan, Bangladesh, and Sudan are also reaching catastrophic proportions. It is worth noting that, with the exception of Ukraine, all the source countries in the top ten are developing countries in the Global South.

To which countries do most refugees go?

According to UNHCR data as of mid-2023, most refugees resided in Iran and Turkey (roughly 3.4 million). While Afghans make up the majority of the refugee population in Iran, Turkey is the primary destination for fleeing Syrians. According to the data, more than two million refugees are living in Germany, Colombia, and Pakistan, with over a million currently in Uganda and Russia. As with the ranking of source countries, the main destinations are strikingly dominated by developing countries. Most are in the broader African and Middle East regions.

The ranked list of countries with the highest number of refugees would look very different if we evaluated the ratio of refugees to local citizens, instead of simply the absolute number of refugees. If we were to do that, Lebanon and Jordan would take the top positions because in those nations displaced people make up roughly 10% of the population. In Lebanon, the vast majority of its refugees are those fleeing conflict in Syria and the own country’s deep political and economic crises do not make the situation any less complicated. According to the UNCHR, almost 90% of the local refugees in both of those nations live in extreme poverty.

Which countries host the most Ukrainian refugees?

The spike in global refugee numbers that occurred between 2021 and 2022 was a result of the mass flight from Ukraine as they faced the full-scale Russian invasion. As of January 2024, Ukrainian refugees abroad totalled 6.3 million. Of the European countries, Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic currently have the highest numbers of Ukrainian refugees. In per capita terms, the number of refugees is highest in Montenegro; within the EU, the highest numbers are in Estonia and the Czech Republic. Some 400,000 Ukrainians have found temporary refuge outside Europe, most of them in the USA or Canada. Almost as many who fled abroad were displaced internally because of the war - the current number of IDPs in Ukraine is around 5 million.

How does People in Need help Ukrainian refugees?

People in Need is providing assistance to those fleeing inside Ukraine and those seeking refuge in the Czech Republic. So far, we have provided direct humanitarian, financial and psychological assistance to more than a million people in Ukraine. In the Czech Republic, we help refugees access housing, employment, and healthcare, provide expert psychological support and try to prevent labour exploitation. More detailed information on the forms and scope of assistance is available here and here

Autor: Migration Awareness

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