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Refugee populations across the globe: the facts

Refugees are created by wars and persecution. People flee their homes because their governments will not, or cannot, protect them from harm and allow them to live in peace. Under international law, as…

There is no queue. EPA/Lynn Bo Bo

Refugees are created by wars and persecution. People flee their homes because their governments will not, or cannot, protect them from harm and allow them to live in peace.

Under international law, as defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention and extended by the 1967 Protocol, a refugee is someone who is outside their country of origin and unable to return, due to a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group.

The global refugee situation is constantly changing as wars come and go and persecution waxes and wanes.

For many civilians in Syria today, with government or opposition troops shelling their homes, what other chance of survival do they have but to leave? There are 107,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees or, according to the Syrian government, one million. They have already fled once, now they have to flee again.

Who suffers most?

Despite the strong political profile of refugee issues in developed countries such as Australia, four-fifths of the world’s total 15 million refugees are hosted by developing countries such as Pakistan on Kenya.

Five million, or one-third of the world’s refugees are Palestinians. For political reasons, Palestinians are the responsibility of a separate UN agency: the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees. The agency defines these refugees as people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who subsequently lost their homes, including their descendants.

Religious divides are the root of much contemporary refugee flight. Beyond Palestine, the three main source countries for refugees are Afghanistan (3 million), Iraq (1.6 million) and Somalia (0.8 million). Somalia has no effective government, so no central authority controls the countryside or protects citizens from warlords, brigands or gun-toting Islamist fundamentalists. Many refugees from Afghanistan are Hazaras, a persecuted Persian-speaking minority distinguished by language, ethnicity and their Shi'a religion.

In 2010, 27.5 million people were internally displaced by conflict. EPA/Hannibal Hanschke

Perhaps the world’s most unfortunate refugees are the Rohingyas, people forgotten by the world and wanted by no-one. The Rohingyas are a Muslim minority group from Burma who are not recognised by the Burmese government and are therefore homeless and stateless.

Stateless people are the most deprived among refugees, since they have no nationality and thus no hope that one day the end of the civil war or the fall of a persecuting regime may allow them to go home.

There is no queue

Refugees who come to Australia by boat (but not, for obscure reasons, those who arrive by plane) are said to be queue-jumpers. But there is no queue.

With 15 million refugees and only 80,000 resettlement places available around the world each year, even with a perfect system and not a single refugee joining the queue, it would take 187 years to reach the front. New places in this queue would be created only when hopeless, white-haired refugees eventually died waiting in dusty camps across Asia and Africa.

There are some 12 million stateless people world-wide, most of whom do not count as refugees. Thailand claims to have three million stateless residents. There are one million undocumented individuals of Haitian origin in the Dominican Republic and some 30000 denationalised Kurds in Syria.

Refugees vs asylum seekers

An asylum seeker is a person who is seeking to be recognised as a refugee but has not yet received formal refugee status.

In 2010, 845,800 individual asylum applications were submitted to governments and UNHCR offices across 166 countries. Some 150,000 of these claims were from Zimbabweans fleeing the Mugabe regime.

While the Australian media tends to highlight single, young refugees men, 47% of refugees are woman. Female refugees face specific problems. Leaving the camp in search of firewood exposes women to rape, and many camps are unsafe for women without protectors after dark.

Internal displacement

Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are essentially refugees who have not crossed an international border. Many estimates of IDP numbers include those displaced by natural disasters alongside those displaced by war and persecution.

In 2010, an estimated 27.5 million people were internally displaced by conflict, including 5 million in Sudan, 4 million in Colombia, 2 million in Iraq, 2 million in the Democratic Republic of Congo and 1.5 million in Somalia. Figures for IDPs are necessarily estimates since no internal authority is officially counting how many citizens each national government has failed to protect.

June 20th is World Refugee Day, when we remember the plight of those who have no choice but to flee and are too often left stranded. It’s time Australians gained some perspective about the small number of asylum seekers who try to find respite on our shores.

Join the conversation

12 Comments sorted by

  1. Chris Mulherin

    Postgrad, tutor, lecturer at University of Melbourne

    Thank you Helen. God forgive the greed and ignorance that make us complicit in the tragedies that so many people suffer.

  2. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    But the boats! The boats! Stop the boats! <insert flood / tide / wave metaphor>

  3. Felix MacNeill

    Environmental Manager

    There really are moments when I wonder why anyone would actually want to seek refuge here in the Land of the Long White Whinge...

    I guess it just shows how desperate they must be.

    1. Christina James-Zorn

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      The numbers of people around the world desperate for a better life are staggering. Fleeing poverty and starvation and slum living, environmental and political crisis is human- we all want to survive. We all have survived because our ancestors did the same thing- that's why we are Australian. Refugees are people too- people facing misery and death in the face on a daily basis- yet we turn our backs and say not my problem- they won't assimilate, they'll stick together and not learn to speak like us, they'll take our jobs, they are jumping the line- fill it your paper work and wait like you are supposed to! - I agree Felix- why would they want to come here?.

      Maybe we should have a (mandatory) sponsorship program- every Australian family has to sponsor a refugee and get them on their feet- in school/job, in ESL classes, all the paperwork done, housing and healthcare....maybe a tax incentive to do it......

  4. Byron Smith
    Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Ministry assistant, ecologcal ethicist and PhD candidate at University of Edinburgh

    Prof Ware,

    Thanks for this injection of sanity and statistics.

    My question is this: are refugees *only* created by war and persecution? Is there such a thing as an environmental refugee? Were the 20 million Pakistanis left homeless by flooding in 2010 (and millions more affected in further floods in 2011) internally displaced people? What of the residents of low-lying island states whose homeland is becoming uninhabitable - when they depart, will they be refugees? Or do we need a different category?

  5. Steve Hindle

    logged in via email

    "There is no queue"
    While this is correct in a literal sense it should be said that many if not most Australians see an asylum seeker as someone taking the place of a proven refugee. This is also correct. Australia's current policies have a fixed quota of admissions for people deemed to be refugees whether they arrive by boat or through the UNHCR.
    It is disingenuous to say "there is no queue" when the way the system operates, it is having the same outcome. I am not endorsing this policy, just saying it how it is.

    1. Nick Stafford


      In reply to Steve Hindle

      I don't think Helen Ware was being "disingenuous" regarding the lack of a queue Steve. Clearly there is sort of a queue in terms of our refugee intake quota, but this is more a market where governments pick and choose who they want.

      This image reminds me of the old slave markets in Colonial America.

      Helen's observation that the re-settlement of 80,000 per year would take 187 years to clear the "queue" makes the very valid point, that there is no queue in a real sense. What we have are "holding pens" (refugee camps) where we pick from when we feel like it.

  6. Jack Arnold


    Thank you Helen for bringing a modicum of common sense to this discussion. Perhaps Tony Abbott & Scott Morrison would benefit from reading this article ... oh silly me ... facts are the least concern for the biggest dummy spit in history.

    We are told that there are allegedly many jobs available in the NW mining industry.

    So, perhaps we should offer prospective boat people a seat on a Qantas flight if they bring their $10,000 'boat fare' with them as start-up capital, so keeping them off the government purse during their establishment in the Australian NW mining industry. The Snowy Scheme model relocated.

  7. George Naumovski

    Online Political Activist

    To what end is refugee population growth!

    War torn countries which in turn create refugees fleeing from the war but who is supplying the weapons to these nations “the 5 permanent members of the UN security council”!

    Also very poor nations have a very high birth rate and population, they know that life is hard, have very little to eat and there is always war around them and yet they keep popping out babies as each couple has over 10+ babies in their lifetime.

    When refugees flee to other countries they seem to keep their culture/views/religion and do not want to assimilate into the country they want to live in and also with more people in a country the more demand on services/infrastructure is placed and then that create a problem. Population growth needs to be contained and decreased.

  8. Helen James

    Project Officer

    Oh the irony of the Palestinian predicament, it makes no sense. Thank you, you give me weapons to keep on fighting so I don't sit down and weep.

    I had a very fine Vietnam Veteran English teacher who prowled the isles thumping desks explaining to us middle class white 14 year olds that but for the grace of location we don't wake up to tanks rolling down our streets and a world changed forever but this was the reality for too many.

    I feel once more where Australia could have been a world leader we have shamed ourselves for want of humanity and empathy. I bite my tongue at adding if you can have 3 t.v.'s to incite your hatred you can probably share your economy and country with others who have lost everything.

  9. Agatha Fedrizzi


    A powerful article that allows much needed facts to speak most eloquently in cutting through an increasingly hysterical debate. It seems that we have forgotten that most who seek refuge do so out of pure terror and to respond to this with high handed notions of queues and bureaucratic structures is utterly inhumane and coldly calculating.