Refugees, Demography of

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According to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, a refugee is a person who has:

a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership [in] a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such events, unwilling to return to it.

Most refugees flee in large groups to neighboring countries, where they often live in crowded refugee camps. Refugee-receiving states that are party to the convention are obliged to provide protection to refugees until they can safely return to their country of origin, integrate into the host society, or be resettled elsewhere.

Asylum seekers are people who have fled their countries of nationality and are seeking protection and immunity from forcible return by the government of the country in which they request asylum. Put differently, asylum seekers are, for the most part, refugees who are requesting that the authorities of a state grant them the legal status, and rights, of refugees according to the convention. Asylum seekers present themselves individually or as a family group to the relevant national authorities after arrival at the border or on the national territory. Every state has a slightly different application and recognition process, though in general receiving countries require asylum seekers to prove that they have a well-founded fear of persecution in their country of origin, in line with the definition set out above. If the asylum seekers' claims are accepted, they are granted refugee status and all the associated protections under national and international law. If a claim is not accepted, the asylum seeker is either subject to deportation or granted some form of "complementary protection" (where such status exists) allowing legal residence for "humanitarian reasons." Such protection is usually given for a limited period of time and does not grant the full range of rights and protections of "convention" status.

This article outlines the basic demography of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide since the end of World War II. It provides estimates of total numbers and briefly discusses major causation factors and policy changes affecting and resulting from refugee flows.

The 1950s

Immediately following World War II and the communist takeover of Eastern Europe, there were approximately 2.2 million refugees and stateless persons in Europe. These persons were mainly Jews, Roma, and other peoples uprooted during the war or fleeing political or religious persecution. Owing to the nature of the threats from which they fled, these refugees were largely unable and unwilling to return home even after the war had ended or after the Iron Curtain had solidified. In response, in 1950 the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established. An international legal mechanism was also needed to deal with the long-term protection needs of refugees and to allow for interstate understanding of their position. That mechanism was the 1951 refugee convention, which specified that the obligations of signatories extended only to those who became refugees as a result of "events occurring in Europe before 1 January 1951."

The convention fulfilled its intended initial mandate, as most of these refugees were integrated into host societies or resettled in other countries, notably in the United States, Canada, and Australia, by 1960.

The 1960s

By the mid-1960s, however, it became clear that the time and geographical limitations of the refugee convention were no longer sufficient to deal with the issues presented by the "newer" refugees, the vast majority of whom were from countries outside of Europe, particularly developing countries, and who were fleeing persecution for reasons unassociated with World War II. (An exception was the exodus from Hungary of some 200,000 refugees after the defeat of the 1956 uprising and a steady trickle of refugees from East to West Germany. Both resulted in speedy resettlement and integration of the refugees in the receiving Western countries.) By around 1970, there were nearly 1 million refugees fleeing wars of independence and postcolonial civil wars in countries such as Sudan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, India, and Pakistan. Therefore a protocol was added to the convention in 1967, removing the time reference and, except for those states that opted to keep them, the geographical specifications of the original convention. Additionally, the worldwide scope of refugee protection was broadened in 1969 by the Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa (also called the OAU [Organization of African Unity] Convention), which noted that the increasing numbers of refugees in Africa necessitated that African states not only adhere to the refugee convention and its protocol but also develop common standards for refugee treatment. Additionally, the OAU Convention expanded the definition of a refugee to include:

every person who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his country of origin, is compelled to leave his place of habitual residence in order to seek refuge in another place outside his country of origin or nationality.

Together, the protocol and the OAU Convention increased the number of persons considered refugees as they expanded the geographical scope of areas of concern (beyond Europe) as well as the reasons predicating the granting of refugee status (beyond World War II).

The 1970s and 1980s

Three major refugee crises took place between the signing of the 1967 protocol and the end of the Cold War. The first involved the Vietnamese "boat people" who fled their country after the break-up of South Vietnam in 1975. Due largely to their mode of transport as well as direct American involvement in the crisis, the boat people, unlike other, less visible, refugee streams, attracted significant international attention. Beginning in 1975, almost 850,000 people would eventually flee Vietnam claiming political, religious, or ethnic persecution (though by the late 1980s it was clear that many new boat people were in fact economic migrants rather than refugees). Of this total, 250,000 fled to Malaysia, 210,000 to Hong Kong, and 160,000 to Thailand. The Philippines and Brunei also received large numbers. As most of these countries of first asylum were themselves relatively poor countries with their own social tensions, they were unwilling to permanently resettle such large numbers of refugees. As a result, they successfully lobbied the international community, particularly the United States and Australia, to resettle the majority of Vietnamese who had sought refuge on their shores. Between 1975 and 1991, nearly half a million Vietnamese were permanently resettled in industrialized countries.

For various reasons, refugees fleeing Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion of that country in 1979 drew much less international attention than the boat people, and they in fact remained the world's single largest refugee problem 23 years later. Between 1979 and 2002, an estimated one in four Afghans became a refugee. The Afghan refugee emergency had two major peaks, the first between 1988 and 1991, when there were 3.5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, 2 million in Iran, and nearly 1 million more in other areas of the world. The crisis subsided for a short while in the early 1990s as many Afghans returned home after the break-up of the Soviet Union, but the civil war that flared up shortly thereafter caused another mass exodus, totaling approximately 5 million refugees by early 2000.

The third major refugee crisis of the 1980s occurred in Central America as a result of the various wars and political conflicts in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Though such conflicts did not produce the same numbers of refugees as Vietnam and Afghanistan, they resulted in the creation in 1984 of the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees. Like the OAU Convention of 1969, this nonbinding declaration also expanded the refugee definition, in this case to better suit the nature of refugee problems in Central America, stating that:

it is necessary to consider enlarging the concept of a refugee … the definition or concept … to be recommended for use in the region is one which, in addition to containing the elements of the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol, includes among refugees those persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.

Post–Cold War Era

The end of the Cold War marked the beginning of "modern" refugee crises as many, mostly developing, countries found themselves embroiled in often violent conflicts after they lost the support of their superpower backer. Most of these conflicts were internal and created huge new (or increased, in the case of Angola and Afghanistan) refugee movements in countries such as Liberia, Bulgaria, and Romania. Other massive refugee crises occurred throughout the 1990s in locations as geographically diverse as Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire), Rwanda, Burundi, Iraq, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and the former Yugoslavia (see Table 1). Further, the political incentive for many Western states to accept refugees was greatly reduced by the end of the Cold War, and it consequently became difficult for many of these states to adjust their policies to accept refugees and asylum seekers in whom they had a less clearly defined political interest. An increase in economic migration from several of the


same countries and regions led many citizens and government officials in receiving countries to question the motives of asylum seekers and therefore be less willing to grant protected status under the terms of the refugee convention. This attitude was perhaps most clearly illustrated by the response of western European states to the Balkan crises of the 1990s. Rather than accepting Bosnian and Kosovar refugees (prima facie) as a predetermined group or even allowing them to submit asylum applications, most receiving states granted them only temporary protection, determined that they would be repatriated as soon as conditions in the country of origin allowed.

This combination of larger numbers of refugees and asylum seekers and less willingness on the part of states to accept them has led many to question the continuing effectiveness of the refugee convention. Statistical estimates on the size of refugee and asylum flows between 1980 and 2000 shown in Table 2 suggest the magnitude of the refugee problem and the pressures on the international refugee protection system at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

Refugees in Developing Countries

The vast majority (approximately 95%) of all refugees flee developing countries to seek protection in other developing countries nearby. Thus it is states such as Pakistan–which has hosted the largest refugee population of any country in the world for over a decade–as well as Iran, Jordan, Tanzania, Sudan, Kenya, India, and many more developing countries as well as the Israel-occupied Palestine territories that bear the brunt of the increased refugee populations, even though such states have limited resources with which to support their new guests who, in turn, often suffer severe and prolonged deprivations materially and by criteria of human rights and dignity. For the most part, countries receive refugees because of geographic proximity and/or cultural and religious ties–for example, most Afghan refugees flee to Pakistan or Iran and most Burundians to Tanzania. Pressures on the receiving states are great, as many struggle to support their native populations and must rely on the international community–mainly through the UNHCR and other governmental or voluntary organizations–to help care for the refugee populations.

Asylum Seekers in Industrialized Countries

Industrialized countries have also seen increases in the number of people seeking protection, most of whom arrive under their own power as asylum seekers rather than as refugees resettled through predetermined government-sponsored programs. Overwhelmed bureaucracies in most industrialized receiving countries were unable to keep up with the increased flow of asylum seekers during the 1990s, often taking so long to process applications that asylum seekers became de facto residents. As a result, many citizens of these host countries came to regard the asylum process as just another form of economic migration. Public frustration with what is often perceived as a "flood" of "bogus" asylum seekers has been the driving factor behind many of the reforms that have been adopted or advocated in countries of asylum since the mid-1990s. In the United States, these reforms entailed delinking the asylum application process from the immediate receipt of a work permit and increasing the numbers of staff assigned to processing asylum-seeking applications. In Europe, however, the changes have meant that fewer and fewer applicants are actually granted–or even allowed to apply for–asylum. Instead, applicants are given some form of temporary protection and may remain in an uncertain legal status for prolonged periods.

Refugees and Displaced Persons in 2001

At the beginning of 2001, nearly 22 million people–approximately 80 percent of whom are women and children; 50 percent of whom are children and adolescents–were classified as "persons of concern" by the UNHCR; roughly one out of every 275 people on Earth. The majority of these people were refugees, asylum seekers, or part of the rapidly growing number of "internally displaced persons" (IDPs). IDPs are people who, much like refugees, have fled their homes because of conflict or persecution. Unlike refugees, however, IDPs have not crossed an international border and therefore do not fall within the scope of the refugee convention. Because of their growing numbers as well as their lack of protection under a single international instrument, IDPs are of increasing concern to many within the refugee protection field, and debate continues as to which international organizations are best equipped and mandated to deal with their particular needs. The largest populations of internally displaced persons are found in Sudan (approximately 4 million in 2001), Colombia (over 2 million in 2001), and Afghanistan (from 750,000 to 1.5 million immediately following the U.S.-led campaign to oust the Taliban regime in 2001–2002).


See also: Asylum, Right of; Ethnic Cleansing; Forced Migration; Immigration, Unauthorized; Resettlement.


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——. 1969."Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa." September 10, 1969. Treaties and International Agreements Registered or Filed or Reported with the Secretariat of the United Nations 1001(14691).

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——. 2001. "2000 Global Refugee Trends: Analysis of the 2000 Provisional UNHCR Population Statistics." Geneva, Switzerland: UNHCR, Population Data Unit.

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internet resources.

"Cartagena Declaration on Refugees." November 22, 1984. <>.

Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. <>.

Erin Patrick