Refugees are people who have fled from their country because of wars, political or religious conflicts or because they fear persecution from governments. Displaced people have lost their home but they remain in their own country.

Officially there are about 12 million refugees today. The peak was reached during the Balkan conflict of the 1990s, when almost 18 million people were refugees. About 70 % of the world’s refugee population is in Africa and the Middle East.

Over 800,000 people flee from their homes and become refugees every year.  Most of them escape wars and conflicts in Africa and the Middle East.  During 2011 thousands fled from North African dictatorships during what was called the Arab Spring. During 1994 hundreds of thousands of Rwandans escaped the genocide and terror in their country.

Afghanistan is the country with the most refugees, almost 3 million. Most Afghani refugees go to Pakistan. Germany is home to over 500, 000 Afghan citizens and over a quarter of a million have come to the United States.

Over one million people have left Iraq and Somalia. Sudan and Congo have about half a million refugees each. The United Nations also states there are over 10 million stateless people around the world, Kurds or Palestinians who do not belong to a certain country.

People do not become refugees only because of war or other political conflicts. As drought continues in the Horn of Africa over 12 million people are thought to be homeless or in refugee camps.
On the whole over 40 million people are considered to be homeless worldwide, according to the United Nations, mostly because of new conflicts . They are likely to stay refugees and not be able to go back to their homelands any time soon.


North African Refugees from Sicily

North African refugees flee on a boat to Sicily - Vito Manzari


Who is a Refugee?

International law defines a refugee as a person who has fled from their homeland and cannot come back for many reasons. They are protected by the Geneva convention, which makes sure such people are not forced to return to the country they have fled from.

Protecting refugees around the world is done by the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees).  The organization tries to help them get back to the country of their origin, if possible. It also helps them seek asylum or integrate in the country they have fled to. Many countries do not always give refugees the same rights that they give their legal citizens.

Today, it is hard to keep  refugees apart from economic immigrants, those who leave their home country voluntarily to go somewhere else in search of a better life and more income.


Major refugee movements in history

Refugees have always been a part of history. In the Middle Ages people became refugees because they did not agree with the religion of their country. Roman Catholics made Jews leave Spain, French Catholics expelled Protestants from France.

During the Russian Revolution about 1.5 million people left their country because they were against Communism. Over a million Armenians fled Turkey because they were in fear of being persecuted.

By the end of World War II there were over 50 million refugees and displaced people in Europe alone. Many were Jews who fled Nazi leaders in Germany. Germans also had  to leave areas where they had settled before the war.

When a Communist government took over China in 1949 two million people fled to Hong Kong and Taiwan.  In 1947 almost 20 million Muslims and Hindus had to cross borders between India and the new state of Pakistan.

After World War II over 3 million East Germans escaped to West Germany. The movement was halted in 1961 when the Berlin Wall was built.


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Related Topics



  • agree = to share the same opinion
  • apart = separate
  • certain = special
  • citizen= a person who lives in a country and has rights there
  • considered = thought
  • convention = written document that gives someone rights
  • cross = move
  • dictatorship = a country in which one person rules without a parliament
  • displaced = here: if you have lost your home and have to move somewhere else in your own country
  • drought = a long period of dry weather with little or no rain
  • expel = to drive out of
  • fear = to be afraid of
  • flee – fled = escape from a dangerous situation
  • force = have to
  • genocide = the mass murder of a whole group of people
  • government = the people who rule a country
  • halt = stop
  • Horn of Africa = the part of East Africa that includes Somalia  and some of Ethiopia
  • immigrant = a person who leaves their country and go to another country
  • in fear of = afraid
  • income = the money you get for the work you do
  • integrate = mix with other people
  • Jew = person whose religion is Judaism
  • law = the rules of a country
  • legal = lawful
  • likely = probably
  • movement = here: people who wanted to do the same things or had the same ideas
  • officially = formally
  • origin = starting point ; where you come from
  • peak = the highest point
  • persecution = to treat someone unfairly or in a violent way, because they think differently or have a different religion
  • protect = defend , guard
  • reach = get to, arrive at
  • refugee camp = a place where refugees can stay for some time
  • remain = stay
  • seek asylum = to ask another country if you can live there because you had to leave your own country because of political reasons
  • settle = to start living in a place
  • state = to say officially
  • stateless = without belonging to a country
  • take over = start controlling
  • voluntarily = out of your own free will