National Geographic News
A photo of a refugee camp in Pabbo, Uganda.

Ugandan refugees live in crowded tent cities. More than a million and a half people have become refugees in the country.


Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published June 20, 2014

The number of people forced to flee their homes around the world has passed 50 million for the first time since the Second World War, the United Nations warns in a report timed for World Refugee Day on June 20.

"Imagine being the mother of a sick and hungry child and having to decide between risking your life staying in a conflict or leaving behind everything in search of safety," the UN High Commissioner for Refugees says on it's website.

The international agency provides tents, shelter, supplies, and lifesaving services to 34 million refugees and internally displaced people.

Here are some key takeaways from the commissioner's latest global trends report:

1. Numbers of refugees have swelled.

"We are witnessing a quantum leap in forced displacement in the world," António Guterres, head of the UN's refugee commission, told the Guardian.

The agency's latest figures, from 2013, counted 51.2 million refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people. If all those people were citizens of a single country, it would be the 26th most populous.

Of that total, 16.7 million were international refugees, 33.3 million were internally displaced persons, and 1.2 million were asylum seekers.

The total is up from 45.2 million refugees in 2012, according to the UN's previous report.

The increase was largely driven by the war in Syria, where 2.5 million people have fled the country and 6.5 million were internally displaced, representing more than 40 percent of the country's population. (See "Syria: The Chaos of War" in National Geographic magazine and "Five Things I Learned in Syrian Refugee Camps.")

Conflicts in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Nigeria, and the ongoing turmoil in Somalia also played a role.

Other contributing factors include: climate change, population growth, urbanization, and food and water insecurity, which often influence each other.

2. More than half of the refugees are children.

About 80 percent of the world's refugees are women and children, according to the UN and, in 2013, about half were children, the highest figure in a decade.

Many of the young travel without adults, seeking help. But they frequently fall victim to human traffickers, the UN warns, where they are forced into labor or the sex trade.

In 2013, more than 25,000 unaccompanied children requested asylum in 77 countries, the highest number on record since such statistics began to be collected in 2006.

The highest number of those children came from Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Somalia.

A photo of two refugees suffering from famine at a camp in Ethiopia
A mother and daughter sit in a camp in Suola, Ethiopia, near the Eritrean border in the northeastern part of the country. They have fled food shortages and lingering drought at home.

3. Aid agencies are near the breaking point.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is providing care for 34 million refugees around the world, but the agency says it needs more resources.

In 2013, an average of 32,200 people a day fled their homes, up from 23,400 in 2012 and 14,200 in 2011. This influx has put "humanitarian organizations under tremendous stress," said Guterres in the Guardian interview.

Some agencies have had to reduce food rations in refugee camps as a result of a growing funding gap.

4. Developing countries host most of the refugees.

Developing countries in 2013 hosted 86 percent of the world's refugees, the highest in more than two decades, and up from 70 percent 10 years ago.

The biggest hosts were Pakistan (1.6 million), Iran (857,400), Lebanon (856,500), Jordan (641,900), and Turkey (609,900).

Lebanon hosted the largest number of refugees in relation to its population, with 178 refugees per thousand inhabitants. That's the highest relative burden on a country since 1980. Next were Jordan (88) and Chad (34).

5. More than half of the refugees came from just three countries.

Some 53 percent of all refugees worldwide came from just three countries:

Afghanistan (2.56 million), Syria (2.47 million), and Somalia (1.12 million). These countries have continued to experience conflict and lack of security.

"One family torn apart by war is too many," the UN commissioner concludes.

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

Paul Lassiter
Paul Lassiter

It would be more prudent to fix what is causing them to flee than to just keep feeding the refugees. I know democracy is only a small part of the worlds governments. This is the 21st century, man kind needs to find a way to live in peace. These wars come from small factions wanting power over the masses when the majority don't want that faction in power. It just goes to show that man kind is still a barbaric race. 

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

I think your editors need to look into your number because they don't add up and they dont agree with data from the UN website as of this morning. 

5. More than half of the refugees came from just three countries.

So we have about 50 million refugees, half of that would be 25 million. but the 3 countries listed as providing  "more than half" provide just over 6 million. 

2. More than half of the refugees are children.

The un site says more then half are women and children. Not just children

1. a UN puts total refugee pop at 43.7 million, thats a big difference from "over 50 million"

This issue is a big deal but putting wrong numbers to it just fuels the truther movemnt.

Gwendolyn Mugliston
Gwendolyn Mugliston

Speaking as a child who was displaced into a concentration camp with her family, it takes years to recover and in some respects recovery may not happen.  So here are 50 million adults and children who will most likely never recover psychological security or economic security and who are in danger this minute of losing their lives, with no place to go.  How can we as sentient people allow this? 


I think in the vast reach of life we are mostly unconscious. What a condemnation of us. 

What needed to be done (limiting procreation and ensuring a secure, economical, reverent and psychological place for each person's space within society) was not done and now we have wrecked carnage on the innocent. 

The men and women who should be in those camps, the ones who created the wars based on pride, fear, greed, lust and envy, should be in those camps.  Not these women and children--50 million women and children.  

If I were an alien I would not even stop and I would just let us play this out.  .  

Shawn Keller
Shawn Keller

What about the fact we as a species have become so overpopulated that we ourselves are at the breaking point and depleting all resources.

Tom Mengel
Tom Mengel

One thing left unsaid here is that global warming is even at this early stage a major player in displacing persons from the land. Syria had a major drought just before it came apart where more that 80% of the dry land farmers in the marginal central North Western areas bordering the desert were displaced and forced to move to urban areas. The mounting unemployment from population movement as poor uneducated farmers flooded the cities combined with the skyrocketing price of food both strained the infrastructures and caused major political unrest that resulted in a bloody civil war that is destabilizing and spilling over into other parts of the region. Unfortunately this trend has no end in sight and will, along with the growing worldwide income inequality, only accelerate the distance between the haves and have nots.

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

@Paul Lassiter I would take a stable dictatorship then some of those crazy "democracies" any day.

Just look at Iraq, people are pineing for the days of Saddam. A paper over there recently pointed out that the chaotic violence is killing more people every day the Saddam killed in 5 years. 

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

@Shawn Keller For as intelligent as we like to think we are we behave exactly like bacteria in a petri dish. We eat and reproduce non stop until resources are gone and then we crash. 

At least bacteria are incapable of thought, we on the other hand know what were doing and choose not to stop.


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