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Breaking down the record high of 65 million displaced people

Refugees await to be taken to the main facility where they apply for resettlement to Canada. (©IOM/Muse Mohammed)

For the first time in recorded history, the number of people displaced from their homes topped 60 million. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) released its annual report showing that 65.3 million people were displaced at the end of 2015 – that is one out of ever 113 people globally. Refugees make up 21.3 million of the total, an increase of nearly 2 million from the end of 2014.

“More people are being displaced by war and persecution, and that’s worrying in itself, but the factors that endanger refugees are multiplying too,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi in a statement.

The report comes out to mark World Refugee Day. UNHCR and others are seeking to bring more attention to the global challenge of displaced people. Data collected and presented in the report serve as a sort of rallying cry to press on political leaders to take steps that will ensure better support for refugees and to address the problems that force people to leave home.

“At sea, a frightening number of refugees and migrants are dying each year; on land, people fleeing war are finding their way blocked by closed borders,” Grandi said. “Politics is gravitating against asylum in some countries. The willingness of nations to work together not just for refugees but for the collective human interest is what’s being tested today, and it’s this spirit of unity that badly needs to prevail.”

Amid the data-packed report are some important pieces of information that help tell the story of why the number of refugees is increasing. Here are a few of those questions and answers:

Where are they from?

The global refugee population overwhelmingly comes from Syria and its ongoing civil war. Nearly 5 million Syrian refugees live in 120 countries. That is nearly twice as many as the 2.7 million refugees from Afghanistan. With Somalia as the only other country to have more than 1 million refugees, the problem is highly concentrated in just a few places. Those three countries alone are responsible for more than half of the world’s refugees. As a whole, the top countries where refugees are from tend to be ones beset by conflict.

Refugee Source

Where do they go?

The top 10 host countries for refugees house nearly 60 percent of the world’s refugees as defined by UNHCR. Turkey tops the list solely because of the 2.5 million Syrian refugees it hosts. Lebanon, Jordan and Germany are among the other countries that make the top 10 because of the crisis in Syria. Many of the host countries are located next to countries producing the most refugees, with a few exceptions like Germany.

Number of refugees hosted. (Graph: Humanosphere; Data: UNHCR)

Number of refugees hosted. (Graph: Humanosphere; Data: UNHCR)

The small countries are pulling the most weight. Lebanon hosts 183 refugees for every 1,000 people living in the country. Jordan, a fellow neighbor to Syria, comes in second with 87 refugees per 1,000 people. Sweden is the first wealthy nation to make an appearance on the list, coming in at ninth.

Number of refugees per 1,000 inhabitants (UNHCR)

Number of refugees per 1,000 inhabitants (UNHCR)

Who goes where?

Where refugees from top 5 countries of origin found asylum (UNHCR)

Where refugees from top five countries of origin found asylum (UNHCR)

Germany stepped up big time

We already know that Germany went above and beyond in its acceptance of refugees and migrants last year. But the difference compared to other leading economies is stark when compared against one another.

Main destination countries for new asylum-seekers (UNHCR)

Main destination countries for new asylum-seekers (UNHCR)

How does this compare to years past?

Looking at the total number of people displaced in the past two decades shows just how sharply totals have risen since the start of the Syrian civil war. The global rate hovered around 40 million people until 2011. Slight overall growth in the 15 years prior can be tied to global population growth, but there is no doubt that the sudden rise above 50 million in 2013 was the start of a worrying trend.

Trend of global displacement & proportion displaced (UNHCR)

Trend of global displacement and proportion displaced (UNHCR)

And here is an even longer-term view of the countries producing the most refugees by year. Afghanistan has been a mainstay going back to 1980, but various countries have appeared and left the list over that period.

historical trend

Historical review of the 51 major source countries of refugees (UNHCR)

Is there good news?

Unfortunately, no. The number of refugees resettling slowly increased from about 80,000 people in 2011 to more than 100,000 last year. It is nearly a 20-year high but is not at all keeping up with the pace of growth in asylum-seekers experienced in recent years.


Worse yet, the number of refugees returning home is significantly lower than 10 years ago. Last year was the third lowest total in more than 20 years – a modest improvement over 2014.


Don’t forget about internally displaced persons (IDPs)

Refugees get a lot of the attention, but 8.3 million people were newly displaced in 2015 within the borders of their own countries. In total, 40.8 million people were considered to be internally displaced by the end of last year. Whether it is in or out of the country, conflict and instability are the driving forces behind people fleeing their homes. More than half of the total are living in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

The major notable difference as compared to refugee numbers is Colombia, where 6.9 million people are living as IDPs, up from 6 million in 2014. Yemen joins the list with the sudden onset of fighting and the overthrow of the government. Nearly all of the 2.5 million people displaced in the country took place in 2015, accounting for about 10 percent of the country’s total population.



About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]