In June, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released this year’s updated statistics on global forced migration. The annual Global Trends report provides information on the scope of global forced migration as of the end of 2017. The numbers indicate that 68.5 people worldwide are forcibly displaced. This includes internally displaced people (IDPs), refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless people.

To put it another way, about one out of every one hundred people worldwide has been forced to leave his or her home. If forcibly displaced people were a nation, that nation would have a larger population than the United Kingdom, France, or Italy. It would have almost twice the population of Canada.

Infographic on global scope of forced displacement
UNHCR Figures at a Glance.

Back in 2015, the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide crossed 60 million for the first time in the history of the UNHCR. In December of 2015, there were 65.3 million displaced people worldwide, almost a ten percent increase from the previous year’s total of 59.5 million. The year 2015 represented a peak in global forced displacement, reflected by UNHCR statistics and by media cries of a “refugee crisis.”

Who Are Refugees?

Refugees are only a portion of the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide. Of the 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, only 25.4 million are refugees, including the 5.4 million Palestinian refugees under the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East. International refugee law, with its origins in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, defines a refugee as any person who flees their country due to a “well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.”

The legal definition of “refugee,” is therefore very narrow. In fact, many scholars and practitioners working in the area of forced migration suggest that the definition ought to be reformed and expanded to better account for common situations of displacement today. For instance, the legal definition of “refugee” fails to include those who flee due to natural disasters or other environmental causes (often colloquially referred to as environmental migrants or environmental refugees); those who flee due to sexual and gender-based violence or discrimination and persecution based on gender or sexual orientation; or those who flee existential threats of extreme poverty.

While some of the individuals in these situations may be accounted for in other categories of UNHCR’s numbers of forcibly displaced people, many of them may fall through the cracks and are considered migrants.

Aside from refugees, UNHCR accounts for asylum seekers, IDPs, and stateless people.

Asylum seekers are those who have applied for asylum in another country and must demonstrate that they do face fear of persecution in their home country in order to be granted refugee status.

IDPs often face similar circumstances as refugees and asylum seekers, but they have not crossed an international border. IDPs are often especially vulnerable because, according to UNHCR, “Unlike refugees, IDPs are not protected by international law or eligible to receive many types of aid because they are legally under the protection of their own government.”

The varying legal statuses of forcibly displaced people mean different legal processes and legal rights. But regardless of the legal definitions and processes that distinguish various groups from one another, forcibly displaced people have in common that they have been forced to leave their homes due to dire circumstances beyond their control.

Displacement Around the World

What happens when people are displaced? What do they do? Where do they go?

While the European “refugee crisis” has received much of the spotlight, most of the world’s displaced people are actually hosted by developing countries. In addition, although the situation in Europe has often made headlines in the past few years, other regions are experiencing challenges of their own.

Chart of major host countries of refugees from UNHCR
Data from UNHCR’s Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2017.

The UNHCR’s 2017 report showed that Lebanon hosts the highest number of refugees relative to the national population, with 1 in 6 people in the country a refugee. Jordan was second with 1 in 14, and Turkey third with 1 in 23. According to the same report, the top five major host countries in which refugees have been granted asylum include Turkey, Pakistan, Uganda, Lebanon, and Iran. Germany is the only European country in the top ten, hosting almost one million refugees. The United States resettled only 24,559 refugees in 2017.


While we may tend to be more aware of situations of refugees in the United States and even in Europe, due to the fact that these areas often receive the most attention from the media, many regions around the world struggle with situations of forced displacement. In our next few posts, we will take a look at various displacement situations around the world, from South America to West Africa, and more.

Keep an eye out for our next posts as we explore displacement around the world.


Additional Reading

Beaubien, Jason. 2017. “5 Surprising Facts About The Refugee Crisis.” NPR.

Bond, Kate. 2018. “The Refugee Brief – 3 August 2018.” UNHCR.

Edwards, Adrian. 2018. “Forced Displacement at Record 68.5 Million.” UNHCR.

“Q&A: The 1951 Refugee Convention ‘is as relevant today as it was at the time.’” 2016. UNHCR.

UNHCR. Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2017.



Written by [Refugees Welcome!] Board Member, Denise Muro


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