Five key facts about the refugee crisis

Thursday, August 23, 2018 - 14:44

Sea Prayer is an illustrated short story from Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. The work is inspired by the tragic story of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose lifeless body was washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015. Earlier this year Hosseini, a goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency joined UNHCR’s Coco Campbell to meet refugees from the Middle East and North Africa.

In a specially commissioned piece for Southbank Centre ahead of the launch of Sea Prayer, Coco Campbell, kindly recounts her recent trip with Hosseini, and helps break down some common misconceptions about the refugee crisis


In my years working at UNHCR I have travelled to a myriad of countries - from Iraq to Uganda, Bangladesh to Kenya - showing donors and advocates of UNHCR, the scale and scope of our life-saving frontline work. I have introduced them to refugees, often deeply traumatised, who in many cases had just days earlier been forced to flee their homes, leaving everything and everyone they have ever known and loved, behind.

Recently I accompanied Khaled Hosseini on a visit to Lebanon and Italy. In Lebanon we met families split apart by one or more of their members undertaking the desperate high-risk journey to Europe. We did so to try to understand what drives refugees to make such heart-wrenching decisions. In Sicily we met with survivors of the sea-crossing from North Africa, and visited the graves of some of the thousands lost at sea trying to reach safety.

Returning to London I found myself unable to describe the sadness I felt at the stories we had heard. I also felt a burning outrage over the ugliness and intolerance of much of the current rhetoric and sentiment expressed toward refugees. Khaled however did find the words, and gave them voice in a special feature for The Guardian.

read Khaled Hosseini’s piece

In his article Khaled asks how - just three years after the desperately upsetting images of Alan Kurdi went viral, seemingly pricking the world’s conscience - there is no collective outrage over the thousands of other refugees who continue to die needlessly in their search for a secure future for their families? Are we growing numb to the loss of human life, or are the numbers to blame?

UNHCR is the leading organisation, uniquely mandated, to support and protect the more than 68 million people worldwide who have been forced to flee their homes. It’s a staggering number and we know that in order to humanise the issue, and garner empathy, understanding and support for refugees, we need to break it down into individual stories.

However, statistics have their place too. At a time when there is so much misinformation and scaremongering around refugees ‘flooding’ Europe, ensuring people know and have access to verifiable facts is essential to shaping opinion. And so I would like to share a few important facts about refugees that will hopefully help set some things straight.

Refugees have fled persecution or war

The terms ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ are frequently used interchangeably. But there is a difference between the two, and the difference matters. Refugees are fleeing war, persecution or violence. No one chooses to be a refugee – most cannot return home or are afraid to do so. Refugees are defined and protected in international law, giving them the right to access asylum procedures that are fair and efficient. And there are measures in place to ensure refugees’ basic human rights are respected, allowing them to live in dignity and safety while a longer-term solution is sought.

Migrants choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but mainly to improve their lives by finding work, or for education or family reunion. That is not to say the human rights of migrants should not be respected. We need to treat all human beings with respect and dignity. But unlike refugees who cannot safely return home, migrants face no such impediment. If they choose to return home, they will continue to receive the protection of their government.

There are 68.5 million forcibly displaced people across the world:

  • 25.4 million refugees (those that have fled across an international border)
  • 40.0 million internally displaced people (forced to flee their homes but have not crossed an international border)
  • 3.1 million asylum-seekers (someone whose request for sanctuary has yet to be processed).

And, two-thirds (68%) of all refugees worldwide come from just five countries; Syrian Arab Republic (6.3 million), Afghanistan (2.6 million), South Sudan (2.4 million), Myanmar (1.2 million) and Somalia (986,400).

85% of refugees are hosted in the developing world

There is a perception that most refugees are making their way to countries in the global north. In actual fact 85% of refugees are hosted in developing countries. Many of these countries are desperately poor, struggling to provide basic services to their own population - they receive little support to care for refugees.

As of the end of 2017, the country hosting the world’s largest number of refugees is Turkey, with 3.5 million. And the country hosting largest number of refugees relative to its national population is Lebanon, where one in six people was a refugee under the responsibility of UNHCR.

Four out of five refugees remain in countries next door to their own

About 2.7 million people were newly registered as refugees during 2017. Crises in South Sudan and Myanmar caused new refugee numbers to grow, indeed the third-largest group of new refugees originated from Myanmar, due to the outbreak of violence in Rakhine State at the end of August of last year. Most of these new refugees fled to neighbouring countries or elsewhere in their immediate region. Sub-Saharan Africa is now home to 31 per cent of the global refugee population.

Less than 1% of the world’s refugees are resettled to third countries

After escaping their home country some refugees live in perilous situations or have specific needs that cannot be addressed in the country where they have sought protection. In such circumstances, UNHCR helps resettle refugees to a third country where a State has agreed to admit them and ultimately grant them permanent settlement. In recent years the United States has been the world’s top resettlement country, with Canada, Australia and the Nordic countries also providing a sizeable number of places annually.

52% of the world’s refugee population are children

Half of the world’s refugees are children under the age of 18 and, in 2017, 138,700 of those child refugees and asylum seekers were unaccompanied and separated from their families.

All of the above statistics are taken from UNHCR’s 2017 Global Trends Report


On 4 September Khaled Hosseini appears in conversation at Southbank Centre to discuss Sea Prayer and his own life as a refugee. He will also speak of the extraordinary stories of some of the people he met in Italy and Lebanon, refugees like Noura, Ibrahim, Bissan and Abdelfatir.

buy tickets  find out more


UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is a global organisation dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people.

read about Khaled Hosseini and UNHCR